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.
Requirements to Become a PA
Because the word “assistant” is in the job title, it can be easy to assume that physician 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, but 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.
What Does a Physician Assistant Do?
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 a 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, some certain traits and characteristics 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, patient’s 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 diagnose and treat patients.
Add in a strong dose of problem-solving and you have the makings for a world-class physician assistant.
The exact steps on how to become a Physician Assistant can vary by state, some general guidelines are as follows:
Step 1: Graduate from a Physician Assistant Degree Program
Choosing to become a Physician Assistant is most often made while in college, but many prospective PAs who identify their career choice in high school may find additional educational opportunities.
While the majority of prospective PAs enroll in a Master’s level Physician Assistant program at a graduate school that has Accreditation Review Commission on Education for Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) certification, a small minority of students enroll in a five-year Bachelor’s/Master’s degree PA program which shaves a year off of the process.
PA students are expected to acquire a variety of academic skills necessary for success in a highly technical medical environment.
Basic courses in anatomy, biology, and organic chemistry can provide the foundational knowledge that will allow students to succeed in advanced PA courses like:
- Biostatistics and Epidemiology
- Patient Assessment
Step 2: Complete Clinical Experience Requirements
To demonstrate that prospective PAs possess the requisite proficiencies in a clinical setting, most states require that PA license applicants perform a minimum of several months of clinical work under the supervision of a licensed Physician Assistant. Applicants usually complete this internship experience through their PA degree program.
Step 3: Take the National Certification Exam
To practice as a Physician Assistant, you must take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.
If you do not pass the exam, you may retake the exam after 90 days with a limit of three times in a calendar year. The PANCE exam is a computer-based multiple-choice exam that costs $475 to take.
Step 4: Apply for a State License
The exact requirements to apply for a Physician Assistant license depend upon the state licensing body, but the majority of states follow a procedure similar to the following:
- Submit a signed and completed application
- Provide a check or money order for the licensing fee
- Request that all colleges and universities attended forward a transcript to the licensing body
- Request that the NCCPA forward a score report to the licensing body
- Request that any states where you have served as a PA forward verification of licensure
It is not uncommon for licensing boards to take four to eight weeks to process an application and issue a license.
Step 5: Maintain Licensure
To qualify for license renewal following the expiration of the current license, most states require that Physician Assistants complete a certain number of continuing education hours.
While this number may vary from state to state, to maintain national certification, licensed Physician Assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years.
6 Reasons to Consider Becoming a Physician Assistant
PAs spend less time in the classroom:
Doctors must work hard for their independence. They spend four years studying for their undergraduate degree from medical school and another two years earning their medical degree.
New graduates then face between three and seven years of residency before they can obtain their license to practice medicine or surgery.
Becoming a PA isn’t easy, but it takes less time than becoming an MD. Qualifications vary from state to state, but most physician assistants become licensed after completing a four-year degree followed by a 25-month accredited physician assistant program and then a one-year clinical rotation.
During this one- to two-month rotations, PAs are exposed to a range of specialties, including pediatrics and emergency medicine. Finally, students earn national certification and the license they need to work in the field.
That means you can become a physician assistant after around seven years of higher study – half the time some doctors take to earn their qualifications.
If you’re already in med school, the undergraduate degree you earned to get there means you can apply for the physician assistant program right away.
Becoming a PA is very rewarding:
Some individuals find that the work environment of a physician assistant is more suited to their personality. While doctors and physician assistants perform many of the same duties, PAs have a greater focus on patient care.
They don’t need to worry about budgets and bureaucracy, so a greater percentage of their time is taken up by the work that drew them to medicine in the first place.
Physician assistants also feel like part of a team. Doctors are leaders, who often find themselves running a department or practice. This extra responsibility naturally separates doctors from their co-workers.
PAs get paid well:
Physician assistants might not command the massive salaries of doctors, but they are still fairly compensated.
The median pay for a PA in 2017 was 104,860 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $66,590, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $146,260.
PAs have flexible careers:
Doctors train hard to get the skills they need to work in the specialty of their choice. But once they’re there, they’re pretty locked in.
An orthopedic surgeon who decides he’d rather work in pediatrics will need to spend several years receiving additional education before making the switch.
