How to Become a Physician Assistant
A physician assistant is one of the most important careers in the medical industry. While we often talk about doctors and nurses, a physician assistant plays a vital role in diagnosing and treating patients.
The role of a physician assistant is varied and diverse. They may meet with patients one-on-one in the morning and collaborate with a team of medical professionals in the afternoon. They may be involved in creating a treatment plan, or they may have a direct hand in administering medication.
By combining a wide variety of skills, PAs keep many hospitals and clinics moving in the right direction. They are well paid, have excellent job security, and work with people of all ages and from all walks of life.
Think you have what it takes to become one of the country’s leading physician assistants? Keep reading to learn more about this amazing career!
Requirements to Become a PA
Because the word “assistant” is in the job title, it can be easy to assume that physicians assistants don’t need a whole lot of education. Maybe a two-year degree, right? Wrong.
In most cases, a physician assistant will need a master’s degree from an accredited institution (two years of post-graduate education after completing a four-year degree). Essentially, you’re looking at six years of rigorous education in total to become a physician assistant.
Most applicants to physician assistant education programs will not only have four years of education, they will also have at least a year of medical experience. Admission requirements will vary depending on the specific program, but you can expect to need two to four years of undergraduate course work with a specific focus on a related science.
For work experience, many people entering a PA program will have worked as a registered nurse, an EMT, or a paramedic.
Generally there are five steps to becoming a PA:
- Complete your bachelor's degree (a science or healthcare related major is usually best);
- Gain experience either working or volunteering in a healthcare setting;
- Apply to ARC-PA accredited physician assistant programs;
- Complete a 2-3 year, master's level PA program;
- Pass the PANCE licensing exam.
What Does a Physician Assistant Do?
What is a physician assistant, anyhow?
As the name suggests, a physician assistant helps doctors, surgeons, and other medical professionals with a wide variety of tasks. They serve multiple functions that help the hospital or clinic continue to move forward efficiently. To help the doctor perform their work, a physician assistant will review patients’ medical information, conduct basic examinations, give treatment, and educate or counsel patients according to their needs.
While doctors commonly perform the diagnosis and create a treatment plan, physician assistants may be required to conduct these tasks depending on the specific job. In rural area, a physician assistant may be the primary care provider and merely communicate with a physician when needed.
A physician assistant will work in all areas of medicine, from primary care to emergency service and psychiatry. The amount of work they put in, and the amount of oversight needed from physicians, will vary depending on the job and state or regional regulations.
Should I Become a Physician Assistant?
To become a physician assistant, you need the right formal training and experience. However, there are certain traits and characteristics that will make you more successful and allow you to have a long, rewarding career.
First of all, you must be emotionally stable, as you will deal directly with illness, death, and high-stress situations. Maintaining a calm demeanor will help you get through the emotional rigors of a physician assistant career. You should also be detail oriented and work well with little to no instruction. However, you must also work well in groups, as you will need to collaborate with doctors, nurses, patients, patients' families, surgeons, and medical professionals of all types.
Throughout your career, a strong sense of compassion will help you be the best physician assistant possible. You need to help solve people’s medical problems, and being able to listen with genuine kindness will help you clearly diagnose and treat patients. Add in a strong dose of problem solving and you have the makings for a world-class physician assistant.
Physician Assistant Education
We briefly explored a physician assistant education path, but now we’d like to take a deeper look at this topic to help you understand the details of getting the right education to become a PA.
Step 1: Four-Year Science or Medical Degree
Almost all prospective physician assistants will have completed a four-year (bachelor's) degree in a related science before entering a PA degree program. Technically, a prospective physician assistant can have a four-year undergraduate degree in any field, but you will be better served if you choose something that closely relates to medicine or science. Ensure your bachelor's degree is regionally accredited in order to make your application to graduate school as seamless as possible.
Common undergraduate degrees for physician assistants include:
Step 2: Physician Assistant Program
You must ensure that your physician assistant program is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Asssistant (ARC-PA). View a list of accredited programs here.
