How to Become a Physician Assistant

A female medical professional wearing a white lab coat has a conversation with a woman wearing a striped shirt.

Contrary to what the outdated nomenclature implies, physician assistants are not "assistants" but rather highly qualified patient care providers. More commonly known as PAs, physician assistants are a class of highly trained medical professionals qualified to diagnose and monitor patients, develop treatment plans, and prescribe medications in much the same way doctors do. They have one of the best jobs in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report's annual Best Jobs List. If you are hoping to launch a career in health care with a bright and promising future, you may find what you are looking for in a physician assistant studies program.

PAs' responsibilities frequently overlap with those of physicians. So do their skills. Like doctors, they study for years and complete many clinical rotations to qualify for licensure before working in hospitals, doctors' offices, outpatient clinics, surgical centers, emergency medicine and other settings. PAs work in one of the fastest-growing patient-focused health care professions, yet recent studies suggest many people are unfamiliar with the physician assistant career path.

If your goals involve working in medicine in hands-on patient care, and you desire to be a part of a satisfying and collaborative profession, you should also research what it takes to become a physician assistant. PAs spend less on education than nurse practitioners—for example, $114,670 for a program such as the University of Pittsburgh's MS in Physician Assistant Studies (PAS-Hybrid) program versus $250,000 to $330,000 for medical school. However, getting a master's degree is not all you have to do to become a PA. This guide takes a closer look at the traditional physician assistant career path and outlines a step-by-step approach to becoming a PA.

How to Become a Physician Assistant in Five Steps

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Field

Most PAs start their journeys by earning bachelor's degrees in one of the sciences. Some schools have dedicated undergraduate pre-PA programs, but these are relatively rare. While some universities may require specific undergraduate majors, most physician assistant studies programs have a specific list of prerequisites that a student must successfully complete prior to starting the PA program. As each program will determine its own list of mandatory undergraduate courses, an aspiring student should familiarize themselves with such specific required coursework prior to the time of their application to any respective program. The University of Pittsburgh, for instance, requires PAS-Hybrid applicants to have taken classes in:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • English composition
  • Human anatomy
  • Medical terminology
  • Microbiology
  • Psychology
  • Physiology
  • Statistics

Aspiring PAs who choose non-STEM majors may have to take additional courses not required by their undergraduate programs to ensure they meet the typical PA studies admission requirements. Some take these classes as electives while enrolled in bachelor's degree programs. Others take courses after graduation as part of a preparatory gap year before applying to graduate school.

Step 2: Acquire Health Care Experience (HCE) or Patient Care Experience (PCE) Hours

Enrollment in most physician assistant studies master's degree programs is limited to applicants with documented work experience that involves direct patient care or other clinical experience. Competitive physician assistant programs typically look for applicants with anywhere from 500 to 2,000 hours of relevant experience. The School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, for instance, requires that Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program applicants have a ​​"minimum of 500 hours of direct, hands-on patient care experience (PCE)." Consequently, Pitt PAS-Hybrid students tend to be:

  • EMTs or paramedics
  • Medical assistants
  • Nurse's aides or nursing assistants
  • Patient care attendants
  • PT/OT assistants
  • Registered nurses
  • Respiratory therapists or aides
  • Therapists

As suggested, these types of activities fall under two different umbrellas, and most programs are satisfied with hours completed under either category. It is necessary for prospective students to determine what specific types of hours qualify as PCE or HCE hours for any institution. To learn more about the University of Pittsburgh's patient care experience requirements or for a complete list of paid and volunteer patient care positions that meet the PAS-Hybrid application requirements, contact an enrollment advisor at PittPAHybrid@shrs.pitt.edu.

It is best to pursue the required HCE or PCE hours as early as possible. Some forward-thinking students work as EMTs, medical assistants, or occupational therapy aides while enrolled in bachelor's degree programs. Others take a gap year after graduation to amass health care and patient care experience before applying to PA studies programs.

Step 3: Complete a PA Master's Program

Most physician assistant studies master's programs last about two years and consist of two distinct elements.

PA students in year one complete a didactic or instructional core curriculum covering topics such as clinical practice fundamentals, pharmacology, working with patients, diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, health policy, and general surgery. Some courses include lab work that lets students practice hands-on care skills to prepare for clinical work. PAS-Hybrid candidates at Pitt complete the majority of the didactic synchronous coursework virtually and are only required to come to the Pittsburgh campus for three one-week immersive learning experiences spread over the two years.