However, once you obtain your physician assistant license, you have the qualifications you need to work in any medical specialty you like. That means you can transition from obstetrics to oncology without heading back to the classroom.
PAs work shorter, more regular hours:
It can be tough juggling a personal life with the demands of being a doctor. These professionals often spend time analyzing a practice’s revenue and expenditure once patients have gone home, and they’re required to be on-call after hours.
PAs keep more regular schedules. They can work their required shifts and clock out without having too much spill over to their off-duty hours.
PAs have excellent job prospects:
We all know that doctors are always in demand, but PAs rarely struggle to find work either. Many clinics where surgeries are not performed prefer to hire physician’s assistants to save cash.
Busy physicians are often on the lookout for skilled physician’s assistants to attend to their noncritical cases.
The future also looks bright for physician assistants as this occupation is projected to grow 37 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the BLS.
As the demand for health care services grows, physician assistants will be needed to provide care to patients.
Becoming a doctor isn’t the only way to enjoy a fulfilling career in medicine. For these reasons, some people may find working as a physician assistant more rewarding.
You don’t have much to worry about if you have a passion for PA, all you have to do is to follow the steps in this article to fulfill your dream. You can also share this article with your friends on social media.
If you have questions bothering you, I believe the Frequently Asked Questions below will help.
FAQs on Becoming a Physician Assistant
: I already have a bachelor’s degree. Do I still need to complete all the prerequisites?
Ans.: Yes, all applicants regardless of undergraduate degree or major must complete all prerequisites before entering the PA program.
.: Does the PA program give preference to any major?
Ans.: No, the program does not give preference to any major. The most common majors are biology, and chemistry.
.: Will I be able to continue to work outside of the program while attending school?
Ans.: The Primary Care Physician Assistant Program at USC is a full-time program. Students are strongly discouraged to accept or continue outside employment while enrolled in the program. Students are not permitted to work for the program.
.: Does the PA program accept online/distance-learning courses?
Ans.: Yes, distance learning courses are acceptable provided they are equivalent in all dimensions (including laboratory requirements) to courses taught in ‘traditional’ educational settings (e.g., hybrid courses). All distance learning course credit must be provided by regionally accredited institutions of higher education.
: When is the application due?
Ans.: November 1st for both the CASPA and USC Supplemental Applications. However, early application (by September 1st) is highly recommended. Be aware that the USC PA program receives your CASPA application only after it has been verified by CASPA, which may take several weeks.
Additionally, your application is reviewed by the Primary Care Physician Assistant Program at USC program only after it is complete (i.e., we have received all 3 of these elements: CASPA application, supplemental application, and $50 processing fee).
.: What is USC’s GRE institutional code?
Ans.: 1416 U Southern California Keck Sch Med CASPA
: Can I enter in the Spring semester?
Ans.: No, the program admits in the Fall semester only.
.: What is the PA program’s GPA requirement?
Ans.: The expected GPA for consideration is 3.0 for overall cumulative coursework, and 2.75 for overall science coursework. The average cumulative GPA of admitted students for the Class of 2021 is 3.43.
.: What is the PA program’s GRE requirement?
Ans.: The PA program expects that applicants earn a combined Quantitative and Verbal GRE score of no less than a 295. The GRE must be taken within 5 years of the application deadline.
.: Is preference given to California residents?
Ans.: No, the program uses the same criteria to evaluate out-of-state applicants as California residents.
: Do all applicants get an interview?
Ans.: No. The selection process for the PA program is highly competitive, and only a portion of the applicant pool will be invited for a personal interview on the Alhambra campus. Interviews are by invitation only and conducted on a rolling basis.
: How old can letters of reference be?
Ans.: We will accept letters that are no older than 3 years from the time that you are applying.
: How many letters of recommendation can I send?
Ans.: A minimum of (3) letters of reference are required with a maximum of five (5) letters allowed through the CASPA application process. Additional letters will not be considered by the program.
Reference letters should not be from personal friends or family members. Letters of reference must be submitted directly to CASPA and postmarked on or before November 1st.
: If I am a re-applicant can I have the same person write a new letter of reference or does it have to be from someone different?
Ans.: Yes, you can have the same person write a new letter of reference for your application.