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What is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant, also referred to as a PA, is a medical professional whose responsibilities range between a doctor and a nurse practitioner. A PA has the education, training, and state-mandated, legal ability to treat patients without the direct supervision of a medical doctor. It is important to note that to operate as an independent PA, you must have the endorsement of a certified physician. And those who work for the government must be supervised by a physician more directly.

Some of the responsibilities might include providing physicals, diagnoses, treatments, prescriptions, and much more. The tasks will depend upon the type of employer. It is also possible that a physician assistant might assist with surgery, conduct research, and complete administrative tasks. Physician assistant jobs are one of the best jobs in the US healthcare profession. It is also one of the fastest growing jobs in healthcare. It is possible to find such jobs in hospitals, medical clinics, doctors’ offices, and government health facilities.

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Steps to Take to Become a Certified Physician Assistant (PA)

Anyone who wishes to become a physician assistant must have a master’s degree from an accredited PA program or a degree with at least the same equivalency of educational standards and requirements or higher. During a designated physician assistant program, you will have to complete academic courses and hands-on clinical hours.

This is modeled after medical schools, and the program could take up to three years if you participate in the program as a full-time student. You will also be required to complete a national certification exam, acquire state licensure, and maintain your certification through continued education.

  • Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

  • Step 2: PA Master’s Coursework and Clinical Rotation

  • Step 3: Pass the NCCPA - PA National Certification Examination

  • Step 4: State Licensure and Maintaining Certification


Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

To begin your path to becoming a practicing and licensed physician assistant, you must complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing or similar subject. In theory, you can have a bachelor’s degree in any subject. In practice, it will increase your chances of entering a highly reputable physician assistant program if you select certain undergraduate degrees, such as pre-med, biology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology, or sociology. If you do not complete a degree in these majors, you should be sure to complete all of the prerequisite courses that accredited PA programs require for the approval of applicants, such as anatomy, genetics, microbiology, organic chemistry, calculus, statistics, technical writing, and more.

Step 2: PA Master’s Coursework and Clinical Rotation

In addition to the appropriate bachelor’s degree, you will also have to complete a number of other requirements to be accepted into the best PA programs, such as the following:

  • Volunteer hours or work experience in patient care
  • Job shadowing a PA
  • Minimum GPA of 2.75 or 3.0
  • Community service
  • A passing GRE or MCAT score
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Background check
  • Drug screening
  • Life support certification

It is important to note that the entry requirements for accredited PA programs will vary. You can find a list of all approved physician assistant programs from the Physician Assistant Education Association. From there, you can determine the exact requirements your preferred programs expect you to meet. And keep in mind that it is possible to apply to several PA programs at once through the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants.

Once you begin a master’s program to become a PA, you can expect more in-depth courses in medicine. Most programs take up to three years. You can expect roughly two years of coursework and at least 2,000 hours in clinical rotations. Keep in mind that some accredited colleges and universities offer a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree combination program for physician assistants that can reduce the amount of time it takes to complete both degrees.

Step 3: Pass the NCCPA - PA National Certification Examination

Once you complete your physician assistant master’s degree, you will have to complete the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, also referred to as PANCE, issued by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Once you have successfully completed the PANCE exam, you are legally permitted to use the title of Physician Assistant-Certified, also referred to as PA-C.

It is important to note that you must pass this exam successfully within six years of completing your master’s degree. You will have the option to take the exam up to six times. If you do not pass within six years, you will have to complete another program entirely. And you must pass this exam to be able to apply for a state license. This is true of all states.

Step 4: State Licensure and Maintaining Certification

You cannot practice as a PA without state licensure. Again, you must pass the PANCE exam before you can apply to the state board for your license. The process to apply and to acquire a PA state license may vary from state to state. You may have to complete additional work experience under the supervision of a doctor, or you may be tested on legal procedures in the medical industry. Once you have state licensure, you must also possess a legal agreement between you, the physician assistant, and a licensed physician, stating that the physician will act as the supervisor of the physician assistant. This does not require that the physician be working at the same location of the PA at all times.

