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.
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 . 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 . 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.
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
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 specialty||Fast facts|
|Family medicine||One of the most common practice areas according to the NCCPA , may work with some autonomy, may serve as a patient's primary care health provider|
|Emergency medicine||Treat patients with life-threatening conditions in emergency rooms, one of the highest-paying specialties reported |
|Urgent care||Work 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|
|Dermatology||One of the highest-paying specialties for a PA, may treat medical conditions and perform elective procedures, like Botox and cosmetic surgery|
|Internal medicine||Focus on disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, may work in a hospital setting|
|Obstetrics||Provide prenatal and postnatal care Assist with childbirth Perform routine gynecological exams|
|General surgery/surgical subspecialties||Work 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|
Does becoming a physician assistant sound like the right career path for you? These ten tips will guide you in the right direction.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . 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.
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.
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.
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.
The amount of money a PA makes each year depends on the state where you practice and your specialty. The median salary of a physician assistant in the United States is $115,390, according to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics .
If you want to join a specific specialty after becoming a PA, you may need to take more courses or earn a certification in that area. You must also earn one-hundred continuing education credits every two years and pass the PANCE every ten years to maintain your certification. You can always continue your education on your own by taking online or in-person college courses that relate to your job.
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.
Between 2020 and 2030, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the need for physician assistants will grow by 31 percent. That's a much higher rate than the average, which is about 4 percent .
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.
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.
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.