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How to Become a Physician Assistant with Online Education

how to become a physician assistant

Physician assistants are specialized professionals working under the supervision of physicians, providing help and support to healthcare teams. They work directly with patients, devise treatment plans, diagnose illnesses and injuries, and prescribe medications when necessary. And a PA also acts as the primary care provider in some healthcare settings.

Although this profession ranks among the highly sought-after and best jobs in the United States, many are unaware of this healthcare career path. PAs need specialized education, tackle advanced training and complete long clinical hours with extensive coursework. For all this hard work, physician assistants rank as one of the highest-paying jobs in the United States.

If you’re interested in how to become a physician assistant, this guide delves into the information you need and serves as the all-encompassing resource you need. Let’s get learning!

Physician Assistants Explained

Physician assistants offer frontline medical care to patients under the direct supervision of physicians. You won’t find a healthcare team without them. PAs function like doctors; they are responsible for diagnosing ailments, prescribing medications, examining patients, devising treatment plans, and writing referrals to specialists.

No matter their specialization, PAs are responsible for meeting with patients. They must communicate and research critical information and make decisions about patient management. They can work in various medical settings and specialties in roles such as the following:

  • Pediatric physician assistant
  • Orthopedic physician assistant
  • Radiology practitioner assistant
  • Anesthesiologist assistant
  • Surgical physician assistant

Physician Assistant Jobs and Responsibilities

Physician assistants practice and learn medicine alongside nurses, doctors, and therapists. They typically specialize in a medical discipline, such as:

  • Surgery
  • Family medicine
  • Psychiatry

PA responsibilities may resemble a doctor’s, but they are not the same. The main difference is that physician assistant education takes much less time than becoming a doctor.

Still, PAs can find employment options in clinics, hospitals, doctors’ offices, healthcare centers, or other medical centers. The prime responsibilities of a physician assistant may vary depending upon the state, service area, specialty, and place of employment. In urban areas, they may take on a much narrower role, exclusively sewing up incisions after surgeries or administering vaccinations to pediatric patients. In rural or underprivileged settings, a physician assistant takes a broader role, acting as a primary provider by:

  • Examining patients
  • Diagnosing ailments
  • Prescribing medication
  • Setting broken bones

How To Become A Physician Assistant – The Steps

If you want to know how to become a PA, check out the following steps and begin your rewarding journey in this highly sought-after healthcare profession:

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree
Step 2: Choose a Physician Assistant Program
Step 3: Apply to a PA School or Program
Step 4: Complete Your PA Degree Program
Step 5: Pass Licensing Exam
Step 6: Start Your Physician Assistant Career
Step 7: Get and Maintain Board Certification

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Most reputed physician assistant programs require a bachelor’s degree before admission, so having one is crucial.

Physician Assistant Courses

Undergraduate physician assistant education should encompass general chemistry, physiology, anatomy, biology, and other health-related science courses.

Types Of Undergraduate Physician Assistant Programs

It is preferable for candidates pursuing a career as a physician assistant to complete a bachelor’s degree in either science or a health-related field.

Do I Need Work Experience To Be Eligible For A PA Program?

Applicants for the most prestigious PA programs might hold 200 hours of direct patient care experience to qualify for the interview. Depending upon the nature of the role, paid or volunteer work may be acceptable. Experts recommend experience in healthcare shadowing for more flexibility.

How To Get Admission In A PA School

Admission decisions for a PA program are made by considering several factors: academic capability, maturity, decision-making skills, problem-solving ability, commitment to the profession, and more.

Step 2: Choose a Physician Assistant Program

Choosing a PA program requires extensive research and consideration. Students should consider factors such as:

  • Cost of the program
  • Location
  • Reputation of the institute
  • Curriculum
  • Student support
  • Available resources

Some other key questions to keep in mind when choosing a PA program are as follows:

Program Accreditation

An accrediting agency reviews the intricacies of a program periodically to ensure that it meets its standards and continues to do so. A PA program can lose its accredited status if it fails to comply with academic standards or closes or withdraws from the accreditation process.

How Long Does It Take to Complete a PA Program?

Most physician assistant programs usually take about two years to complete. Other options include accelerated options for dedicated students, part- or full-time options, and self-paced studies. Candidates should choose a program offering courses in a format suitable to their personal and professional needs.

