How to Become a Physician Assistant

Want to treat patients without attending medical school? Learn how to become a physician assistant and join this rewarding field.
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  • The healthcare system relies on PAs to enhance healthcare access and affordability.
  • PAs must complete an accredited program and pass the PANCE licensure exam to practice.
  • The need for PAs is projected to grow much faster than average between 2021-2031.
  • PAs earn high wages, making a median annual pay of $121,530 in 2021.

Physician assistants (PAs) play an important role in healthcare — and the need for them continues to grow. If you're interested in treating patients but don't want to commit to medical school, then becoming a physician assistant might be a good choice for you.

PAs practice as state-licensed healthcare professionals, working on teams that include doctors and surgeons. They provide patient care in most healthcare specialties and medical settings.

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Ready to Start Your Journey?

But there are some steps you'll need to take to start a career as a PA. For example, you must complete an accredited master's-level physician assistant program to qualify for state licensure. Keep reading to discover what it takes to become a physician assistant.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

PAs work one-on-one with patients to review their medical histories, order diagnostic tests, make diagnoses, and prescribe medicine. They stay up to date on the latest research to ensure high-quality patient care.

The demand for healthcare professionals and services will continue to grow because of an aging population. PAs perform many of the same duties as physicians but do not need as many years of training.

As a PA, you can work in primary care or family medicine. You can even treat patients in a physician assistant specialty area, such as emergency medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology.

But if you want to change your specialty, you can. According to the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA), PAs often change specialties to make more money or improve their work-life balance.

Physician Assistant Responsibilities

  • PAs examine, diagnose, and treat patients and work in a variety of specialties.
  • They counsel patients and their families about treatments and medicines.
  • They engage in outreach programs to educate the public about disease management and wellness initiatives.

Physician Assistant Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Physician Assistant?

You'll need a physician assistant degree to work in this role. But first, you must complete a bachelor's degree and gain work experience.

Once you earn your physician assistant degree, you can sit for the state licensure exam. Read through the following steps that outline what each requirement entails.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

You may need a bachelor's degree in a science or healthcare field for admission to PA school. Some schools welcome learners who studied other majors in undergrad, but you'll need to take prerequisite courses to understand the basics.

According to AAPA, PA programs require prerequisite coursework in subjects such as biology, microbiology, chemistry, and human anatomy and physiology. In a physician assistant program, you'll build on this knowledge with more advanced scientific training.

Pro tip: Plan early! Make sure your bachelor's degree includes the undergrad training necessary for PA school.

Step 2: Gain Healthcare Work Experience

Students often begin PA training with healthcare work experience as a nurse, emergency medical technician, or surgical tech. Many PA programs want candidates with about three years of hands-on patient care experience. But some schools require as few as 100 hours.

Some programs require you to shadow a PA or complete a similar experience to ensure you understand what the profession involves. This experience can help you decide if a physician assistant career is a good fit for you.

Step 3: Earn a Physician Assistant Master's Degree

About 77% of PAs in the United States have a master's degree, according to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). And only about 18% have a bachelor's degree, making a PA master's degree crucial for employment.

You can earn your physician assistant master's degree in about 2-3 years.

You'll take classes such as pathophysiology, pharmacology, and clinical laboratory science. And you'll get hands-on experience, completing about 2,000 clinical hours.

Clinical rotations familiarize you with primary care, as well as specialty areas like emergency medicine, surgery, and obstetrics and gynecology. Plus, a school may offer elective rotations so that you can pursue your interest areas.

Step 4: Pass the PANCE and Obtain State Licensure

PAs must get licensed to practice in the U.S. Plus, states require that candidates graduate from a PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

Before earning licensure, you must also pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), a multiple-choice exam administered by the NCCPA. Once you pass the PANCE, you'll become a physician assistant-certified (PA-C). PA-C signifies that you hold advanced clinical and professional knowledge and medical skills.

