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Should I become a Pediatrician or Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and what are the key differences besides salary?

I have always wanted to go into the medical field. Recently I have been researching about pediatrics. However, I am unsure if I should pursue a doctorate or a master's in science. I am knowledgeable about the schooling length for these degrees. Additional question: what are some of the best schools for pediatric nursing/medicine located in California?

Thank you comment icon For further clarification, I understand a master's is required before completing a doctorate. My question is if I should only obtain or master's or pursue a doctorate as well. Rajpreet

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Audrey’s Answer

Hi Rajpreet,

I am a little confused by your question; when you mean pediatrician, do you mean someone with an MD/DO? If so, then the main difference is becoming a medical doctor vs. becoming a nurse practitioner.

I believe in becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner, you get either an MSN or a DNP and then take the primary care or acute care pediatric nurse practitioner exam to be fully certified in that role. As you said, you already know overall, the time in training will be shorter (6-8 years after high school), so you'll be able to practice pediatric primary care sooner.

To become a pediatrician with an MD/DO, you attend a 4-year medical school (you don't have to get a master's degree first, but many people do). Then you attend a pediatric residency which is usually 3-5 years, and take licensing exam at the end of your residency, usually specialized in pediatrics. So it's a longer training program (11-15 years after high school).

So the primary difference between the two, besides the duration of education and finances, is the difference in their scope of practice. That difference is getting narrower and narrower. Both PCP-NPs and pediatric MDs can do primary or acute care for pediatric patients. Not all NPs can diagnose conditions and prescribe medications like doctors can (it does depend on the laws state-to-state in the US, some can and some can't). But other than that, they fill a lot of the same roles in health care. I think, generally NPs have more supervision than MDs within the medical system. But they also have less time in school and less student debt. The only real benefit of being a doctor is 1) the ability to specialize and 2 )physicians are paid considerably more. While nurse practitioners can specialize to some degree (i.e., pediatric acute care vs. pediatric primary care), doctors are typically the most specialized medical practitioners. So if you're interested in specializing in a specific type of pediatrics (i.e., pediatric critical care, pediatric cardiology, pediatric neurology, pediatric gastroenterology, pediatric surgery, pediatric rehabilitation, pediatric oncology/hematology, neonatal medicine, etc.), then being a doctor and doing specialized residency training has more opportunities for doing a specific type of pediatric medicine. But if you're just interested in pediatric primary care/acute care, then I would recommend being a nursing practitioner.

And if you become a pediatric nurse practitioner and then realize you want to become a more specialized pediatrician, you can always go to medical school. A lot of my medical school peers were already medical practitioners in some way (EMT, nurse, PA, etc) and decided to go to medical school because they wanted more advanced education and training in a specific area of medicine. It's actually rare to be someone who goes straight from undergrad to medical school these days. In fact, I guarantee that medical school will be easier if you have that clinical experience because you'll already know half of what they're trying to teach you, and with some work experience and better financial status, the debt of medical school won't be as stressful.

You have plenty of options. So do whatever you think is best for you and what you hope to get out of the pediatric specialty, and know that once you make one decision, you are not locked into that decision for the rest of your life. Adults change their minds and the trajectory of their life and their careers all the time.

Good luck!
Thank you comment icon Hi Audrey! Yes, I meant someone with an MD/DO. Thank you for the response, it was extremely helpful! Now that I know the difference between specialization it’s much easier deciding what to do in the future. Rajpreet