A Guide to Physician Assistant Programs

portrait of Jennifer Lee
Jennifer Lee
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Jennifer is an editor with a master’s in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s in history from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She spent nearly 8 years working in South Korea, teaching students English conversation and ...
Updated on August 16, 2023
Learn more about our editorial process

www.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.

Turn Your Dreams Into Reality

Take our quiz and we'll do the homework for you! Compare your school matches and apply to your top choice today.

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.

Quotation mark

Featured Master's Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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.

Wages for Physician Assistants by Industry
Industry Median Annual Salary
Employment Services $114,780*
Outpatient Care Centers $11,740*
Hospitals (State, Local, and Private) $108,250*
Physicians' Offices $102,890*
Educational Services (State, Local, and Private) $101,730*

Best States for Physician Assistants (PAs)

Physician assistants (PAs) find themselves well-positioned for an exciting, high-earning healthcare profession, with salaries exceeding six figures in many locations. PAs rarely need to complete more than two years of schooling at the graduate level -- far less than many other healthcare professions at comparable pay scales. Opportunities for PAs abound across the country, as these professionals work in one of the fastest-growing occupations. In fact, U.S. News and World Report ranked physician assistant as the third-best job in the country, trailing only software developer and dentist. The article cited job growth, salary, and unemployment rate as a few factors in its ranking.

The ongoing healthcare boom has created high demand for advanced-level providers who can ease the burden on overworked doctors. New laws allow PAs to assume responsibilities once reserved for physicians. PAs now often staff emergency rooms and clinics, even performing as primary-care providers in some places. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), PAs can expect an excellent job outlook, with the BLS projecting PA positions to grow by 37% through 2026.


We began our ranking by listing the states in which physician assistants earn the most. We then accounted for how many jobs were available per capita in each of these states. Finally, we considered cost of living -- or, in other words, how far a PA's paycheck would go in each of the states in question. We used USA Today's 2018 cost of living survey, which ranked states by the value of a dollar there, to source this information.

Physician Assistant Master's Program Information

  1. Alaska


    Filled with natural beauty and vibrant small cities, Alaska offers physician assistants a quality of life unmatched by most other places. PAs in Alaska earn a mean annual wage of $116,460, and the state boasts the most PA jobs per capita in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    The Last Frontier suffers from a shortage of physicians, especially in rural and remote areas. Easing restrictions on nurse practitioners and physician assistants enables the state cope with this shortage. Today, Alaskan PAs practice as primary-care providers, work in emergency rooms, staff rural clinics, and visit homes. At the state level, the profession is noted for its favorable regulatory environment.

  2. Nebraska


    Nebraska scores well when it comes to the concentration of jobs for physician assistants. The state leads the country in PA jobs per capita in rural, nonmetropolitan areas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Like Alaska and many other states, Nebraska faces a severe shortage of physicians. According to a recent healthcare survey, the state harbors 13 counties without a single primary care doctor. Again, like Alaska, Nebraska has turned to nurse practitioners and PAs to close this gap.

    The state of Nebraska incentivizes the PA profession by offering low-interest, forgivable loans to students willing to practice in depleted areas upon graduation. These programs appear to work. Since 2007, the occupation has grown by more than 50%. Physician assistants in Nebraska do not make quite as much as PAs in some other states. The state's mean annual wage for PAs sits at about $105,000. However, their income stretches relatively far in Nebraska, which fares well in cost of living studies.

  3. North Dakota


    North Dakota gained a reputation for providing physician assistants with a great deal of autonomy. The state allows hospitals, clinics, and doctor's offices to determine scope of practice for PAs -- in other words, North Dakota lets doctors set the level of care for the assistants they supervise. The state places no restrictions on the number of PAs an individual doctor can oversee. This working environment helps the state attract and produce a relatively large number of PAs. North Dakota serves as home to over 35% more physician assistants than the U.S. average.

    A dearth of doctors prompted many of these changes, much like in other rural states. According to a report issued at the end of 2016, North Dakota harbored only enough doctors to meet 37% of its need for primary care providers. PAs stepped in to offset that shortage. Combine an autonomous work environment, relatively high salaries, and an extremely low cost of living, and North Dakota appeals to physician assistants nationwide.

  4. Wyoming


    A friendly work environment marks just one of the many attractions for PAs in Wyoming. The state boasts some of the highest pay rates for physician assistants in the country, plus a relatively low cost of living. Majestic mountain scenery, spectacular parks and outdoor adventure, fun cities, and cowboy culture all combine to give the state a positive quality of life.

    Wyoming allows local doctors to set PAs' scope of practice. It also permits physician assistants to prescribe medications and make other high-level care decisions. This freedom, and the respect it represents, creates a welcoming atmosphere for the profession. The state of Wyoming also encourages PAs with its loan repayment program, which forgives loans in exchange for work in areas with a shortage of healthcare providers.

