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How to Become a Physician Assistant (PA)

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

physician assistant and doctor

With growing demands for health care services and physicians in increasingly short supply, physician assistants play a vital role in meeting the needs of patients everywhere. These professionals (who are also known as PAs) practice medicine and treat patients under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor.

Typical PA duties include:

  • Take histories and perform physical examinations
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests such as x-rays, electrocardiograms (EKGs), and laboratory tests
  • Diagnose injuries and illnesses
  • Formulate patient care plans
  • Prescribe medications and therapies
  • Perform procedures such as injections, suturing, and casting
  • Provide health counseling and education for patients and families
  • Assist physicians during surgery or procedures
  • Round on patients in hospitals and nursing homes and report on their progress
  • Document findings, decision-making, and care provided in the patient’s health record

Each state has scope-of-practice laws that spell out which functions PAs may perform and the degree of physician supervision required. In recent years, many states have relaxed restrictions on PA practice. (For example, PAs can now write prescriptions in all 50 states.)

The nature of PA supervision varies by state and practice setting. In some cases, the supervising physician and PA are in close and constant contact, sharing an office space. In others, such as a community clinic, the partners may be in phone contact but only meet face-to-face once or twice a week.

A physician assistant career offers many rewards. PAs get the personal satisfaction of helping and healing patients every day. They also have an opportunity to practice in many different areas of medicine without seeking additional training and certification (as physicians must). Finally, PAs play a growing role in reaching medically underserved populations such as those in urban centers and rural areas. Many staff clinics and travel programs serving people who would otherwise not have access to care.

Workplace Details

Physician offices employ 58 percent of physician assistants, and an additional 23 percent work for hospitals. Other common employers include urgent care centers; retail clinics (such as those found at Walgreens); student and employee health centers; government and community organizations; and home health care services.

About 28 percent of PAs work in primary care specialties such as family medicine, internal medicine, and general pediatrics. Other common specialties include emergency medicine, hospital medicine, psychiatry, and dermatology.

The average physician assistant works about 40 hours per week. PAs employed in the outpatient setting generally work regular daytime hours plus some on-call hours during evenings and weekends. Hospital-based PAs usually work shifts that include evenings, weekends, and holidays.

PA Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
New York
$107030
California
$110860
Texas
$97420
Pennsylvania
$92860
Florida
$103200

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA

Median Salary: 
$94,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $129,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 33%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$58,560$95,210$123,460

ALASKA

Median Salary: 
$109,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $75,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $149,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$83,240$111,300$152,410
Fairbanks$50,510$92,210$150,370

ARIZONA

Median Salary: 
$98,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $132,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$38,620$97,860$131,470
Tuscon$66,350$91,290$119,720

ARKANSAS

Median Salary: 
$74,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $121,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 38%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$32,540$74,780$119,050

CALIFORNIA

Median Salary: 
$109,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $49,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $159,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 34%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 560

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$33,290$98,560$154,340
San Francisco Bay$86,940$117,530$157,540
San Diego$60,290$104,620$169,100
Sacramento$81,690$117,430$162,420

COLORADO

Median Salary: 
$96,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $70,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $125,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 51%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 150

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$69,500$96,890$125,590
Colorado Springs$77,210$91,380$123,860

CONNECTICUT

Median Salary: 
$111,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $83,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $148,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$85,130$111,800$143,450
Bridgeport$60,120$107,270$139,870
New Haven$88,580$112,830$152,290

DELAWARE

Median Salary: 
$105,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $84,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $150,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$83,440$101,920$139,650
Dover$87,250$131,660$157,220

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Median Salary: 
$103,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $136,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$55,510$99,300$137,100

FLORIDA

Median Salary: 
$97,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $70,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $144,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 45%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 340

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$80,390$100,580$153,350
Orlando$69,080$96,220$132,810
Tampa$67,040$91,670$146,320
Jacksonville$60,500$100,030$125,250

GEORGIA

Median Salary: 
$95,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $66,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $134,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 51%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$71,100$97,210$137,600
Augusta$30,050$82,930$108,880

HAWAII

Median Salary: 
$92,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $54,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $119,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$62,630$95,490$121,160

IDAHO

Median Salary: 
$94,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $73,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $136,400

Job Growth Data Not Available

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$78,330$94,280$123,170
Idaho Falls$74,190$100,050Over $187,200

ILLINOIS

Median Salary: 
$90,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $132,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$29,850$88,040$126,500
Rockford$39,150$97,150$127,670

INDIANA

Median Salary: 
$94,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $64,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $139,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$62,540$94,280$122,240
South Bend$80,430$143,730Over $187,200
Fort Wayne$76,710$131,760$154,130

IOWA

Median Salary: 
$95,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $128,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$41,960$94,590$119,820
Cedar Rapids$79,040$126,160Over $187,200

