How to Become a Physician Assistant

NurseJournal Staff
Updated April 18, 2023
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Physician assistants rank among the fastest-growing healthcare careers. Check out how to become a physician assistant and what to expect working in this field.
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how long to become

how long to become7-9 years

degree required

degree requiredPA Master’s Degree

job outlook

job outlook28% growth from 2021-31

Source: BLS

Physician assistants (PAs) are in high demand as the need for healthcare services increases. PAs can work in many different healthcare settings. They provide many of the same services as physicians, but their training takes less time and costs less.

Find out how to become a physician assistant and what to expect from this rapidly growing career.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants are licensed medical providers with master’s degrees. They provide preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic healthcare services with a licensed physician.

PAs offer many of the same services as doctors, like conducting physical exams and prescribing medications. They work in hospitals, physician’s offices, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, and community health facilities.

Many physician assistants and organizations advocate changing their title to “physician associates.” In 2021, the national professional group for PAs formally changed its name to the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) to better reflect a PA’s duties.

However, the AAPA stresses that PAs should not take on the new title until states adopt the necessary legislative and regulatory changes.

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Steps to Becoming a Physician Assistant

  1. 1

    Earn a bachelor’s degree that fulfills PA program prerequisites.

    Some graduate PA programs accept undergraduate degrees in any subject. But a bachelor’s degree in natural science, healthcare science, a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, or a specific pre-physician assistant program is the best preparation for graduate work.

    PA programs look for bachelor’s degree holders with a strong foundation in science and a high GPA, often 3.0 or better.

  2. 2

    Gain patient care experience.

    Most PA programs require healthcare experience as a prerequisite. Applicants should have at least 1,000 hours of hands-on direct patient care, although some schools require as many as 4,000 hours.

    Aspiring PAs can gain patient care experience working as emergency medical technicians or paramedics or licensed practical or registered nurses. Nursing assistants, surgical technicians, or similar positions can also provide the necessary experience.

    Keep in mind that these roles have different eligibility and licensure requirements. For example, working as a licensed practical or registered nurse requires passing the appropriate National Council Licensure Examination by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

  3. 3

    Complete a physician assistant master’s program.

    To become a physician assistant, you must complete a master’s level PA program accredited through the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). These programs, which take about 27 months to complete, include intensive classroom instruction, labs, and clinicals.

  4. 4

    Pass the PANCE.

    After completing a physician assistant master’s program, you must pass the physician assistant national certifying examination (PANCE). Then, you can apply for licensure in the state where you intend to work. Depending on the state, you may have to meet additional licensing requirements to practice.

Physician Assistant Education

PAs must complete an accredited master’s level program that takes about three years of study beyond a bachelor’s degree. A PA master’s program includes coursework on generalist medicine and at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.

Bachelor’s Degree

While PA master’s programs accept applicants from different academic backgrounds, a strong science-focused undergraduate degree provides the best preparation for graduate work.

Many aspiring PAs earned their undergraduate degrees in biology or healthcare sciences. Some students enter a PA master’s after completing a BSN program or pre-physician assistant undergraduate program.

The most common prerequisites for the PA master’s degree include coursework in physiology and anatomy, general chemistry, microbiology, statistics, and general psychology.

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    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or its equivalent; minimum 2.5 GPA; reference letters
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    Program Curriculum

    Aspiring PAs may choose from many undergraduate majors and minors, so the program curriculum varies. Classes in the sciences and health sciences offer students an advantage. Dedicated pre-PA programs may cover evidence-based practice, medical-surgical nursing, assessment, and pharmacology. Students also complete clinical placements.
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    Time to Complete

    2-4 years
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    Skills Learned

    PA master’s students learn writing and communication skills, master key concepts, build competencies in math and natural science, and refine their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

PA Program

You need at least a master’s degree to become a physician assistant and earn state licensure. According to the Physician Assistant Education Association, PA master’s programs have highly selective admission requirements.

