Physician assistants enjoy a high-paying, highly rewarding career in medicine. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physician assistants make an average annual salary of $104,860, and the bureau projects an employment growth rate of 37% over the next decade for physician assistants. This page details what you can expect from physician assistant master’s programs, and how to pick the right one for you.
According to the BLS, , physician assistants make an average annual salary of $104,860, and the bureau projects an employment growth rate of 37% over the next decade for physician assistants.
Should I Get a Physician Assistant Master's Degree?
You can choose to pursue your physician assistant degree on-campus or online, depending on your lifestyle and what you intend to do with your degree. Online physician assistant master’s programs typically suit working professionals who are looking to switch careers or return to school while working, since online degrees take less time to complete and offer more scheduling flexibility. In contrast, recent bachelor’s graduates may prefer to pursue an on-campus physician assistant master’s, which offer more course options and personalized guidance from instructors. On-campus degrees also tend to offer more networking opportunities with faculty and peers.
A physician assistant master’s program teaches students to stay calm under pressure, multitask, and communicate effectively. Communication skills help you deal with patients, work with peers, and network with faculty. They can also help you land an internship or a job placement, as they assist in the interview process. Moreover, the abilities to multitask and deal calmly with stress might help you juggle the responsibilities of a physician assistant position, making you a more competitive candidate.
What Do Physician Assistants Do?
Physician assistants take on many responsibilities in diverse environments. They can work in hospitals, outpatient care centers, physician’s offices, and other medical and health services environments, often as part of a team. Physician assistants can diagnose and treat ailments, but they always work under the supervision of physicians. In medical and health services environments, they typically examine patients, assist during surgeries, and perform certain tasks during other medical procedures. On a typical day, they may provide some or all of these duties as they make rounds through a facility.
A physician assistant’s work, though supervised, requires a high level of training and knowledge. Certification for physician assistance is available in various areas of expertise, including advanced cardiovascular life support. Many physician assistants also work in health education-related positions, in both the public and private sectors. The following table gives the median annual salary for physician assistants in the industries where they commonly find employment.
|Industry||Median Annual Salary|
|Outpatient Care Centers||$11,740|
|Hospitals (State, Local, and Private)||$108,250|
|Educational Services (State, Local, and Private)||$101,730|
How to Choose a Physician Assistant Master's Program
Before choosing a physician assistant master’s program, you should carefully consider some important factors, including how long each prospective program will take, how many credits it requires to graduate, and whether the program allows part-time study. Consider whether you’d prefer to take courses full time, which would accelerate the degree process, or part time, which might allow you to continue working while in school. Also take into account that degrees become more expensive the longer they take.
If you’re interested in online learning, look into whether your prospective colleges offer online degrees. Investigate their practicum and direct experience requirements, and which require a written thesis or capstone project, or a choice between the two. Consider whether you want to pursue a specialization, and look into your potential programs’ offerings. If your program requires an in-person residency or other on-campus requirement, consider its location, along with its cost of living, quality of life, and job opportunities. Most importantly, make sure your prospective programs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).
Programmatic Accreditation for Physician Assistant Master’s Programs
Seek physician assistant programs with programmatic accreditation, which validates that a program maintains consistent quality standards, as established by professional agencies. Programmatic accreditation is as well-respected as regional accreditation. The ARC-PA provides programmatic accreditation for physician assistant programs.
Not all physician assistant master’s programs have this accreditation, and attending a nonaccredited program can put you at risk when it comes to transferring credits, since most institutions prefer transfer credits from properly accredited schools. Moreover, some employers only recognize degrees from programs that have been accredited by the ARC-PA.
Physician Assistant Master's Program Admissions
The on-campus admissions process may require you to schedule in-person interviews. However, admissions for online programs can be even more involved, as some online schools require admission to both the on-campus and online programs. You should apply to between four and eight schools, ideally. If you apply to too few schools, you may put yourself at risk of not obtaining admission. On the other hand, if you apply to too many, you may spread yourself thin and become overwhelmed.
When selecting schools, order your priorities: Apply to schools you can reasonably afford and will be able to complete in your ideal timeframe. Favor schools with ARC-PA accreditation, and especially those offering concentrations that interest you. Apply to schools that fit your specific educational needs and expectations.