KANSAS

Median Salary: 
$95,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $67,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $128,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 21%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$65,210$85,940$111,070
Kansas City$72,610$103,180$146,140

KENTUCKY

Median Salary: 
$94,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $76,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $133,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 39%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$79,930$94,360$131,610
Lexington$75,010$91,600$120,030

LOUISIANA

Median Salary: 
$89,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $137,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$29,340$88,840$138,560
Baton Rouge$65,770$106,290$144,170
Lafayette$25,880$29,390$90,340

MAINE

Median Salary: 
$101,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $79,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $137,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$79,690$100,840$132,870
Lewiston$78,310$99,370$123,540

MARYLAND

Median Salary: 
$94,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $35,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $128,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 32%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$33,780$91,320$122,650
Frederick$77,630$107,800$149,000

MASSACHUSETTS

Median Salary: 
$104,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $64,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $147,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$62,090$104,710$145,780
Worcester$74,530$99,770$127,220
Springfield$47,570$99,420$145,290

MICHIGAN

Median Salary: 
$95,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $39,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $136,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$28,630$88,480$121,480
Grand Rapids$82,930$108,370$156,030

MINNESOTA

Median Salary: 
$105,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $82,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $140,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$80,210$102,580$140,690
Rochester$93,060$116,280$143,890

MISSISSIPPI

Median Salary: 
$33,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $98,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$25,710$30,080$90,490

MISSOURI

Median Salary: 
$93,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $149,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$31,420$95,270$153,140
Kansas City$72,610$103,180$146,140

MONTANA

Median Salary: 
$95,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $69,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $131,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$73,920$95,620$122,930
Missoula$30,720$89,580$126,890

NEBRASKA

Median Salary: 
$92,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $67,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $122,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$66,750$91,260$119,920
Lincoln$66,940$95,010$154,610

NEVADA

Median Salary: 
$104,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $79,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 47%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$82,400$111,200Over $187,200
Reno$32,340$93,200$126,650

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Median Salary: 
$109,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $83,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $152,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$83,260$107,600$150,030
Nashua$86,890$113,590$182,850

NEW JERSEY

Median Salary: 
$108,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $76,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $152,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 26%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$82,770$101,400$145,810
Trenton$71,600$97,960$137,940

NEW MEXICO

Median Salary: 
$98,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $66,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $150,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$70,020$96,170$139,070

NEW YORK

Median Salary: 
$101,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $77,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $130,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 570

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$80,600$104,520$140,130
Buffalo$78,190$93,300$120,610
Rochester$76,080$93,630$130,250
Albany$74,850$94,120$121,150

NORTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$95,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $74,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $127,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 35%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$76,150$93,950$122,270
Raleigh$75,990$97,100$127,580
Greensboro$71,300$96,860$124,590
Winston - Salem$80,360$95,330$122,760

NORTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$99,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $80,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $180,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Bismarck$78,950$90,420$110,630

OHIO

Median Salary: 
$101,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $77,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $144,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 28%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$84,120$108,580$141,940
Columbus$82,770$102,650$160,180
Cincinnati$71,350$93,420$122,690
Dayton$85,780$106,360$167,720

OKLAHOMA

Median Salary: 
$102,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $63,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $144,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$61,540$98,590$142,790
Tulsa$70,580$106,880$137,190

OREGON

Median Salary: 
$104,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $78,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $142,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 35%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$75,330$110,730$148,550
Salem$74,890$98,160$130,980

PENNSYLVANIA

Median Salary: 
$88,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $54,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $122,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 220

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$47,830$92,770$132,550
Pittsburgh$64,860$86,000$109,550
Harrisburg$45,320$86,190$121,830
Allentown$63,370$89,230$120,470

RHODE ISLAND

Median Salary: 
$108,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $71,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $157,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$69,340$105,010$157,060

SOUTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$87,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $38,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $122,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 26%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$56,840$89,240$129,330
Columbia$19,220$89,490$116,100
Charleston$55,410$86,230$124,820

SOUTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$95,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $75,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $123,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Sioux Falls$79,550$96,580$124,530
Rapid City$75,120$91,820$119,890

TENNESSEE

Median Salary: 
$87,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $127,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 44%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$53,720$79,820$121,030
Memphis$32,540$67,920$116,470
Knoxville$65,980$94,480$137,190
Chattanooga$61,260$90,900$114,740

TEXAS

Median Salary: 
$101,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $138,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 43%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 390

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$36,960$100,590$129,450
Houston$38,710$102,880$131,730
San Antonio$53,720$93,860$124,950
Austin$67,630$95,110$131,540

UTAH

Median Salary: 
$94,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $38,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $149,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 42%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$50,390$92,530$142,700
Ogden$86,500$119,000Over $187,200