Most physician assistant programs will take two to three years to complete. During your years of study, you will learn more detailed and focused information about health, medication, anatomy, and the health care industry. Throughout your classes, you will get both medical science and clinical experience, with courses covering diagnosis techniques, emergency medicine, pharmacology, and pathology, and well as many other topics.
Around the second year of studies, you will begin to focus on even more detailed topics, such as general surgery, gynecology, and behavioral medicine. Once you complete the physician assistant education, you should be well prepared to pass the licensing exam and become a full-fledged physician assistant.
Online Physician Assistant Programs
One of the best options for becoming a physician assistant is to seek your education online. There are many top-notch online programs that can prepare you for this rewarding career, and most are built to fit the busy schedule of a working professional or single parent.
Admission requirements will vary depending on the specific program. However, you can expect the programs (at least the high-quality, ARC-PA accredited programs, which is what you should be seeking) to require at least a 2.75 GPA from previous studies, if not a 3.0.
Other admission requirements will include some or all of the following:
- Pre-requisite courses in General Chemistry I with lab, General Chemistry II with lab, Organic Chemistry with lab, Human Anatomy or Anatomy and Physiology I, Human Physiology or Anatomy & Physiology II, General Biology with lab, Biochemistry, Microbiology with lab, College Algebra or Statistics, Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Anthropology or Sociology, Medical Terminology
- Patient care experience gained via work or volunteer time as a CNA, EMT, CMA, medical technician, or in hospice care
- Shadowing of a physican assistant
- Community service
- GRE scores
- Admission essay
- In-person interview
- Letter(s) of recommendation from previous instructors or medical professionals
- Previous experience in the medical profession
- Basic life support certification
- Background check
- Drug screening
Best Online PA Programs
There are many fantastic online programs that deliver a high-quality physician assistant education, but these are our three favorites.
The University of Kentucky
UK doesn’t just have an elite basketball program, they also have some of the finest medical degrees in the industry, including a comprehensive online master’s degree for physician assistants. During this program, students will take courses that include Integrative Care, Geriatric Medicine, and Clinical Methods. They will also be required to complete two Master’s Projects. This program is organized in a “hybrid” format, meaning you will have in-person and online requirements. To complete the program, you will have to finish 55 credit hours of courses and complete a clinical year, which consists of 38 credit hours. The program is designed to be completed in 30 months—18 months of coursework and 12 months of clinical work. UK is ARC-PA accredited and the PANCE pass rate of the 2015 graduating class was 96%. GRE scores are required for admission. There are no score minimums but the average score from the most recent accepted class was: Verbal 152, Quantitative 151, and Analytical 4.0.
A.T. Still University
This university lays claim as the world’s first osteopathic medical school. It is a private, not-for-profit institution that offers a wide variety of online degrees, including an Advanced Master of Science Physicians' Assistant program. This program is ARC-PA accredited and takes 26 months to complete. To enter, applicants are required to have three letters of recommendations, which can be provided by employers, faculty members, or health care practitioners. The NCCPA pass rate of the 2016 PA program graduates was 92%. The online PA program at A.T. Still University is also hybrid, meaning that there is an in-person clinical component of the program where students will complete clinical rotations in various disciplines under the supervision of instructors and hospital staff. This program does not require the GRE for admission but does recommend a minimum of 100 community service hours.
Drexel University's program is a post-professional online physician assistant degree program, meaning it is for those who have already graduated from an ARC-PA accredited PA program. Why did we include it here? Drexel University has been a leader in medical education for over 100 years and the online programs are taught by the exact same faculty as the on-campus programs ensuring the highest education quality. This program is well suited for practicing PAs that want to launch their careers to the highest potential. Best of all, this program can be completed entirely online, giving you convenient access to all the classes while allowing you to take the program at your schedule. This master’s program requires a GPA of 3.0 before entering, as well as two letters of recommendation and a personal essay. Drexel University's online PA program is also ARC-PA accredited and total cost is under $35,000!