The challenging curriculum, based on the same medical model as doctor training, emphasizes generalist medicine and primary care. It also covers basic medical science, healthcare delivery, principles of primary care, and medical ethics.

Most programs require 27 months of instruction and at least 2,000 hours of clinicals in hospitals and acute care centers, ambulatory clinics, physicians’ offices, or long-term care facilities. PA clinicals typically focus on primary care with rotations in family medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, and emergency medicine. Students can also pursue areas of interest through electives.

Of all healthcare careers, only doctors receive more clinical training than PAs.

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    Admission Requirements

    Bachelor’s degree and at least 1,000 hours of healthcare experience; minimum 3.0 GPA; prerequisites in chemistry, biology, physiology, and anatomy; personal statement; interview
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    Program Curriculum

    Physical diagnosis and patient evaluation; clinical lab and diagnostic methods; population/public health; medical ethics; clinical placements
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    Time to Complete

    27 months
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    Skills Learned

    Foundational knowledge of medical-surgical conditions; evidence-based medicine; team-based care; cultural competency; critical thinking and interpersonal communication

Physician Assistant Licensure and Certification

Before you can apply for state licensure as a physician assistant, you must pass the PANCE exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Only graduates of accredited ARC-PA programs can take the PANCE exam.

The PANCE exam, which you must take within 180 days of your graduation date, consists of 300 multiple-choice questions in five blocks of 60 questions. The exam covers medical content and task areas for entry-level practice as a certified physician assistant.

After successfully passing the exam and becoming NCCPA certified, you may use the physician assistant certified credential.

Working as a Physician Assistant

The shortage of primary care physicians increases the need for PAs. The mounting healthcare needs of the aging population and patients with chronic diseases also drive demand. The demand is so great that three quarters of PAs receive several job offers when they graduate, reports AAPA.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that PA positions will increase by 31% from 2020-2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. Among the highest-paid healthcare professionals, PAs earn a median annual salary of $121,530 as of May 2021, with the highest 10% earning more than $160,000 a year.

These healthcare professionals can find employment in almost every kind of healthcare facility, performing many of the same duties handled by physicians. Their responsibilities correspond to their specialty areas and type of work setting.

For example, PAs working in general practice alongside physicians conduct physical exams, order diagnostic tests, and devise patient care plans. Those working in surgical settings assist with pre-admission, intraoperative procedures, postanesthesia care, and step-down unit treatment.

PAs specializing in pediatrics may spend their time diagnosing childhood illnesses, prescribing medication, setting broken bones, and administering vaccinations.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Physician Assistant

How many years does it take to become a physician assistant?

Becoming a physician assistant takes an average of seven years. In addition to earning a bachelor’s, admission to a PA program requires completing 1,000-4,000 hours of direct patient care experience. Most PA programs take 27 months, or three years, to complete.

What is the quickest way to become a physician assistant?

While there are no shortcuts to becoming a physician assistant, the most efficient way to prepare for this career is to ensure you have completed all prerequisite coursework and direct patient care requirements before your master’s program.

Online and hybrid master’s programs may not necessarily shorten the time needed to complete the degree, but they may provide more flexible and affordable options.

How hard is it to become a physician assistant?

PA programs can be as challenging as traditional medical school. The fast-paced three-year curriculum builds on previously learned knowledge. Didactic courses test students regularly to ensure they learn critical concepts. Students can expect two or more exams each week with a mandatory test pass rate of a C- or better.

Rigorous clinical placements make it difficult to have another job. Strategies for success include maintaining good time management skills, studying with classmates, and taking time for self-care to reduce stress.

Do physician assistants get paid well?

Physician assistants make an average annual salary of $119,460, with wages ranging from $78,000-$164,000, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pay levels vary by work setting, specialty areas, geographic location, and years of experience.

According to the American Academy of Physician Associates, the highest-earning specialties in 2021 included cardiovascular/cardiothoracic surgery ($147,200), dermatology ($146,000), and emergency medicine ($129,146).

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Page last reviewed January 26, 2023

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