The NCCPA also allows PAs to add a certificate of added qualifications (CAQ) in one of 10 specialties, like psychiatry or hospital medicine, to their PA certification.

Step 6: Get a Job as a Physician Assistant

Once you're licensed, you're ready to start working as a physician assistant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects about 38,400 new PA jobs between 2021-2031. The aging baby boom population in need of advanced care drives this growth.

And did you know that joining a professional organization such as AAPA gives you access to professional support and job search assistance? AAPA has a job search website highlighting hundreds of jobs across the country.

About 51% of PAs find employment in physician offices and 23% in hospitals, according to the BLS. Job opportunities will vary depending on factors such as your location and the need. And consider adding a CAQ specialty to enhance your marketability.

Step 7: Maintain Licensure

NCCPA certification lasts 10 years. PAs maintain certification by completing 100 hours of continuing medical education credits every two years.

PAs must take the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam by the end of the 10th year. But you can choose to take the exam a year earlier. States may have extra requirements for PA licensure and recertification, too.

What to Know Before Becoming a Physician Assistant

Accreditation

The institutional accreditation process requires that schools pass a rigorous evaluation that proves their commitment to high educational standards.

Physician assistant education requires program-specific accreditation that ensures the schools meet national standards. Only graduates from ARC-PA-accredited programs can sit for the PANCE exam and move on to earn state licensure.

Cost

The cost of college tuition depends on a variety of factors, like state residency status. In-state tuition is usually lower than out-of-state tuition, and private schools tend to cost more than state colleges.

Most schools offer PA programs on campus, but you should explore online programs that may cost less. You must also consider other hidden college costs associated with your physician assistant education, including transportation, books, and daily living expenses.

Salary

Physician assistants earn a high salary. The BLS reports that a PA with a master's degree made a median annual pay of $121,530 in May 2021.

Keep in mind: Where you live affects your salary potential. For example, BLS data from May 2021 states that Rhode Island paid PAs the most, with an average salary of $146,880, followed by Alaska ($145,830), and Connecticut ($141,790).

What's the highest-paid industry? As per the BLS, the scientific research and development industry paid PAs the most, at an average salary of $133,830 in May 2021. Nursing care facilities followed closely with $133,550, and outpatient care centers paid an average of $129,910.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Physician Assistant

Is becoming a physician assistant worth it?

Yes. Physician assistants are a critical piece of the healthcare system, which is why the field is growing. PAs provide many services offered by physicians but need less time to train and start working.

As a PA, you can change specialties to increase your competitiveness and your flexibility. Many people also find the career rewarding because they help others lead healthier lives. Plus, it's one of the highest-paying medical jobs.

Are physician assistants in demand?

Yes. The BLS projects that jobs for PAs will grow 28% between 2021 and 2031. This is almost six times faster than the average growth rate of 5% for all U.S. jobs.

Opportunities will vary depending on factors such as your location, specialty, and industry. Areas such as New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Texas have among the highest employment levels for PAs, according to BLS data.

What education do you need to be a physician assistant?

To become a physician assistant, you'll first need a bachelor's degree and a strong science foundation. To qualify to sit for the licensure exam, you must earn a master's degree from an accredited PA program.

But many PAs also begin their careers with some healthcare experience. This may include working as an RN, EMT, or paramedic.

How long does it take to become a physician assistant?

Overall, it can take about 6-7 years to become a physician assistant. A bachelor's degree typically takes four years to complete, and PA master's programs require about three years.

Some physician assistant programs require no healthcare experience. Others require anywhere from 100-1,000 hours of experience, which will impact the timeline for training to become a physician assistant.

How much do physician assistants make?

According to December 2022 Payscale data, entry-level physician assistants with less than one year of experience earn an average of $94,140 per year. PAs with 1-4 years of experience earn an average of $99,820. And the average base salary for all PAs is $102,590.

Plus, Payscale reports that you can earn more money if you specialize in areas such as acute care ($111,350), emergency medicine ($107,510), or orthopedics ($104,090) as of December 2022.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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