All PAs must maintain their national certification at all times. To do so, each PA must complete 100 hours of continuing education in the medical industry every two years. It is also a requirement to pass the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam, also referred to as the PANRE, once every 10 years.

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What Does a Physician’s Assistant Do?

The daily tasks and responsibilities of a physician assistant will vary greatly depending upon the employer, years of experience, state laws and whether or not they work independently from their supervising physician. Some of the responsibilities might include the following:

  • Physicals
  • Diagnose and Treat
  • Prescribe Medication
  • Preventative Care
  • Develop Treatment Plans
  • Interpret Tests
  • Review Medical Histories
  • Perform Procedures
  • Make Rounds
  • Assist in Surgery
  • Clinical Research

In many instances, physician assistants are easing the strain on some portions of the healthcare system. They are being able to remove the strain imposed on physicians of minor, preventative, and basic care visits by patients. Many PAs are more willing to be based out of rural and less affluent neighborhoods than traditional physicians. And they are easing the burden of pharmacies by being able to spend more time with patients discussing medications and prescription options.

It is important to note that a physician assistant is not the same as a nurse practitioner. A PA studies and trains to learn a comprehensive understanding of medicine in all aspects, and the higher learning model is centered around the models of medical schools. Nurse practitioners are educated and trained from a nursing perspective rather than a physician perspective.

Skills to Acquire

The skills of a physician assistant are unique in that they must have the bedside manner of a nurse practitioner and the medical knowledge and authority of a physician. Some of such skills include:

  • Humbleness
  • Handle Stress Well
  • Multitask
  • Detail-Oriented
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Superior Communication
  • Compassionate
  • Problem Solver
  • Emotionally Stable
  • Work Independently and as a Team
  • Confidence

It is also important to be aware of the challenges you will likely face that doctors and nurses don’t have to worry about as much as a PA. Many patients are still unaware of the importance and significance of a physician assistant. Some patients may feel frustrated because they do not understand this difference, as such they may insist on seeing a doctor.

This is when your patience and humbleness will come in handy. And, despite your extra qualifications, training, and education, some patients may not appreciate these aspects and belittle your skills and abilities as a result. As long as you are prepared to handle these rare circumstances, you will be successful.

Additionally, one of the most important skills for a PA to have is to be okay with asking for help from a physician. If you cannot ask for help, this is not the right career for you because a properly educated and trained medical doctor should have more knowledge and experience than you.

Alternative Paths

You must complete a physician assistant master’s degree program to become a PA; however, you can choose a few different paths to reach that end goal. Many people choose to change careers after several years in the working world to a healthcare profession. It is possible to already have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field and enter a PA program. You will likely still have to complete a number of prerequisite courses before you can officially begin the program; however, you will not have to complete an entirely new bachelor’s degree.

It is also possible to start with a lower degree, such as an associate’s degree in nursing, and work your way up to a master’s degree while you gain invaluable work experience. Many people choose this path as a way to be able to pay for their education and to pay for daily living expenses or to care for their children or a family member while they complete degrees. Many online programs are available for nursing degrees and PA degrees to make this option a far more viable option.

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Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


A physician assistant is likely to work at the same locations as medical doctors and nurses. You might find employment at hospitals, health centers, clinics, medical offices, or nursing homes. Today, it is also possible to find employment at other locations, such as corporate offices, schools, corrections facilities, daycare centers, veterans services, and much more.

Daily responsibilities will vary on the type of employment. The same is true of your salary. A PA salary is also highly dependent on experience, the town or city in which you work, and whether or not you have a specialty. You should prepare to walk and stand significantly more than in other professions. And some employment types will have non-traditional work hours.

