What Is a Physician Assistant? (+ How to Become One)

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Physician assistants act as a support to doctors and physicians. Learn what you need to do to become a physician assistant, including how to get into a physician assistant school and other key information.

[Featured image] A physician assistant in a white lab coat shows test results on a laptop to her colleague.

The role of a physician assistant (PA) was established in 1967, according to the American Academy of Physician Associates, and has around 159,000 practitioners today who engage with over 500 million patients each year [1].

Physician assistants are ranked as one of the top jobs in health care by US News & World Report [2]. PAs work under the supervision of a physician to diagnose and treat illnesses. They can usually prescribe medicine and even assist with surgery, though they do not undergo the same rigorous process of becoming a doctor.

If you want to become a physician assistant, you'll need a master's from a physician assistant program. Learn more about what physician assistants do and how to get started on this exciting, well-paid, and in-demand career.

What is a physician assistant?

Physician assistants work with patients in doctors' offices, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and any other medical setting where a physician may work. While they must do their job in collaboration with a doctor, they often serve as primary care providers in their own right.

Job responsibilities

PAs perform duties such as: 

  • Taking a patient's medical history

  • Ordering diagnostic tests

  • Interpreting test results 

  • Performing physical exams 

  • Diagnosing injuries, illnesses, and health conditions 

  • Prescribing treatments and medications 

  • Educating patients on disease prevention and management and healthy lifestyle choices

  • Assisting physicians with surgery

Specializations for physician assistants

Physician assistants are versatile and essential to the health care industry. They practice in almost any specialization that physicians do. Take a look at the most common PA specializations.

PA specializationsWhat they do
Family medicineOne of the most common practice areas according to the NCCPA [3], may work with some autonomy, may serve as a patient's primary care health provider
Emergency medicineTreat patients with life-threatening conditions in emergency rooms, one of the highest-paying specialties reported [3]
Urgent careWork in urgent care clinics treating minor illnesses and injuries, specialty is on the rise as more urgent care clinics open, high-paying and offers more autonomy as the PA may work without a physician on the premises
DermatologyOne of the highest-paying specialties for a PA, may treat medical conditions and perform elective procedures, like Botox and cosmetic surgery
Internal medicineFocus on disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, may work in a hospital setting
ObstetricsProvide prenatal and postnatal care Assist with childbirth Perform routine gynecological exams
General surgery/surgical subspecialtiesWork under the supervision of general surgeons or specialty surgeons, in areas like cardiology and orthopedics May assist with surgery, order diagnostic tests, and perform preoperative and postoperative care

Physician assistant salary and job outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistants can make an annual median salary of $121,530 [4]. Your salary will vary depending on your location, the type of clinic you practice in, and your specialization.

The job outlook for a physician assistant is also promising: between 2021 and 2031, the projected job growth is 28 percent which is much faster than the average for all jobs [4]. This demand is promising for those seeking a career in health care but don't want to attend medical school.

Read more: 10 Best Paying Jobs in Health Care

Benefits of being a physician assistant

Becoming a physician assistant can allow you to help others and contribute to the well-being of your community. PAs are able to focus more on direct care with patients than doctors, which can be very rewarding. Many people also choose to become a PA instead of a physician because there are fewer educational requirements. Competitive salaries and job security are also benefits of the job.  


Education requirements

Physician assistants must complete a master's from a physician assistant program and have over 3,000 hours of direct patient contact experience under their belt (as paramedics, or medical assistants, for example). PA programs are approximately 27 months (three academic years) and include over 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.

To qualify for a master's degree level program, you'll also need your bachelor's degree in a related field.

10 steps for getting a job as a physician assistant

Does becoming a physician assistant sound like the right career for you? Use these steps to guide you on your journey.

1. Get a bachelor's degree (preferably in science).

Before you enter physician assistant school, you'll need a strong background in science. A bachelor's degree is required to apply for most PA programs. If you don't have a science-related undergraduate degree, don't fret. You can always brush up by taking online courses in:

  • Anatomy and physiology 

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • Biochemistry

  • Physics

  • Organic chemistry

  • Genetics

  • Microbiology 

  • Medical terminology 

2. Gain work experience in the health care field. 

Most accredited physician assistant programs require you to have at least three years of health care experience working with patients daily. For this reason, many people who choose to become PAs start out with careers as registered nurses, certified medical assistants, EMTs, paramedics, medical technicians, and lab assistants. You can also gain health care experience in the military. 

3. Apply to (and attend) a physician assistant program.

Once you have all of your prerequisites—a background in science, a bachelor's degree, and a few years of health care experience—you can apply to a physician assistant program.

In most cases, you'll apply by filling out the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA for a program accredited by the ARC-PA. You'll need any transcripts from undergraduate programs, letters of recommendation, an official list of your health care and patient care experience, and a personal essay on why you want to become a physician's assistant.

If a school is considering admitting you, they'll likely interview you first to make sure you're the right fit for the program.

It is recommended that you present yourself as "kind, comfortable, prepared, excited, and confident" during the interview [5]. Be ready to explain who you are, what you're good at, and why you want to become a PA.

Read more: How to Prepare for an Interview

4. Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). 

Once you graduate from physician assistant school, you'll need to be certified as a physician assistant. This means passing the PANCE, a five-hour, 300-question exam. If you pass, you'll receive your results within a few weeks. 

5. Become licensed in your state. 

The final step toward becoming a PA is becoming licensed in your state. Every state has unique requirements, so check the American Academy of PAs (AAPA) website to make sure you've got everything you need to be licensed.

Next steps

If you're thinking about becoming a physician assistant, you can get a taste of the field by exploring coursework in science or anatomy. On Coursera, you'll find online courses geared towards health care careers offered by some of the top universities in the world, like the Anatomy Specialization from the University of Michigan or a course on Trauma Emergencies and Care from the University of Colorado. 

Article sources


AAPA. "What is a PA?, https://www.aapa.org/about/what-is-a-pa/." Accessed January 19, 2023.

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