Practical Training as Part of the Curriculum

Clinical preceptorships are an opportunity to attain real-world experience in various medical disciplines. Students usually complete 10 to 12 months of preceptorships before graduation in general surgery, behavioral medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and gynecology.

Experienced Faculty

Since a faculty is the face of a program, students can get an idea of its effectiveness by gauging its faculty members’ qualifications. Opting for a program taught by a faculty of qualified PAs is advisable.

Adequate Preparation For Licensing

After graduating, physician assistants must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to be eligible for clinical practice. A PA program’s PANCE pass rate indicates how well it prepares students for licensure and practical work life.

Step 3: Apply to a PA School or Program

Most renowned physician assistant studies programs use the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) for their application process. CAPSA allows candidates to apply to several programs with a single application form. Check out the following crucial questions prospective students usually have regarding this step:

Do I Need Letters of Recommendation to Apply to a PA Program?

Admission to most PA programs requires a letter of recommendation. Most prestigious PA programs require students to submit three recommendation letters: one from a physician assistant, one from a nurse practitioner, and the last from a physician to be considered for admission.

How Should I Prepare for a PA Program Admission Interview?

Students must prepare for this interview just like a job interview and be mindful of the following points:

  • Conduct thorough research about the program you are applying for and prepare to explain why you want admission into that particular program.
  • Prepare answers for commonly asked questions about your interest in pursuing a career as a PA, your academic and professional background, what a PA does, and any other related practical experience you may have.
  • Ensure that you know precisely where and when you are supposed to go for the interview. Arrive early, and bring along all the necessary documentation and requested materials.
  • Make sure you dress, sit, and speak professionally.

Are There Any Other Application Requirements for Admission to a PA Program?

Application requirements for PA programs usually vary from program to program but may generally include professional experience, standardized test scores, academic qualifications, background checks, etc. It is advisable to take a comprehensive look into a program’s admission requirements, so there are no surprises.

Step 4: Complete Your PA Degree Program

Physician assistant education offers a combination of clinical and classroom learning to prepare students for a brilliant career as a PA. Depending on the program, students may have to complete four to six terms of classroom instruction to advance to three to four successive periods of clinical rotations in various medical disciplines.

Although PA school may be challenging, it fosters excellent interpersonal skills, knowledge, professional behavior, clinical and technical skills, problem-solving abilities, clinical reasoning, and decision-making skills in a student, which influences their career growth.

Step 5: Pass Licensing Exam

Graduates from accredited physician assistant studies programs must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to be eligible for practice as a PA. Examinees can take up to six attempts to pass their PANCE exam in six years.

PANCE includes multiple-choice questions determining a candidate’s surgical and medical knowledge. It covers subjects like diseases, organ systems and disorders, and assessment. About 95% of the exam consists of medical knowledge content. PAs who pass their exam get their certification and can use the PA-C (physician-assistant-certified) designation.

However, they must secure state licensure to practice. State licensure requirements vary from state to state, and it is crucial to get detailed information before sitting for an exam. Students who want to know more can visit the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) website.

Step 6: Start Your Physician Assistant Career

It is time to start your career as a physician assistant officially. Begin applying for jobs! Physician assistants work in hospitals, clinics, private practices, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings. Finding employment for physician assistants is not arduous, as opportunities are lined up. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the job outlook for PAs to increase much faster than the average anticipated rate across all other professions between now and 2030.

How to Find a PA Job

Finding an employment opportunity as a PA is not hard. The American Academy of PAs hosts a specialized job board for physician assistants and several other website openings for these professionals. Many websites for hospitals and other healthcare providers also list job openings for PAs.

PA Work Environment

PAs spend their time on their feet. They meet patients, assist physicians, help in surgery, and complete several other healthcare-related tasks. PAs may have to work overnights, holidays, and weekends, but this depends upon their work experience, specialization, and place of employment. PAs may also be on call for extended periods during a day and sometimes consecutive days.

Career Advancement Prospects For a PA

Physician assistants can upgrade to advanced career opportunities as administrators, supervisors, researchers, specialists, or instructors. They can also shift their career to other relevant careers, such as nurse practitioners or physicians.

Step 7: Get Board Certified

PAs can pursue board or specialty certification after obtaining licensure to enhance their skills and knowledge in a particular domain. They can also specialize in hospital medicine, orthopedic surgery, cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, and psychiatry.

