Physician Assistant (PA)

Physician associates 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 associates finish school faster, get to work sooner, and often have more personal interactions with their patients. Furthermore, it’s easier for a physician associate to add a specialty, or switch specialties, in the course of their career.

This is not an easy profession to enter, nor is it an easy job to perform. Given the stakes and the responsibility this entails, physician associates need to complete rigorous education and meet certain licensure requirements in order to practice. Becoming a physician associate can take up to ten years of schooling and work experience. 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 associate, 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 the choice of major, prerequisite coursework should include the study of anatomy, biology, chemistry, microbiology, and physiology.

After completing prerequisite coursework, physician assistants must 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 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 the preclinical study and includes anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, diagnostic methods, and clinical medicine instruction. During the program’s second year, students complete ten clinical rotations covering internal medicine, primary care, pediatrics, and general surgery, among other areas. The program consists of 109 credits in total.

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC); Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two to three years
  • Estimated Tuition: Year one ($46,843); year two ($45,259)

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.

The curriculum comprises two didactic years, with clinical experiences integrated across both years. The third year consists of ten one-month rotations. Some of the courses in the curriculum are foundations in prevention, advocacy, and professional practice; hematology, infection, immunology, and malignancy; gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and renal; dermatology, eye, ear, nose and throat; musculoskeletal and neurology; endocrinology and reproduction; and psychiatry.

Clinical rotations include a diverse range of foci, including ​primary care; pediatric specialty; inpatient medicine; ​emergency medicine; and ​surgery. Students may specialize in one of three tracks: the global health track, the pediatric critical and acute care longitudinal experience track, or the care of the hospitalized adult in a novel graduated experience (CHANGE) track.

  • Location: Aurora, CO
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC); Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: Resident ($64,242); non-resident ($139,086)

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 18 months long, and the clinical phase is 16 months. The clinical phase is twelve months in length and consists of eleven clinical clerkships (nine required and two electives) and time dedicated to thesis preparation. The thesis project is required to graduate and helps showcase a student’s ability to interpret scientific literature and draw conclusions or a hypothesis.

  • Location: Boston, MA
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE); Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 30 months
  • Estimated Tuition: Year one ($43,791); year two ($58,080); year three ($40,656)

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 ready to work in various 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.

Students in this nine-quarter program will complete five quarters of didactic coursework. They will then complete twelve months of clinical clerkships within the Stanford Medicine community and in other select clinical sites. They will also be required to complete a capstone project before graduation. 

The core curriculum includes courses such as foundations of clinical medicine; foundations of clinical neurosciences; histology; embryology; clinical anatomy; principles of clinical medicine; and clinical therapeutics. Clerkship experiences include pediatrics; surgery; emergency medicine; women’s health, including prenatal and gynecologic care; behavioral medicine; and family medicine.

  • Location: Palo Alto, CA
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC); Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Nine quarters
  • Estimated Tuition: $18,829 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. As mentioned above, the program has two curriculum options: the PA curriculum and the PA/MPH curriculum. The PA program can be completed in two years, while the joint degree requires students to start with the public health portion and then join the PA curriculum in the three-year program. Notably, students in the joint degree will choose a public health concentration before matriculation.

The first year of the PA program is an academic phase involving courses such as foundations of medicine; physiology for health sciences students; health, justice & society; human behavior; basic principles of pharmacology; clinical specialties; and integration into clinical concepts. The second year is the clinical phase, where students apply their knowledge and practice their newly learned skills in the clinical environment through eight clinical rotations.

  • Location: Washington, DC
  • Accreditation: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools; Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two to three years
  • Estimated Tuition: $16,483 per semester

Online Physician Assistant Degree Programs

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

Aspiring physician assistants seeking 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
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $641 per credit

Yale School of Medicine

Yale School of Medicine has one of the country’s only purely online PA programs, 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 a specific biological system lens. In-person clinical rotations occur 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.

As part of the program, students will delve into topics such as human anatomy; basic science; patient assessment; diagnostic studies; clinical medicine; pharmacology; and behavioral and preventive medicine.

  • Location: New Haven, CT
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE); Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 28 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $115,052 (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 is interdisciplinary, emphasizing care in rural and underserved communities.

Classes in this 90-credit curriculum 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
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC); Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: North Dakota and Minnesota residents ($22,951.94 per year); non-US residents ($34,427.92 per year)

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 student’s community.

To be eligible to complete this program, students must already hold a PA license, have malpractice insurance, and be employed as a PA 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
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC); Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Varies based on course load
  • Estimated Tuition: Resident ($1,584.89 per course); non-resident ($2,808.89 per course)

University of Wisconsin – School of Medicine and Public Health

The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health offers 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 of 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 and provide critical medical services to populations who struggle to access healthcare.

Students in this program will complete two years of didactic instruction and one year of clinical rotations. The curriculum includes courses such as applied human anatomy; fundamentals of clinical medicine; clinical medicine; clinical prevention & community practice; clinical pharmacology; pediatrics; emergency medicine; and fundamentals of surgery, among others.

  • Location: Madison, WI
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC); Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: Resident ($5,263.68 to $7,259.40 per semester); non-resident ($10,834.14 to $14,686.68 per semester)

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 working as a medical assistant, an EMT, a paramedic, or a lab assistant.

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

Physician assistants must 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 the National Commission administers on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Once the exam is passed, a physician assistant can use the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) title.

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

Before physician assistants can practice, they must 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)

To ensure they are continually meeting industry standards, physician assistants must 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 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 its 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 experience level, physician assistants enjoy a salary far above the national average for all professions.

The average salary for the 132,940 physician assistants in the US is $119,460 per year, according to the BLS (May 2021)—the most recent data available as of January 2023.

  • 10th percentile: $77,940
  • 25th percentile: $99,880
  • 50th percentile (median): $121,530
  • 75th percentile: $131,740
  • 90th percentile: $164,620

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 because 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 with 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 into 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 Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about trends within the healthcare workforce, with a particular focus on the power of interdisciplinary teams. He’s also covered the crises faced by healthcare professionals working at assisted living and long-term care facilities, both in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the demographic shift brought on by the aging of the Baby Boomers. His work has included detailed interviews and consultations with leaders and subject matter experts from the American Nurses Association (ASCA), the American College of Health Care Administrators (ACHCA), and the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA).

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