Potential Career Paths

You can pursue a variety of job opportunities with a physician assistant degree. You might find that, after a few years of working as a PA, another field of medicine is better suited to your skills and interests. This could be in a less demanding or more demanding position. It’s also possible that you may find it difficult to find employment in some communities. Being able to have other possible career paths will help to make you more employable in both the short- and the long-term.

Medical Assistant:
A medical assistant performs basic and routine clinical and administrative tasks for chiropractors, optometrists, podiatrists, general physicians, and other health professionals.

Pharmacy Assistant:
A pharmacy assistant helps pharmacists with the various administrative tasks at a pharmacy, such as answering phones, taking payments, and stocking shelves.

Nurse Practitioner:
A nurse practitioner is similar to a physician assistant, however, they focus more on the nursing side of care than the physician side of care.

An emergency medical technician works in emergency medical situations that are often considered life-threatening. These medical professionals must be able to operate with a high amount of stress and a constant sense of urgency.

Physician Assistant Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Healthcare Admin $52,000 $68,000 $97,000
Healthcare Manager $41,000 $64,000 $101,000
Dietician/Nutritionist $36,000 $52,000 $68,000
Registered Nurses $45,000 $66,000 $92,000
Recreational Therapists $33,000 $42,000 $58,000
Nurse Practitioners $91,000 $102,000 $111,000
Veterinary Technicians $25,000 $35,000 $51,000
Radiation Therapists $53,000 $74,000 $99,000
EMT, Basic $29,900 $35,600 $50,000
EMT/Paramedic $22,000 $34,000 $55,000
Medical Assistant $24,000 $34,000 $49,000
Physician Assistant $90,000 $103,000 $113,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

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Career Outlook

The career outlook for a physician assistant is far more promising than most careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects this field to grow by up to 37% by 2026. This is far greater than nearly all other professions. This demand is in part due to the level of responsibility provided to a PA over a nurse and the fact that doctors continue to be in short supply, and the demand will continue as PAs are more affordable than doctors and can relieve the existing time burden most doctors face on a daily basis.

At the moment, the PA profession is not overly competitive due to the great demand for these professionals. Most PAs will receive several job offers once they complete their degree and pass their national exam. The median salary is over $98,000 and this will increase for those who are the best in the industry. Keep in mind that your salary is also directly linked to the town or city in which you work. If you live in a larger city, you might make more. If you live in a rural community, you might make a bit less.

Advancing From Here

The best opportunities for career advancement as a physician assistant is to specialize. You are already required to take continued education courses to maintain your national certification. It is a great idea to select various board certifications and program certifications to improve your pay and create a long-term career path. You can specialize in a wide variety of areas, such as ambulatory care, nutrition, orthopedic care, neurofeedback, surgical, obstetrics, and vascular health. If you complete a certificate program, be sure it is from an accredited college or university to ensure it is seen as legitimate by your employer and the state and remember that you can take these courses online.

It is also possible to continue your education and become a full physician. Again, you have to take continued education courses already so taking courses to become a doctor will only improve your skill set and your employability. It is also possible to pursue healthcare administration roles to make actual decisions about the overall healthcare of patients and the policies and procedures at various organizations, including hospitals, schools, and more.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need work or volunteer experience to be a physician assistant?

You will need to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam to become a physician assistant. Students must have a minimum of 200 volunteer hours or paid work experience in order to qualify for the exam.

What is a PA-C?

A PA-C is a physician assistant that has attended additional classes and passed additional tests to become certified. The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants Exam is required to become a PA-C.

How long does it take to complete the program?

It takes around 5 to 6 years to become a physician assistant. Most physician assistant jobs require a four year bachelor's degree, job shadowing, and volunteer work. Physician assistant jobs also require that you pass the PANCE and the state board for your license.

What skills are required to work as a physician assistant?

A physician assistant should be detail-oriented, good at critical thinking, professional, problem-solving, and have good communication skills.

What is the job outlook for physician assistant?

The outlook for physician assistant is good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistant careers are expected to grow by 31% from 2020 to 2030.

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