Physician assistants must possess specialty experience and licensure, receive specialized support from a physician, and meet continuing academic requirements to earn specialty certification. After completing these requirements, they must also pass a specialty examination and pay a fee to enroll themselves. As of early 2020, PAs had to pay $350, including a $250 exam registration fee and a $100 administrative fee.

Maintain Your Certification

To maintain their certification, physician assistants must pass at least 100 continuing education credits every two years. They must also take the PANCE during the tenth year of their recertification cycle. Physician assistants who do not pass this exam on their first attempt can retake it up to three more times.

Types Of Physician Assistant Degrees

Physician assistant education is highly competitive, typically requiring applicants to hold prior practical work experience for admission. Some options for attaining this experience include working as a paramedic, emergency room technician, medical assistant, or EMT. These programs cover subjects similar to those in a pre-med program. At the graduate level, students must have a bachelor’s degree in any healthcare-relevant field and almost three years of practical experience before enrolling in a master’s program.

PA Bachelor’s Degrees

Most colleges do not offer a physician assistant bachelor’s degree. Therefore, those who wish to pursue this career can opt for a four-year degree program in a related healthcare discipline, as mentioned before. Some colleges and degrees offer physician assistant concentrations and tracks to prepare candidates for a master’s degree program.

At the bachelor level, students tackle critical subjects such as pharmacology, psychology, physiology, human anatomy, medical psychology, and the principles of clinical medicine. They also develop fundamental knowledge of the PA profession, ways of administering primary healthcare services, and clinical medicine ethics. Students must take part in clinical components for hands-on experience by working directly with patients in a medical setting.

Some standard courses offered at the undergraduate level are as follows:

  • Professionalism and Ethics in Physician Assistant Practice
  • Principles of Clinical Medicine
  • Pharmacology
  • Community and Public Health
  • Principles of Emergency Medicine and Surgery

PA Master’s Degrees

The minimum requirement for graduation from a PA program is a master’s degree. A master’s takes about three years to complete, and the first half of it focuses on courses such as:

  • Management in healthcare
  • Policy and administration
  • Ethics in healthcare

Students spend the remaining time in clinical experience, developing the necessary critical thinking, problem-solving, and other interpersonal skills to function in a medical setting. Master’s degrees in PA studies require a thesis and a specified number of supervised clinical practice hours before graduation. Only students who hold a master’s degree are eligible for state licensure.

Some standard courses that universities and colleges teach at this level include the following:

  • Introduction to the Physician Assistant Profession
  • Fundamentals of Clinical Medicine
  • Pharmacotherapeutics
  • Pathophysiology
  • Research Methods for Health Professionals

Differences Between PAs and DOs / MDs

Doctors and PAs study medicine for years completing clinical rotations to be eligible for licensure. However, MDs and DOs spend more time in medical school and complete more clinical rotations to work independently, where physician assistants cannot.

Even with this primary distinction, both physician assistants and MDs/DOs study several of the same subjects and strive for the same knowledge. The curricula of specialized PA degrees are similar to that of conventional medical schools. The classroom and practical experiences are pretty similar. Physician assistants must complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotation in family medicine, internal medicine, psychiatry and pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, and emergency medicine.

Research shows that PAs make healthcare more cost-effective, efficient, and seamless. So, their presence helps boost access to healthcare. Contrary to popular belief, people do not choose a PA career after deciding to or being unable to pursue a career as an MD or DO.

PAs usually choose this career path to work with patients directly, collaboratively work with doctors, and positively affect the healthcare marketplace. The primary differences between PAs and doctors are:

  • Physician assistants work directly under the supervision of surgeons or physicians, even though all three professionals provide direct patient care.
  • The level of supervision and management physician assistants receive from supervising physicians depends upon the facility and state. In some cases, a PA’s responsibilities may directly coincide with an MD or DO.

Where Do Physician Assistants Work?

There are approximately 150,000 PAs licensed and practicing in medical settings across the United States. They work where surgeons and physicians work, but not all of them find employment in patient care roles. The job responsibilities may be non-clinical. There are roles for PAs in educational, research, and administrative settings within:

  • Hospitals
  • Private practices
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Nursing homes
  • Surgical centers
  • Community health centers
  • Mental health facilities
  • Armed forces

Physician assistant education covers specialized courses and subject matter, helping students build a career trajectory of their choice. Some physician assistants work in acute care or family medicine. In contrast, others work in pediatrics, oncology, radiology, and in some cases, even surgery. PAs can transition between specializations, and many PAs do just that. A survey found that 57% of physician assistants reported changing their specialties at least once in their career, and about 49% did so in the first two years of their practice.

