How Long Does It Take to Become a Physician Assistant?

A medical professional ties on their surgical cap while wearing a blue face mask and scrubs.

There are several reasons people become PAs:

Physician assistants are essential providers who practice collaboratively with physicians. They diagnose injuries and illnesses, perform patient exams, order diagnostic tests, prescribe medications and treat patients with chronic conditions. Some PAs even work in surgery.

PAs enjoy career flexibility. Because PAs train as generalists, they can move quickly between specialties. They may pursue additional training or certification to reskill, but recertifying is not required.

They also report greater work-life balance than other providers. Consistent work schedules, job stability and financial security are just some of the benefits that let PAs maintain a healthier work-life balance.

Physician assistants earn competitive salaries. The average physician assistant salary is about $122,000. Top earning physician assistants typically work in outpatient care centers, earning about $129,000. The highest-paid PAs earn about $165,000.

PA studies master's programs cost less than medical school. Becoming an MD or DO can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $330,000 while PA students at the University of Pittsburgh PAS-Hybrid program pay about $114,670.

There's also the demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for PAs will grow by 31% between now and 2030. That's likely because physician assistants ease provider shortages in underserved areas and increase health care access. Like doctors, PAs practice medicine in all 50 states, across medical specialties and in every medical setting. Opportunities for physician assistants abound in hospitals, doctors' offices, research facilities, outpatient clinics and government institutions.

Taking advantage of this demand means investing the time necessary to pursue the training required to qualify for licensure. Most people are familiar with how long it takes to become a doctor. Far fewer know how long it takes to become a physician assistant simply because they are unfamiliar with the profession.

If you are interested in becoming a PA, you may be wondering how to begin—and how long it will be before you can start treating patients. The short answer is you'll need to earn a bachelor's degree and complete a graduate program for physician assistants, such as the University of Pittsburgh’s Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid (PAS-Hybrid) Program, which will take about two years. However, keep in mind there are prerequisites you must meet before you enroll in a PA studies program and that entering the field isn't as simple as earning a degree.

What Prerequisites Do PA Studies Students Need to Meet?

The answer to the question, 'How long does it take to become a physician assistant?' is complicated by several factors. For instance, before you can apply to physician assistant studies degree programs such as Pitt's PAS-Hybrid, you must first earn a four-year bachelor's degree. While some PA programs limit enrollment to applicants who graduate with specific undergraduate majors (e.g., health sciences), the University of Pittsburgh does not. Nor does the university require applicants to have taken the GRE. Like many universities with PA studies programs, Pitt requires that applicants take and pass specific prerequisite courses designed to prepare students for the rigors of the PAS-Hybrid program.

If you plan to pursue a degree in physician assistant studies, look for bachelor's degree programs that include coursework in chemistry, biology, physiology, anatomy, microbiology and statistics. Some institutions offer pre-PA programs, but these are relatively rare. Many aspiring physician assistants major in nursing, biochemistry, psychology, biomedical science, biology or chemistry.

In addition to meeting academic requirements, you must have 500 or more hours of hands-on patient care experience. All PA studies programs require that applicants have direct patient care experience (PCE) or health care experience (HCE). Consequently, PAS-Hybrid candidates are often nurses, EMTs, paramedics, patient care attendants, nurse's aides, nursing assistants, medical technicians, PT/OT assistants or therapists.

Meeting the typical PA studies prerequisites can take five to seven years. If you work as an EMT or in another health care role while in an undergrad program, you may be able to meet the prerequisites faster. However, keep in mind that applying to master's degree programs can add a year because PA programs tend to be highly competitive. More than 27,000 people applied to PA studies programs in the 2017/18 academic year, and about 8,800 matriculated into accredited programs.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an MS in Physician Assistant Studies?

Once you understand the prerequisites you need to meet to apply to a physician assistant master’s degree program, you can factor in the length of PA school. Most physician assistant studies programs last 26.5 months, though some can take up to three years to complete. The University of Pittsburgh's 82-credit-hour Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program lasts 24 months and starts in the spring term.

Pitt’s master's program is one of the few PA Studies programs in the U.S. to follow a hybrid model. It combines a didactic component featuring interactive virtual lectures with hands-on immersion opportunities and robust clinical experiences.

