What Is a Physician Assistant and How Do I Become One

Written by Coursera • Updated on Dec 9, 2021

Physician assistants support doctors to treat patients. 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.

Ranked as one of the top jobs in health care by US News & World Report, physician assistants, or PAs, work under the supervision of a physician to diagnose and treat illnesses [1]. They can usually prescribe medicine and may even assist with surgery. 

If you want to become a physician assistant, you'll need a background in science to get into one of the over 260 competitive physician assistant programs in the nation [2]. Learn more about what physician assistants do, as well as how to get into physician assistant school and complete your training so you can get started with this exciting career in health care.  

What does a physician assistant do?

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. This means they perform duties like: 

  • 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 topics like disease prevention and management and healthy lifestyle choices

  • Performing some procedures 

  • Assisting physicians with surgery

  • Making hospital rounds 

Specialties 

Because the physician assistant's job is so versatile and essential to the health care industry, you'll find that they practice in almost any specialty a physician does. Some allow for more autonomy than others, and some offer higher pay rates. Take a look at some of the most common PA specialties.  

PA specialtyFast facts
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

10 tips for getting a job as a physician assistant

Does becoming a physician assistant sound like the right career path for you? These ten tips will guide you in the right direction. 

1. Make sure you have the right workplace skills. 

Formal education isn't the only thing you need to become a physician assistant. You'll need the right people skills and personality for the job. Before you start on your path, consider whether or not you are: 

  • Compassionate: Many of your patients and their loved ones will be in distress. You must be empathetic to their feelings. 

  • A good communicator: It's essential that you clearly explain diagnoses, treatments, procedures, and complicated medical terms to patients, but it's also important to listen to what your patients say and show that you're taking it all in.

  • Sensitive: No matter what health care environment you choose to work in, you'll find yourself facing sensitive topics each day. Can you be tactful and maintain confidentiality while you work? 

  • A hard worker: Physician assistants may put in long hours, especially when they first begin their careers. You must be dependable and willing to step up when others can't. 

  • A critical thinker: When you are in charge of a patient's care plan, you must be able to think on your feet, take all symptoms into account, and evaluate all potential treatments. Being a good problem solver is a must. 

  • Flexible: You never know what type of patient will walk through the door. Your patients might seek treatment for an extensive range of problems, from having a cold to being a stroke victim, primarily if you work in emergency medicine or urgent care. It's important to be mentally prepared to work under pressure. 

  • Willing to work with a team: Physician assistants collaborate with doctors, though they may not be under direct supervision. They do, however, still work with a team of nurses, CNAs (certified nursing assistants), therapists, pharmacists, social workers, and other health care providers. 

2. Take many science courses. 

Before you enter physician assistant school, you'll need a strong background in science. You can start taking science courses as early as high school. If you've already graduated high school, take a good number of college courses, either online or in person. Some practical classes for your chosen career can include: 

  • Anatomy and physiology 

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • Biochemistry

  • Physics

  • Organic chemistry

  • Genetics

  • Microbiology 

  • Medical terminology 

3. Consider these non-science courses too. 

Calculus, algebra, and statistics are a must for enhancing your math skills. English, speech, and technical writing courses can improve your communication abilities. Psychology and sociology can provide you with a better understanding of the lives of your patients. 

4. Get some work experience in the health care field. 

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

5. Get your bachelor's degree. 

A bachelor's degree in science or health care isn't essential for entering physician assistant school, but most students who are accepted do have one. This allows you to gain or enhance the two years of science coursework most programs expect from applicants. Majoring in a related field like biology, chemistry, microbiology, or anatomy can prepare you for PA school, though some schools may accept applicants with bachelor's degrees in other subjects.

6. When you're ready, apply to physician assistant school. 

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, or CASPA. You'll need any transcripts from undergraduate programs, letters of recommendation, an official list of your health care and patient care experience, and a completed essay on why you want to become a physician's assistant. 

7. Prepare for your interview. 

If a school is considering admitting you, they'll interview you first to make sure you're the right fit for the program. The American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants recommends representing yourself as "kind, comfortable, prepared, excited, and confident" during the interview [4]. Be ready to explain who you are, what you're good at, what you love to do, and what you want to do. Make it clear that you understand the role of a PA and communicate why you want to be accepted to this particular program. 

8. Know what to expect once you're accepted. 

Once you're accepted, prepare to study and work hard. Most programs take about three years to complete, and in the end, you'll earn a master's degree. Most programs also include about 2,000 hours of clinical rotations within various specialties, with an emphasis on primary care. 

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

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

10. Become licensed in your state. 

The final step toward becoming a PA is becoming licensed in your state. Every state has unique requirements. Check with the American Academy of PAs (AAPA) if you have any questions regarding what you need to do. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

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. 

Related articles

Article sources

1. US News and World Report. “Physician Assistant Ranks among Best Jobs - US News Money. https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/physician-assistant.” Accessed December 8, 2021.

2. ExploreHealthCareers. “Physician Assistant. https://explorehealthcareers.org/career/medicine/physician-assistant/.” Accessed December 8, 2021. 

3. NCCPA. "2019 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants, https://prodcmsstoragesa.blob.core.windows.net/uploads/files/2019StatisticalProfileofCertifiedPhysicianAssistants.pdf." Accessed December 9, 2021.

4. AASPA. "PA Program Interviewing Strategies, https://www.aaspa.com/pa-program-interviewing-strategies." Accessed December 9, 2021.

5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Physician Assistants, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm." Accessed December 8, 2021. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on Dec 9, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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