- Bachelor’s Degree: To obtain a physician assistant master’s degree, you must first hold a bachelor’s. Most physician assistant master’s programs also require several prerequisite courses, including biology, anatomy, and chemistry.
- Professional Experience: Many programs will require several years’ prior experience in medical and health services. They usually accept experience as a certified nursing assistant, phlebotomist, or nurse.
- Minimum GPA: Most graduate programs require a minimum GPA of 3.0. Some schools may waive this requirement for students with exceptional GRE or MCAT test scores or professional experience.
- Application: Most applications ask for personal information and a personal statement.
- Transcripts: Grad school application require you to submit copies of your previous college transcripts. To obtain these, you must fill out a transcript request form and pay a small fee.
- Letters of Recommendation: Most college applications asks for two letters of recommendation. Choose your writers — preferably mentoring professors or professional superiods — and give them at least two weeks’ notice before your deadline.
- Test Scores: You need to take the GRE or MCAT tests for grad school admissions. Most schools expect a GRE score of 300 or an MCAT score of 500 for consideration.
- Application Fee: Application fees usually cost between $50 and $80. Some schools may waive this fee for students within a certain income bracket.
What Else Can I Expect From a Physician Assistant Master's Program?
Depending on the school, physician assistant master’s programs vary in terms of course offerings, concentrations, length, and cost. One school may offer clinical and education concentrations, while another may not offer concentration options at all. Research these specifics to get a clear picture of what to expect from your prospective programs.
|Pediatrics||Many programs offer a pediatrics concentration for students interested in working in family care practices or other medical and health care facilities as a pediatric assistant. This concentration touches on subjects such as neonatology, pediatric emergency care, and pediatric cardiology. Clinical instruction takes place in neonatal or pediatric care units.||Pediatric physician assistant|
|General Surgery||Students may take their program with a concentration in general surgery with the ambition of becoming a surgical assistant. Topics may include vascular surgery, trauma and burn care, and minimally invasive procedures. Clinical instruction takes place in surgical units; the program may require an intensive residency component.||Surgical physician assistant|
|Orthopedics||Students who wish to eventually work as an orthopedic surgical assistant may take their program with a concentration in orthopedics. Topics may include trauma care, hand and upper extremity surgery, and pediatric orthopedic surgery. Clinical rotation takes place in surgical units; the program may entail an intensive residency component.||Orthopedic surgical physician assistant|
Courses in a Physician Assistant Master’s Program
Course offerings for physician assistant master’s programs may differ between schools. However, most tend to cover the same range of subjects. The following sample curriculum features topics common to most physician assistant master’s programs.
- Women's Health
Women’s health courses address topics related to gynaecology and obstetrics, including reproductive endocrinology, gynecologic oncology, and prenatal and antenatal care. Students acquire the skills to diagnose cardiovascular disease in women, plus knowledge in gynaecological examination and sexual assault diagnosis. The course prepares students to work as assistants to obstetricians or gynecologists.
Geriatrics courses address subjects regarding elder psychological development and long-term care. Students learn to help the elderly with issues including undesired drug interaction, organ failure, and communication issues. These courses prepare students to work as assistants in long-term care facilities, residential communities, and physician offices.
- Behavioral Medicine
Behavioral medicine tackles the effects of psychiatric disorders and mental illnesses. Students learn to understand and treat behavioral health issues such as depression, personality disorders, and substance abuse. This course prepares students to work in outpatient clinics and offices under the supervision of psychiatrists and other physicians.
- Clinical Anatomy
Clinical anatomy courses teach anatomical sciences in a clinical setting, providing students with an overview of human development and gross anatomy. The course may often come in multiple installments over the curriculum. Students leave the course with the pragmatic understanding of human anatomy necessary to assist physicians and surgeons with many procedures.
Orthopedics courses cover the logistics of repairing injuries to the musculoskeletal system, often with heavy emphasis on clinical rotations. Students learn basic skills in diagnostics, running tests, and surgical techniques. Students leave the course equipped to assist surgeons and physicians in a variety of invasive and non-invasive procedures.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Physician Assistant Master’s Degree?