VERMONT

Median Salary: 
$104,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $83,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $153,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Burlington$81,990$105,890$144,240

VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$90,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $123,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 40%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$55,940$86,250$111,450
Richmond$72,150$102,970$127,990

WASHINGTON

Median Salary: 
$107,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $77,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $151,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$79,320$111,050$152,910
Spokane$73,830$101,550$154,240

WEST VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$90,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $63,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $127,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$66,040$95,550$124,870
Charleston$35,810$87,660$106,970

WISCONSIN

Median Salary: 
$93,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $66,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $122,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$65,970$87,030$112,970
Madison$81,810$98,290$126,570

WYOMING

Median Salary: 
$100,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $81,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $142,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 30%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$78,000$107,710$129,440
Casper$72,130$100,010$151,870

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for physician assistants is $101,480. The lowest-paid 10 percent earn less than $65,620, and the highest-paid 10 percent earn more than $142,210.

Salaries vary with experience, practice setting, specialty, and geographic location:

  • According to the BLS, PAs employed in consulting and outpatient centers generally earn the highest salaries
  • A survey by Inside PA Training found that mental health, school-based practice, cardiology, and dermatology were the best-paid PA specialties
  • PAs in Nevada earn the highest average salary in the country at $112,700

Job prospects for physician assistants should be excellent for the foreseeable future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of PAs is expected to grow by 30 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Physician assistants are expected to play a crucial role in health care delivery in coming years. America’s population is aging rapidly, increasing the demand for services. A growing number of people are also suffering from chronic conditions that require long-term medical management. Federal law recently expanded health care coverage to millions of Americans. On top of all of this, there is a shortage of physicians - particularly primary care physicians - to serve these patients.

PAs can improve their job prospects by specializing in primary care and by developing their skills so that they can practice to the full extent permitted by law. Willingness to work in an underserved area, such as a rural or inner city community, is also beneficial.

The American Academy of Physician Assistants offers a number of useful career services for PAs, including a job board, career coaching and resume assistance.

Compare Salaries by City

New York City NY Median Pay

$104520 Per Year

$50.25 Per Hour

Atlanta GA Median Pay

$97210 Per Year

$46.73 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Physician Assistant

1

Get a high school diploma.

To become a physician assistant, candidates must start by graduating from high school. High school students can prepare for a PA career by taking a full college preparatory curriculum, including four years of English, three years of math (through Algebra II), and at least three years of science (including biology, chemistry, and physics). AP, IB or dual-option courses in math and science may also be helpful, so long as students maintain a high GPA. High school is also a good time to get volunteer experience in the health care field.

2

Finish your bachelor's degree.

Most PA programs are graduate level (leading to a master’s degree or doctorate) and require a bachelor’s degree for admission. However, a few PA programs still accept students who have completed two to four years of college-level coursework, including all prerequisites. Students should complete the same prerequisites they would for medical school, including courses in biology, microbiology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology.

Show Me Schools »

3

Attend an accredited graduate program to earn your master's degree.

To gain a competitive edge when applying to accredited programs, most students spend a few years working in a health-related field after completing a bachelor’s degree. Examples of careers that can help students gain relevant experience include nursing, paramedicine, emergency services, or medical technology.

PA programs are offered by medical schools, universities, community colleges, and the US military and usually take about 26 months (two to three academic years) to complete. Make sure you enroll in a program recognized by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The Physician Assistant Education Association maintains a list of accredited programs on its website.

In addition to classroom instruction in pathology, anatomy, pharmacology, behavioral science, and medical ethics, students complete two thousand hours of supervised clinical training. Like medical students, they rotate through many practice areas, including primary care, surgery, obstetrics, and emergency medicine.

Because admission to these programs is highly competitive, college students should start researching options in their first year of college.

4

Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to be licensed in your state.

PAs must be state-licensed in order to practice. All states now require students to pass the PANCE certification exam, a computer-based knowledge exam administered by the National Commission on the Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Certified physician assistants may use the PA-C credential after their names. Check the requirements in your area to become state-licensed.

To maintain their certification, PA-Cs must complete one hundred hours of continuing education every two years and recertify every ten years.

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Consider advancement opportunities.

Experienced PAs have the option to pursue post-graduate education in a specialty area such as surgery, psychiatry, or emergency medicine. NCCPA offers advanced certifications through its Certificates of Added Qualifications (CAQ) program.

With experience, PAs may move into management roles in which they direct the work of junior PAs. Another leadership option is to supervise PA students who are completing their clinical training. Colleges and universities hire PAs with doctorates to teach in PA training programs.

Exploring Degree Paths

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years generally

Your first step to becoming a physician assistant is to complete your undergraduate education.

