Physician Assistant (PA)

There’s never been a better time to become a physician assistant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that job openings in this profession will swell 31 percent between 2019 and 2029—a rate that’s faster than almost every other profession. At the same time, the average physician assistant earns over $100,000 a year. So what’s the catch?

Don’t let the word “assistant” fool you. Physician assistants perform many of the same tasks that doctors do: examining patients, diagnosing illnesses, ordering tests, and prescribing medicine. They work in every type of medical setting, with every type of specialty. But compared to medical doctors, physician assistants finish school faster, get to work sooner, and often have more personal interactions with their patients. Furthermore, it’s easier for a physician assistant to add a specialty, or switch specialties, in the course of their career.

This is not an easy profession to enter into, nor is it an easy job to perform. Given the stakes and the responsibility this entails, physician assistants need to complete a rigorous education and meet certain licensure requirements in order to practice. It can take up to ten years of schooling and work experience to become a physician assistant. But for those who make it, the rewards are a strong job market, a handsome salary, and the satisfaction of making a difference.

If you’re interested in becoming a physician assistant, read on to get the details.

Physician Assistant Specializations & Degree Types

The majority of physician assistants earn a bachelor’s degree first. While there is some flexibility in choice of major, prerequisite coursework should include the study of anatomy, biology, chemistry, microbiology, and physiology.

After completing prerequisite coursework, physician assistants will need to attend a physician assistant (PA) school. These programs culminate in a master’s degree: either a master’s of physician assistant studies (MPAS), a master’s of health services (MHS), or a master’s of medical science (MMSc). These degree programs take two to three years to complete.

Specializations for physician assistants can range widely across the spectrum of care, from pediatrics to internal medicine to orthopedics and surgery. They may also focus on a particular patient population, such as women’s health or rural care.

Admissions Requirements for Physician Assistant Programs

At the undergraduate level, admissions requirements often include some combination of the following: a competitive (3.0 or greater) high school GPA; ACT and/or SAT scores; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement.

Admissions requirements for PA school are much more strict. Applicants will often need the following: a bachelor’s degree with common prerequisite courses; a competitive (3.0 or greater) undergraduate GPA; GRE or MCAT scores; at least 1,000 hours of healthcare experience; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement.

Do note that many PA schools require potential students to apply through the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA), which represents 95 percent of currently accredited PA programs.

Physician Assistant Program Accreditation

Students enrolling in academic programs should pay close attention to a school’s accreditation status. Accreditation ensures that a school is meeting a set of peer-reviewed standards in its curriculum.

At the undergraduate level, regional accreditation is generally accepted. A full list of regional accreditation entities is available on the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website.

For the graduate-level PA schools, accreditation by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physical Assistant (ARC-PA) is critical, and degrees from schools without this accreditation are not valid for certification and state licensure requirements.

On-Campus Physician Assistant Degree Programs

Duke University

Duke’s physician assistant program, which culminates in a master of health sciences degree, is ranked by US News & World Report as the best in the nation.

The first year is dedicated to preclinical study and includes instruction in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, diagnostic methods, and clinical medicine. During the second year of the program, students complete ten clinical rotations, which cover internal medicine, primary care, pediatrics, and general surgery among other areas. The program consists of 109 credits in total.

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Duration: Two to three years
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $43,518 per year

University of Colorado

The University of Colorado’s PA program, which confers a professional master’s degree (MPAS), is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country. The spiral-designed curriculum progresses from foundational concepts to more complex topics and skills as students develop.

Courses cover areas such as pharmacology, immunology, applied behavioral medicine, and problem-based clinical reasoning. Clinical rotations, which begin in the second year and progress into the third, include a diverse range of foci, including ambulatory pediatrics, inpatient medicine, women’s health, and surgery. Students may specialize in one of three tracks: the rural track, the global health track, or the pediatric critical and acute care longitudinal experience.

  • Location: Aurora, CO
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $119,016 in total for non-residents

Boston University – School of Medicine

Patient-centered care and evidence-based practices are at the core of the physician assistant program at Boston University School of Medicine. In addition to wellness and disease prevention, this program emphasizes pathophysiology and epidemiology. Students also receive instruction in professional and ethical conduct.