Physician Assistant Job Market And Salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistants usually earn $108,610 per year. However, wages depend on job experience, specialty, and geographical location. PAs in educational settings typically earn less than those working in practical healthcare. Those working in outpatient care centers can make some of the top salaries of around $115,560.

Top Five States For Physician Assistant Salaries

Top Five States For Physician Assistant Salaries

  1. Connecticut – $126,320
  2. Washington – $122,710
  3. Alaska – $120,990
  4. New Jersey – $120,700
  5. Nevada – $119,570

Top Five States For Highest Expected PA Job Growth Rate

The US currently employs about 118,800 physician assistants. And the BLS expects these statistics to increase about 37,000 new PA positions. This job growth rate is expected to surpass the median across all occupations at 5%. Although job outlook and growth vary depending on the state and region, large rural populations likely add the most jobs.

  • Arizona – 57.1%
  • Utah – 54.5%
  • Florida – 49.5%
  • Texas – 45.4%
  • Virginia – 44.5%

Professionals with a physician assistant degree can support and replace the responsibilities of other medical professionals. Some other advanced healthcare and nursing degrees can do the same. Let’s look at healthcare careers similar to that of a physician assistant:

Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners must also earn a master’s degree and undergo advanced clinical training. Like PAs, these professionals practice in various healthcare settings. After completing a nurse practitioner (NP) program, they act as primary healthcare providers.

Registered Nurses

Registered Nurses are responsible for patient care in doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, etc. They must have an associate’s degree in nursing and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to attain the RN credential. Registered nurses may specialize in various disciplines, such as critical care/ICU, neonatal, cardiovascular, gastroenterology, public health, and medical-surgical.


Nurse-midwives are advanced practice nurses who care for women during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and the postpartum period. They undertake midwifery programs that take about three years of full-time study.

Clinical Nurse Specialists

Clinical nurse specialists are advanced nurses with expertise in a particular care area or patient demographic. They may also take on supervision or administrative roles.

Family Nurse Practitioners

Family nurse practitioners work under the supervision of a physician and might act as the primary healthcare providers to their patients. These professionals undertake an FNP program which takes about two to three years to complete.

Women’s Health Practitioners

Women’s health practitioners specialize in well-woman care from adolescence to menopause, particularly gynecology and obstetrics. Online women's health nurse practitioner programs usually take two to three years.

Psychiatric And Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners communicate with patients, make diagnoses, and treat patients by prescribing suitable medications.

Medical Doctors

Doctors diagnose and treat illness and disease. According to the BLS, the education and training requirements of physicians and surgeons includes a bachelor’s degree, along with a graduate degree from an accredited medical school. Then about three to seven years in internship and residency programs, depending upon their specialty.


Nutritionists advise people on eating healthy and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. According to the BLS, nutritionists, and dietitians typically undertake a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, clinical nutrition, foods and nutrition, public health nutrition, or a related area of specialization.

Explore Online Healthcare Degrees For Physician Assistants

Becoming a physician assistant is a rewarding career choice. The path is challenging, but the payoff makes the hard work worth it. Prospective PAs can go to school online and gain the skills to succeed. Many well-reputed colleges and universities offer carefully devised programs that will kick start your career as a physician assistant. Head over to to learn more and make an informed decision about your future!

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How To Become A Physician Assistant FAQs

What is a PA?

Physician assistants are healthcare professionals with academic and practical training similar to physicians and surgeons. PAs work under the supervision of physicians and can act as primary healthcare providers.

How long does physician assistant education take?

A PA school may take about three years to complete, depending on your situation.

Is PA school harder than med school?

Both types of schools require a four-year bachelor’s degree. PA schools take about three years to complete, whereas medical schools require four years of education and three to seven years of specialized training as a resident.

What is the difference between physician assistants and nurse practitioners?

Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are different in their nursing and medical care models and origins. PAs emphasize the medical model and philosophy, which focuses on diagnoses, pathology, treatment, and pharmacology. Nurse practitioners focus on an individual as a holistic whole, including their emotional, mental, and physical needs.