Getting Licensed as a Physician Assistant
No matter where you live in the United States, you will be required to complete specific licensing to become a physician assistant. All states and the District of Columbia will have their own licensing system, so the specifics may vary, but you will be required to complete this step regardless of location. Therefore, after graduation, you will need to complete the licensing requirements to become legally eligible to work as a physician assistant.
All candidates for physician assistant careers will need to complete the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, also called PANCE, which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. When you pass this exam, you can legally use the designation Physician Assistant-Certified, or “PA-C” for short.
To even be eligible for the exam, you will have to graduate from an accredited school. To take the test, you will have to submit an application and a $500 payment in advance. You may schedule the exam anytime within the 180 days after payment.
The examination will involve many different topics related to the profession. The test takes five hours to complete and includes 300 multiple-choice questions that are given in five blocks of 60 questions. You will also have an allotment of 45 minutes total for breaks during your testing.
You will have six years after completing schooling to pass the exam. During these six years, you may take the test up to six times if needed. If you take the test six times and fail, or if the six years after graduation is completed, you will be ineligible to take the test again. If this happens, you will have to complete an unabridged program all over again to become eligible. In other words, study hard, focus during your studies, and learn as much as possible so you pass the test quickly.
In addition to the examination for licensing, state law will require a physician assistant to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. This agreement will include required collaboration between the assistant and the physician, although the doctor does not need to be working on site with the assistant at all times.
Throughout your career, you will need to continually educate yourself on the latest techniques and information about the physician assistant profession. This is a good idea in all careers, but in the career of a physician assistant, it is actually required. To maintain certification, you must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years, and you must re-certify every ten years.
Building a Career as a Physician Assistant
Your career as a physician assistant can lead you down many different paths, allowing you to move into careers that have more responsibility, more training, and an even higher income. The obvious step for most physician assistant is to pursue their doctorate and become a physician themselves. You can also branch into specific areas of expertise, such as surgery, cardiology, urology, or some other form of medical expertise. As you gain experience in the medical profession, you will have a more opportunities for moving into different careers.
Are you thinking about a career as a physician assistant but aren’t quite sure if it’s the right fit for your needs? There are actually a lot of careers that have similar requirements and expectations, and one could be the right choice for you.
Similar careers include anything that involves the medical profession, including medical assistants, pharmacy assistants, and physical therapy assistants. The good news for these careers is that they can be entered with as little as a two-year degree, making them more attractive to many people who are just starting a college education and want to dive into a career faster. The downside, of course, is that with less education comes a decreased chance of high pay. Other careers that offer similar education levels and higher pay include nurse practitioner, registered nurse, or doctor.
Physician Assistant Salary & Job Outlook
While every student needs to consider factors like personal goals, passions, interests, and traits, you should always take a look at the numbers when it comes to expected salary and future available jobs.
How much does a physician assistant make? Fortunately, if you complete the steps to becoming a PA, you can expect to make a strong income while having a very stable and in-demand career. According to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistants make an average of over $98,000 per year, and the best in the business can expect to make even more. The top 10% of PAs average almost $140,000 a year, giving them a strong income for many years. Even the lowest 10% average about $62,000 a year, which is well above the $36,200 national average for all jobs.
The expected job growth makes the career even more interesting. The BLS says that physician assistant jobs will grow by a whopping 30% between 2014 and 2024. To put this in perspective, jobs that deal with diagnosing and treating health issues will grow by 17%, while the total across-the-board job growth will be about 7%. So not only can you expect a fantastic income, you will have a great chance at landing and keeping a job for your entire working career.
While every area of the country needs physician assistants, some areas offer better opportunities. High-population states, including New York, California, and Texas, obviously have many opportunities for physician assistants, but Maine actually has the highest concentration for this career. The BLS says that Maine holds 1.59 physician assistant jobs for every 1,000 workers. Maine also has a high annual mean wage, sitting at $102,550. However, for specific metro areas, Rochester, Minnesota, which is home to the world-famous Mayo Clinic, has the highest concentration of physician assistants with 2.59 for every 1,000 workers.
Becoming a physician assistant takes time, effort, and dedication, but results in a prosperous and rewarding career.
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