Starting as an undergraduate, it takes five to nine years to complete your physician assistant master’s degree. If you already hold a bachelor’s, it typically takes two years to complete your master’s, but it may sometimes take longer. Physician assistant master’s programs generally require between 75 and 120 credit-hours. Physician assistant master’s programs vary in practicum and thesis requirements, which may also affect their length.
Part-time study may increase the amount of time you spend on your degree, but many working professionals opt for part-time course loads so they can continue working. If you have prior college credit, transferring it over may reduce the length of your degree. You can also expedite the degree process by choosing an online program, since many online degrees are available in accelerated formats, which allow you to take more credits at once and earn your degree in less time. Some online schools offer degree completion programs for a physician assistant master’s; these programs generally take a year or less to complete, and require only 35 to 46 credits.
How Much Is a Physician Assistant Master’s Degree?
Physician assistant master’s programs can range from $25,000 to $100,000 in overall cost. Several factors influence this tuition range. Graduate programs generally charge higher tuition rates than undergraduate programs, and four-year physician assistant master’s programs cost more than the traditional two-year programs. Programs accredited by the ARC-PA tend to cost more than those that aren’t accredited. Many schools offer discounted tuition rates for in-state students. Moreover, online degrees tend to cost less than on-campus ones, in part because they do not incur housing and transportation fees. You can also complete an online degree in less time than an on-campus degree.
The costs of physician assistant master’s programs vary widely. For instance, in-state students at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley pay $25,500 in total for their master’s, while in-state students at the MGH Institute of Health Professions pay $119,515. Students at well-regarded schools with accredited programs can anticipate paying between $40,000 and $70,000 for a physician assistant master’s degree.
Certifications and Licenses a Physician Assistant Master’s Degree Prepares For
- Physician Assistant Certification
All states require you to obtain physician assistant certification before practicing. A physician assistant master’s accredited by the ARC-PA prepares you to sit for your Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. The test takes five hours and comprises 300 multiple-choice questions. To take the test, you must apply and pay a $500 fee.
- Certified Orthopedic Physician Assistant
Physician assistants master’s graduates qualify to sit for the National Board for Certification of Orthopedic Physician Assistants exam. This online exam consists of 75 questions over two hours. This voluntary certification costs $450 initially, then $350 for each recertification.
- Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support
The American Heart Association (AHA) offers Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support certification, which often counts as acceptable continuing medical education. This program trains you in clinical interventions for life-threatening situations such as cardiac arrest. Training typically takes a total of 24 hours. ACLS training is available partially online.
- Pediatric Advanced Life Support
The AHA offers Pediatric Advanced Life Support certification, which generally counts as acceptable continuing medical education. This program trains you in pediatric assessment, life support, and resuscitation. PALS training is instructional and video-driven, and can come in partly online format that tests psychomotor skills in a hands-on session.
- Basic Life Support
The American Red Cross offers Basic Life Support certification, which usually counts toward continuing education hours for medical professionals. The course teaches students the basics in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), automated external defibrillators, and clearing airway obstructions. BLS training may come in a partly online format that tests CPR and psychomotor skills in-person.
Resources for Graduate Students
The PAOS advocates for physician assistants in the orthopedics field. The organization offers the Susan Lindahl Scholarship, which awards two $5,000 scholarships annually to physician assistants interested in orthopedics.
Founded in 1972, the PAEA provides resources for physician assistant educators. The organization offers a number of fellowships for physician assistants interested in education and leadership positions.
Established in 1968, the AAPA promotes the professional development of 115,000 physician assistants. The organization’s student academy offers students the opportunity to represent their program nationally in their Board of Directors, among other leadership opportunities.
Established in 1977, the PAF offers scholarship and fellowship opportunities as a philanthropic affiliate of the AAPA. It annually offers 26 $1,000 scholarships as part of its PA Foundation scholarship program.
The APAO advocates for physician assistants in the field of oncology. The nonprofit offers a $2,500 student scholarship to students interested in oncology at its annual conference.
Professional Organizations for Physician Assistants
Professional organizations offer students and graduates opportunities for professional development, networking, and job services, along with conferences and summits. Through events such as the American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants’ continuing medical education meeting in Orlando, these professional organizations allow professionals to advance in their careers and create a sense of community. Additionally, many of these professional organizations offer opportunities for continuing education in the form of webinars, classes, and publications.