There are two primary phases to this program: didactic and clinical. The didactic phase is 12 months long and the clinical phase is 16 months. The clinical phase consists of 14 different clinical clerkships and two months of thesis preparation. The thesis project is required to graduate and helps showcase student’s ability to interpret scientific literature and draw conclusions or a hypothesis.

  • Location: Boston, MA
  • Duration: 28 months
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $56,584 per year

Stanford University – School of Medicine

Graduates of the Stanford University School of Medicine’s master of science in physician assistant program are highly skilled PAs who are ready to work in a variety of clinical settings. This program has concentrations in clinical research, community medicine, health services, policy research, and medical education. In addition to medical skills, students also receive leadership and ethics training.

To help students get the most out of their education, Stanford has students immersed in state-of-the-art simulation labs, renowned anatomy experiences, as well as frequent patient interactions. Students move through this program as a cohort that facilitates camaraderie.

  • Location: Palo Alto, CA
  • Duration: Nine quarters
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $18,105 per quarter

The George Washington University – School of Medicine and Health Sciences

The foundations of the physician assistant program at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences are in primary care and public health. In fact, there is a dual degree track where students can complete their PA and a master’s in public health concurrently.

Since this program is located in the nation’s capital, students completing this degree have a unique insight into how the democratic process influences health care. Students complete didactic and clinical work in seven major areas of medicine, including gynecology, psychiatry, emergency medicine, surgery, pediatrics, internal medicine, and primary care.

  • Location: Washington, DC
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $16,160 per semester

Online Physician Assistant Degree Programs

Arizona State University (Pre-PA School Online Bachelor’s Degree)

Aspiring physician assistants looking to get their undergraduate degree can apply to Arizona State University’s online bachelor of science in biological sciences program.

The curriculum aligns with the scientific competencies recommended for premedical students and includes all chemistry, biochemistry, math, and physics courses necessary for medical school and graduate biology programs. Do note that students may be required to either attend on-campus labs or fulfill the requirement via transfer credits. The program consists of 120 credits in total.

  • Location: Tempe, AZ
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: NCASC
  • Tuition: $573 per credit

Yale School of Medicine

Yale School of Medicine has one of the only purely online PA programs in the country, culminating in a master of medical science (MMSc) degree. Outside of three immersions on the Yale campus, students can earn the entirety of their degree without relocating.

Online coursework takes an organ system approach, with each topic considered through the lens of a specific biological system. In-person clinical rotations take place at sites in or as close to a student’s home community as possible, with site selections done in collaboration with a Yale placement team.

  • Location: New Haven, CT
  • Duration: 28 months
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $101,080 (total)

University of North Dakota

The University of North Dakota offers a hybrid PA program that culminates in a master of physician assistant studies (MPAS) degree. The curriculum contains blended coursework that alternates between online and on-campus classes and in-person clinical experiences. The program takes an interdisciplinary approach, with an emphasis on care in rural and underserved communities.

Classes cover areas such as human physiology and pathophysiology, pharmacology, clinical medicine, diagnostic studies, and professional issues and role development. Clinical rotations operate on a flexible schedule and emphasize comprehensive primary care medicine.

  • Location: Grand Forks, ND
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $10,203 per term for non-residents

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Physician assistants who are already licensed and working in the field, but only have a bachelor’s degree, can complete a master’s bridge program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. This entirely online degree can be completed with just 16 credits and is focused on the clinical portion of a physician assistant’s education. Since this program is offered entirely online, the clinicals can be completed in the community where the student resides.

In order to be eligible to complete this program, students must already hold a PA license, have malpractice insurance, and be employed as a PA in order to complete the clinicals. The final required course for this program is a research experience where students put their knowledge to work evaluating current scientific literature.

  • Location: Brownsville, TX
  • Duration: Varies based on course load
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $1,085.13 per credit

University of Wisconsin – School of Medicine and Public Health

The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health offers both an on-campus and distance learning track for their physician assistant program. The distance learning students must visit campus occasionally but can be located anywhere within driving distance to Madison, WI.

The distance learning option for this program exists primarily to allow students who live in rural or underserved areas to complete their education as well as provide critical medical services to populations who struggle to access healthcare.