Most students earn a bachelor’s degree before applying to physician assistant (PA) school. However, a few PA programs accept applicants with 2-4 years of undergraduate coursework, so long as they have completed all prerequisites. If you go this route, be sure to check the licensure rules for the state in which you will practice. (Some states only license PAs with bachelor’s degrees.)

Show Me Schools »

PA schools generally accept students from all majors. However, to be eligible for admission, you’ll need to complete the same prerequisites as a premedicine student. Some common examples include:

General and organic chemistry

Learn about the properties of matter and how it combines to make new substances. Organic chemistry deals specifically with carbon-containing compounds found in living things.

Biology

Study the structure and function of plants, animals, and other living organisms. Many PA programs encourage upper-level classes in genetics, biology, and biochemistry.

Human anatomy and physiology

Understand the organization and function of the body at the cellular, tissue, organ, and system levels.

Social sciences

Study how humans behave, think, learn, and interact with others.

Prerequisites vary among PA programs. Be sure to check with programs you are interested in for an exact list.

Some PA graduate programs only admit students with paid clinical experience. Even where this is not required, working in the healthcare field can strengthen your application. Many pre-PA students gain experience working as nurses, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, or medical scribes.

PA MASTER'S DEGREE

2 years

After undergrad, your next step is to complete an accredited PA program. Today, most PA students graduate with a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS). However, there are still a few accredited programs that award associate of science (AS) degrees. (If you go the AS route, check licensing requirements in your area. Some states only license PAs with master’s degrees.)

In order to become licensed and certified as a PA, you’ll need to complete an accredited education program. The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) accredits over 200 PA training programs in the United States. For an online list of accredited programs, visit the website of the Physician Assistant Education Association.

PA training is a rigorous, full-time undertaking. Expect to study year-round and through the summers. During the first year, students spend most of their time in the classroom and laboratory taking courses like:

Patient assessment

Practice taking histories, performing physical examinations, and documenting findings.

Pathophysiology

Learn how diseases develop, progress, and affect body functions.

Pharmacology

Study the indications, dosing, and action mechanisms of the major drug classes.

Clinical medicine

Learn to diagnose, treat, and manage common diseases and conditions.

The second year of PA training is dedicated to clinical rotations in the major specialties, including inpatient (hospital), emergency room, surgery, and outpatient care. Master’s students work with an advisor to complete a capstone project.

Throughout the program, PA students participate in clinical learning experiences such as conducting health screenings at a community health fair or assisting in a clinic for underserved patients. This is a great time to network with other healthcare professionals and learn about practice opportunities in your area.

Keys to Success as a Physician Assistant

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Teamwork and collaboration skills

Successful PAs embrace the idea of partnering with a physician (and often with a larger health care team). This requires the ability to listen, communicate effectively, accept feedback, and contribute to the team’s shared goals.

Communication skills

PAs must be able to explain complex scientific information in a way that patients and families understand. At the same time, they must also be able to relay this information to team members of various professions.

Attention to detail

PAs’ strong observation skills help them detect tiny changes in patients’ conditions that could signal the need for intervention.

Problem solving skills

PAs must apply their strong clinical and practical knowledge in order to assess patients, diagnose conditions, and formulate an effective plan of care.

Patient focus

Successful physician assistants say that one of the most important qualities a PA can have is a passionate desire to help others.

Emotional stability

PAs must be comfortable caring for people who are upset or in pain. They must also be comfortable with a high degree of responsibility and operating in fast-paced environments.

Healthy and strong

Physician assisting can be physically demanding work that requires long periods of standing and walking. For example, surgical PAs spend several hours at a time on their feet while assisting with operations.

Stress management skills

Working as a PA can also be stressful and emotionally demanding. PAs are almost constantly interacting with patients, many of whom are distressed or in pain. In some settings, the work can be quite fast-paced, which increases the potential for mistakes. A calm demeanor and the ability to multi-task are definite assets in this profession.

Prudence

Like other health care professionals, PAs are exposed to contagious diseases and toxic substances. It’s important for them to follow recommended safety precautions, including the use of personal protective gear when appropriate.

Additional Credentials

PAs who pass their initial certification exam can practice in all specialties. However, PAs who specialize in one of the following clinical areas can earn a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) from the National Commission on the Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA):

  • Cardiac and thoracic surgery
  • Emergency medicine
  • Hospital medicine
  • Nephrology
  • Orthopedic surgery
  • Pediatrics
  • Psychiatry

To earn a CAQ, you must document work experience and continuing education and log a minimum number of cases and procedures. You’ll also need to pass a knowledge exam.

One of the fastest ways to earn a CAQ is to complete an optional post-graduate residency in your specialty. PA residencies are typically found at teaching hospitals and take about a year to complete. For program listings, visit The Association of Postgraduate PA Programs.

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