Students in year two complete several clinical rotations, gaining thousands of hours of experience in multiple health care settings and specialty areas. Pitt has a dedicated site placement team that helps PAS-Hybrid candidates secure placements for the eight required clinical rotations. This team is actively working to secure over 2,000 clinical placement sites across the country.

Step 4: Sit for and Pass the PANCE

Upon graduation, aspiring PAs must sit for the 300-question, five-hour, multiple-choice Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) to earn the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Passing the PANCE and receiving the PA-C designation qualifies physician assistants to seek licensure in all 50 states with no additional training required.

University programs submit graduate information to the NCCPA, which contacts PA studies students to schedule testing—usually about 90 days before they complete their programs. The earliest graduates can take the PANCE is seven days after they receive their diplomas. It is best to register to take the PANCE as soon as possible because exam dates and location slots fill up quickly.

Step 5: Apply for State Licensure

Licensing requirements for PAs vary by state. The same is true for licensure fees and application timelines. Licensing boards in all 50 states restrict licensure to PAs who graduate from an accredited physician assistant studies program, but some grant temporary licenses to applicants registered to take the PANCE. Others require physician assistants to have NCCPA certification before applying for state licensure. It is a good idea to research the requirements in your state and prepare your materials as soon as possible—whether that is upon graduation or after passing the PANCE.

The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) keeps a list of state requirements for PA licensure and license renewal. In Pennsylvania, for example, certified PAs apply for licensure by filling out the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine's licensure application, paying a $30 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
  • A resume or CV

They must also complete approved training on child abuse recognition and reporting, pain management, or the identification of addiction and practices of prescribing or dispensing opioids.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physician Assistant?

Most PAs take between seven and nine years to complete their training, including undergraduate education. Some take longer because becoming a PA can be a long and challenging process. Others take less time because they fulfill the experiential requirement while enrolled in undergraduate programs. Timelines vary, but the typical physician assistant career path breaks down like so:

Earning a bachelor's degree generally takes four years but may take longer. It can take one to two years to amass the required HCE and PCE hours. Applying to master's degree programs can take an additional year because PA programs are very competitive. The average matriculation rate for master's programs for physician assistants in the U.S. is around 7%. Slightly more than 27,000 people applied to U.S. PA programs in the 2017/18 academic year, and about 8,800 enrolled in accredited programs.

From there, most physician assistant studies programs last 26.5 months, though some take three years to complete, and the University of Pittsburgh's 82-credit Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program lasts just 24 months. Studying for the PANCE can take an additional six months for aspiring PAs who want more time to prepare. Finally, some PAs who want to work in a medical specialty may spend additional time in a post-graduate PA fellowship or residency program before entering the workforce. A typical fellowship program lasts 12 months, but some are two years long.

Is Becoming a PA Worth It?

Following the physician assistant career path is an investment in yourself. While time-consuming and rigorous, PAs report great professional satisfaction upon program completion. Consider that most PAs earn more than double the national average across all occupations. The highest-paid 10% earn more than $162,000, and physician assistants who pursue additional certifications or education in specialty areas or advance in administrative roles earn more. The job outlook for PAs is also strong, and newly certified PAs can count on robust job growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), PAs work in one of the fastest-growing professions in the country. Employers will create more than 40,000 new jobs for physician assistants in the next ten years—a growth rate of 31%.

Additionally, there are opportunities for physician assistants in every medical setting and specialty, and in most cases, PAs can move between them without recertifying. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, "PAs are educated as medical generalists and recertify as medical generalists," which "lends a PA to having flexibility in their specialty." When researchers examined four decades of data, they found that nearly half of PAs reported working in multiple specialties.

Finally, PAs can make a profound impact in health care relatively quickly. Students complete the University of Pittsburgh's Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program in two years and start working soon after graduation. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. may face a shortage of 120,000 physicians by 2030. Physician assistants play a pivotal role in increasing access to care, maintaining continuity of care, and promoting patient-centered care in diverse health care environments.

Many states have adopted expanded scope of practice laws, suggesting the influence of PAs in the world of patient care will continue to grow. According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, "PAs are likely to continue to be used increasingly in a wide variety of medical practice settings in American medicine, including primary care. They have been shown to be clinically versatile and cost-effective clinicians, extending the services of physician practices and improving delivery of care to underserved populations, and have thus become an important component of the U.S. health care workforce."

Ultimately, becoming a physician assistant will let you make your mark in medicine more quickly and empower you to expand the boundaries of what is possible in health care. Many Pitt physician assistant studies alumni secure employment at top health care organizations such as Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins University Hospital, and NY Presbyterian. Register for an upcoming webinar or request more information today to learn more about Pitt's PAS-Hybrid program.

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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