First-year PAS-Hybrid students complete three terms of coursework covering clinical medicine, pharmacology, diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, health policy and general surgery. The Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program curriculum is purposefully consistent with the Core Competencies for New Physician Assistant Graduates established by the Physician Assistant Education Association.

The program's second year helps students accrue hands-on health care experience outside of the online program classroom. PAS-Hybrid candidates complete eight clinical rotations in multiple specialty areas within the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences' network of more than 1,100 health care settings across the United States. These supervised clinical practice experiences include rotations in internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, family medicine and emergency medicine.

PAS-Hybrid students also visit the Pittsburgh campus three times throughout the program to participate in immersive learning and professional experiences. These immersions are a chance to put theory into practice, meet the physician assistant program’s award-winning faculty, and connect with other aspiring PAs.

Graduates of Pitt's MS in Physician Assistant Studies program confidently demonstrate competency in the following areas: patient-centered practice knowledge, society and population health, health literacy and communication, interprofessional collaborative practice and leadership, professional and legal aspects of health care, and health care finance and systems.

Does Getting Licensed Add to How Long It Takes to Become a PA?

Once you graduate from a physician assistant program, you’re one step closer to making an impact on patients. Next, it’s time to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). The multiple-choice exam consists of 300 questions (five 60-question sections) and assesses your grasp of general medical and surgical knowledge and skills. You have five hours to complete it, including a 45-minute break and 15 minutes for software training.

Because the PANCE is administered approximately 355 days per calendar year in Pearson VUE's 200 testing centers, scheduling and taking the exam shouldn't add more than a few days to your journey to become a PA. You can apply to take the PANCE as early as 90 days before your expected PA studies program completion date and sit for the exam as early as seven days after graduation. That said, some aspiring PAs take additional time to prepare for the PANCE after graduation—in some cases, as much as six months. Pitt students may not have to because PANCE prep is part of the PAS-Hybrid clinical year.

Once you pass the PANCE, you will receive NCCPA certification and can use the PA-C designation. After you have your certification, you can pursue full licensure. Requirements for licensure vary by state, but all U.S. states require that you graduate from a physician assistant master’s program that has been accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) or its predecessors. Also, many require that you have your NCCPA certification before you begin applying for licensure.

Becoming a PA in Pennsylvania

To become a physician assistant in Pennsylvania, you must graduate from an accredited PA studies program and earn your NCCPA certification by passing the PANCE. Next, you’ll apply for a license with the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine. This involves paying an application fee and submitting a clean criminal background check, a clean report from the National Practitioner Data Bank, letters of good standing, official verification of education and a resume or CV. You must also complete approved training in child abuse recognition and reporting, pain management, or the identification of addiction and practices of prescribing or dispensing opioids.

You can view a list of current state requirements for PA licensure and license renewal from the American Academy of Physician Assistants here.

Is the Time Investment Required to Become a PA Worth It?

In addition to the numerous reasons to become a physician assistant outlined above, there's the fact that becoming a physician assistant means you can do more good more quickly. PAs play a critical role in expanding access for underserved patient populations (e.g., the uninsured and patients in rural areas). In many cases, they spend more time with their patients than other health care providers—and they can do that and more for a smaller investment of time. Becoming a PA involves just two years of intensive graduate-level training in a program such as Pitt's PAS-Hybrid, including time spent in clinical rotations, versus four years of medical school plus three to seven years in residencies for physicians.

Autonomy, work-life balance, high pay, job security and demand are other reasons to become a physician assistant. If you have the passion and the drive to become a PA, the time it takes is secondary. Pitt’s Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program will equip you with the clinical experience and the confidence to lead health care forward while elevating patient health and well-being.

Are you ready to invest your time in making a difference in people's lives across the health care spectrum? Check out upcoming PAS-Hybrid deadlines or register for an upcoming online event to learn more.

Accreditation

The University of Pittsburgh PA Studies Hybrid Program has applied for Accreditation - Provisional from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The University of Pittsburgh PA Studies Hybrid Program anticipates matriculating its first class in January 2023, pending achieving Accreditation - Provisional status at the September 2022 ARC-PA meeting. Accreditation - Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding accreditation-provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.

In the event that the program does not achieve accreditation all students who have deposited a seat in the program will receive a full refund. The program will not accept the class until which time provisional accreditation has been granted.

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