  • Location: Madison, WI
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $10,203 per term for non-residents

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physician Assistant?

Generally speaking, physician assistants will need a four-year bachelor’s degree, three years of healthcare experience, and a two-to-three-year degree from PA school. But some physician assistants complete their work experience concurrently with their bachelor’s degree and others pursue accelerated undergraduate programs.

Allowing for this flexibility, becoming a physician assistant can take anywhere from seven to ten years after high school.

How to Become a Physician Assistant – Step-by-Step Guide

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

After graduating from high school, aspiring physician assistants need to earn a bachelor’s degree. While there is flexibility in what one may choose to major in, a strong course load in the basic, behavioral, and biological sciences is necessary. Having a solid background in chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology, and biology is especially vital.

Step Two: Obtain Healthcare Experience (Three Years)

Entry into PA school (see step three below) is competitive, and many programs require hands-on patient care or other healthcare experience. Most applicants usually have three years of such experience before attending PA school. This experience can come in many forms, including work as a medical assistant, an EMT, a paramedic, or a lab assistant.

Step Three: Earn a Master’s Degree (Two Years)

Physician assistants need to attend an accredited PA school, where students receive classroom instruction in anatomy, biology, pharmacology, and more. These programs award master’s degrees, and they usually last two to three years. They also include over 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, with an emphasis on primary care in ambulatory clinics, physician offices, and acute or long-term care facilities.

Step Four: Become Certified (Less Than One Year)

Once all other criteria have been met, a physician assistant needs to take the 300-question Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Once the exam is passed, a physician assistant is eligible to use the title of Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).

Step Five: Obtain State Licensure (Less Than One Year)

Before a physician assistant is able to practice, they need to get licensed in their state. Each state has its own regulatory requirements and licensing processes. You can find more resources about your state on the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) website.

Step Six: Maintain Certification with Continuing Education (Every Two Years)

In order to ensure they are continually meeting industry standards, physician assistants will need to maintain their certifications by completing 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) every two years. They’ll also need to take the Physician Assistant National Recertification Exam (PANRE) every ten years.

What Do Physician Assistants Do?

The typical duties of a physician assistant will vary based on where they work, their level of experience, and their specialty, but may include:

  • Assisting in surgery
  • Prescribing medication
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Conducting physical exams
  • Taking medical histories
  • Ordering and interpreting tests
  • Counseling on preventative care
  • Doing clinical research

Physician Assistant Certifications & Licensure

Physician assistants need to be both certified and licensed in order to practice. Certification is achieved through passing the PANCE. Physician assistants must recertify every two years by completing 100 hours of CME, and then every ten years by passing a recertification exam.

Licensure is provided through state entities, each of which has their own rules and regulations for physician assistants to be able to practice.

How Much Do Physician Assistants Make?

While it varies based on location, specialty, and level of experience, physician assistants enjoy a salary that’s far above the national average for all professions.

For the 125,280 physician assistants currently working in the US, the average salary is $116,080 per year, according to the BLS (May 2020).

  • 10th percentile: $76,700
  • 25th percentile: $95,730
  • 50th percentile (median): $115,390
  • 75th percentile: $135,220
  • 90th percentile: $162,470

Physician Assistant Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to a career as a physician assistant.

Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners are very similar to physician assistants in that they are both physician extenders. However, nurse practitioners come from a nursing background and complete a master’s of science in nursing or a doctor of nursing practice degree. In some states, nurse practitioners can work without physician oversight, whereas all physician assistants must be under supervision.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)

Become an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists treat patients who have injuries, physical disabilities, birth defects, or illnesses to help them perform everyday activities. The focus of the treatment is to be able to move about as independently as possible. They can assist with maintaining current skills as well as gaining new ones.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, Inc. (NBCOT)

Become a Prosthetist

Supportive devices, called orthotics, that can help improve patients’ mobility are selected by trained professionals called prosthetists. Prosthetists have completed education and a residency in orthotics and have the skills to evaluate mobility, write treatment plans, measure body parts, choose devices, and fit them to clients.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree and residency
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics (ABC)
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He’s been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt’s writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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