  5. Washington


    With an annual mean wage of more than $120,000 per year, Washington leads when it comes to physician assistant salaries. Of the 10 top-paying metropolitan areas for PAs in the nation, three exist in Washington. In the Olympia-Tumwater metro area, for example, physician assistants earn a mean of more than $140,000 per year. The state offers a high quality of life and an exceptional work environment for PAs, as well.

    Washington grants a great deal of freedom to its certified physician assistants, allowing local doctors to define their scope of practice. PAs can also prescribe medications, including marijuana, and they work in orthopaedics, emergency medicine, primary care, and family medicine. Additionally, PAs in Washington recently earned the right to administer hospice care.

    With 2,300 PAs, Washington does not boast the concentration of employment that some others states enjoy. But it more than makes up for that in salary, cost of living, scope of practice, and quality of life.

  6. Connecticut


    According to a survey from ThePALife.com, Hartford, Connecticut represents the single best city in the nation for PAs. Measured against cost of living, housing availability, salaries, median rent, and available jobs, the small Connecticut city comes out on top. The rest of the state fares well, too. Mean wages statewide rank among the highest in the country, and PAs enjoy one of the highest-paying jobs in the state. PAs in Connecticut cities like Norwich, Danbury, and New London boast particularly high salaries. In Danbury, for example, these professionals earn more than $121,000 a year. PAs are also ranked among the fastest-growing occupations in the state.

    On the other hand, Connecticut PAs enjoy less autonomy than PAs in some other states. These physician assistants cannot prescribe certain medicines without state approval, for example. However, physician assistants still enjoy a high enough earning potential to build a nice livelihood in Connecticut.

  7. Iowa


    According to a 2018 study by the Des Moines Register, physician assistants represent one of the 10 fastest-growing occupations in the state of Iowa -- and among all the fast-growing jobs ranked, PAs earn the highest hourly wages. The profession is growing so fast that statehealthcare leaders worry that the supply of PAs will lag well behind Iowa's demand.

    As current PAs in Iowa retire, employers may scramble to hire replacement PAs on a large scale. Iowa City already serves as home to one of the highest concentrations of physician assistants in the country. Salaries remain relatively competitive in the state, especially in urban areas, and the comparably low cost of living in Iowa creates further opportunities.

  8. Minnesota


    According to a study by Minnesota State University, physician assistants represent the third fastest-growing job in the state. The career services report shows a projected growth of more than 30% across the Land of 1,000 Lakes through 2024. Not only is the PA occupation among the hottest at the moment, it also ranks among the highest paying. The career services study shows physician assistants making a healthy $53.99 an hour.

    Minnesota also boasts a friendly working environment for physician assistants. Legislation passed in 2016 removed many restrictions on PAs and gave them more autonomy. It also made it easier to set up shop in the state as a PA. The state is home to an abundance of PA programs at its colleges and universities, and it scores well on cost-of-living surveys, as well.

  9. New Mexico


    In 2017, the state of New Mexico made changes to its Medical Practices Act, allowing for increased collaboration between PAs and physicians. These changes make it possible for PAs to take in patients as primary care providers without direct supervision by physicians. This freedom makes New Mexico a welcoming place for physician assistants, and the occupation's growth only confirms that. Visits of patients to PAs, as opposed to physicians, rose almost 40% in 2016, according to a report from the Health Care Cost Institute.

    Salaries in New Mexico compare favorably to those in the rest of the nation. They look even better when factored against a relatively inexpensive cost of living. Famed for sunshine and scenic desert living, New Mexico always ranks well in quality of life. The state came in among the top 10 in a recent U.S. News and World Report study of the best places in the country to live.

  10. Michigan


    Michigan changed the laws governing the scope of practice for physician assistants in 2016. The state passed a healthcare modernization bill that afforded PAs both more responsibility and more respect. These professionals' ability to prescribe medicine grew, as did their stature relative to physicians.

    This added respect comes with another bonus: Michigan PAs earn more. Physician assistants in the lower peninsula of Michigan take home more than PAs in almost every other place in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The mean PA income in Michigan reaches $103,000 -- a number consistent with the U.S. mean of $104,000. This gives PAs plenty of purchase power in a state in which the cost of living is relatively low. This might explain why Michigan hosts a city with one of the highest concentration of PAs in the country: Flint, which boasts some 260 individual providers.

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.


  • Check

    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.
  • Check

    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.
  • Check

    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.

Admission Materials

  • Check


    Most applications ask for personal information and a personal statement.
  • Check


    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.
  • Check

    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.
  • Check

    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.
  • Check

    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.

Concentrations Offered for a Physician Assistant Master's Degree
Concentration Description Careers
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 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 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 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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Physician Assistants in Orthopaedic Surgery

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.

Physician Assistant Education Association

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.

American Academy of Physician Assistants

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.

The Physician Assistant Foundation

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.

Association of Physician Assistants in Oncology

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.

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.

Compare Your School Options

View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.