How rapidly is the demand for healthcare services growing in the United States? Five of the nation’s ten fastest-growing occupations are in the healthcare industry. Physician assistants rank eighth, with a 27% job growth rate projected between 2022 and 2032.
There are many compelling reasons to consider becoming a physician assistant (PA). PAs perform many of the same tasks as medical doctors (MDs). They conduct physical exams and diagnose illnesses, prescribe medication, create treatment plans, and interpret diagnostic tests. They work in various settings, including private practices, hospitals, surgical centers, urgent care clinics, and mental health facilities. PAs also have the unique benefit of clinical flexibility—the opportunity to change specialties throughout their careers.
Becoming a PA offers a faster pathway to treating patients than qualifying as a medical doctor—a lengthy process that can take up to 15 years from undergraduate study through to medical school, residency, and licensure. How long does it take to become a PA? This article lays out the steps you need to take, provides an estimated timeline, and supplies a checklist of everything you need to achieve to start your PA career.
Step 1: Gain the Required Academic and Practical Experience (4-5 Years)
To become a PA, you must complete a graduate-level program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Before you can do either, you need to meet undergraduate curriculum prerequisites and acquire experience in patient care. Requirements vary by graduate program.
Qualifications for the University of Pittsburgh’s Physician Assistant Studies – Hybrid Program (PAS-Hybrid) include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution with an overall GPA of 3.0 in all college-level coursework. You also need a minimum GPA of 3.0 in the following prerequisite science courses:
- 1 semester of Anatomy with lab AND 1 semester of Physiology OR 2 semesters Anatomy with lab and Physiology combined
- Biology with lab designed for science majors
- Microbiology with lab
- Chemistry I and II
Most bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete. You may apply to a PA program even if your undergraduate record does not fully align with the program’s prerequisites. However, you will need to complete all mandatory undergraduate coursework prior to the prerequisites deadline.
In addition to completing the necessary courses, you must also accrue a minimum of 500 hours of direct, hands-on patient care experience (PCE). Work as a registered nurse, emergency medical technician, paramedic, medical assistant, physical or occupational therapy assistant and various other experiences can fulfill this requirement. The American Association of Physician Assistants (AAPA) recommends obtaining this experience as early as possible—concurrently with your bachelor’s degree, if feasible. Some future PAs elect to take a gap year to accumulate the necessary hours. Whichever approach you choose, remember to keep a detailed log of the hours you work to include in your PA application.
Step 2: Apply to a PA Program (3 Months)
Once you meet the requirements above, you can start the application process. To apply for the PAS-Hybrid at Pitt, you must submit an online application and the following supporting materials through the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA).
- Two personal statement essays: Your first essay should focus on why you want to become a PA. The second essay should reflect how your values and professional goals align with the mission of the PA Studies program and its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The AAPA recommends giving yourself at least a month to write and edit your essays before submitting them to CASPA.
- Three letters of recommendation: You need to submit one character reference, one letter from a PCE supervisor who directly oversaw your patient care hours, and one letter from a university instructor. Remember to ask for these references well in advance (up to three months before the application deadline).
- Proof of PCE: You will need to provide a list detailing your patient care experience hours.
Step 3: Sit for Interviews and Gain Admission (2 Months)
Once CASPA has verified your application, the university program director, faculty, and practicing PAs (all of whom sit on the Admissions Committee) will review your materials and award points for particular applicant criteria and characteristics. Applicant criteria include quality and length of health care experience, GPA, strength of personal statements, and quality of references.
If your application satisfies the Admissions Committee, you will be invited to interview for a seat in the Pitt PAS-Hybrid program. You will need to sit for an individual and a group interview. The individual interview tests your adaptability, conflict resolution skills, and technical and professional knowledge. The group interview focuses on your skills in active listening, leadership, articulateness, offering ideas, and summarizing.
Students admitted to the program must also review the PAS-Hybrid technical standards for admission and graduation, submit a signed form at the time of matriculation verifying their ability to understand and perform essential skills, and complete a criminal background check before final acceptance.
Step 4: Complete the PA Program (2 Years)
Physician assistant studies programs typically take 26.5 months to complete. Pitt’s 82-credit-hour PAS-Hybrid program is slightly shorter; it can be completed in 24 months. The program is split into two three-term years.
In the first year, students complete the didactic curriculum through interactive virtual lectures. They study anatomy and physiology, health policy, quantitative and qualitative research, clinical medicine, genetic and molecular medicine, pharmacology, surgery, and patient care fundamentals.
The program’s second year helps students build hands-on health care experience outside of the online program classroom. PAS-Hybrid candidates complete eight rotations within the university’s network of over 100 clinical placement sites, focusing on internal medicine, family medicine, emergency medicine, pediatrics, surgery, behavioral health, and obstetrical and gynecological medicine.
At the end of the second year, PA candidates complete an additional five-week course to prepare them for professional practice. This course combines instruction on practical issues with evaluation instruments that measure and verify whether the learner has achieved the program’s learning outcomes.
Step 5: Pass the NCCPA PANCE (Up to 6 Months)
Once you’ve graduated from your PA program, you must pass the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) PANCE. The five-hour PANCE exam includes 300 multiple-choice questions (five 60-question sections) and assesses your grasp of general medical and surgical knowledge and skills.
Because the PANCE is administered approximately 355 days per calendar year in Pearson VUE’s 200 testing centers, scheduling and taking the exam should not add more than a few days to your journey to become a PA. You can apply to take the PANCE before your PA program completion and can sit for the exam as little as seven days after your program ends. That said, some aspiring PAs choose to take up to six months to prepare for the exam after graduation. When it comes time to make that decision, you will have a pretty good idea of how much time you will need to get ready.
Once you pass the PANCE, you will receive NCCPA certification, allowing you to use the PA-C designation. You can then pursue full licensure in the state where you wish to practice by applying to the relevant licensing board.
To recap, here is a checklist of everything you need to accomplish to become a PA:
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree with an average GPA of 3.0
- Complete the prerequisite science courses with a minimum GPA of 3.0
- Complete at least 500 hours of patient care work
- Choose your preferred PA program
- Write two personal statements
- Obtain three letters of recommendation
- Submit an online application to CASPA and attach your personal statements and recommendation letters
- Sit for the PA program admissions interviews
- Earn your Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies
- Pass the PANCE
- Become licensed to practice in your state
Why Earn Your PA Master’s Online from Pitt?
As a qualified PA, you will be empowered to provide essential medical services to patients. You will assess patients, formulate diagnoses, order lab tests and imaging, and prescribe medications. And you will enjoy the flexibility to work in various health care facilities and settings, including primary care, internal medicine specialties, and surgical specialties. A PA degree should open a broad range of opportunities.
Students in the Hybrid PA program at Pitt can earn their master’s in physician assistant studies in as little as two years. The program design enables students to choose where and when they study. It combines interactive virtual lectures taught by top-tier faculty with three hands-on immersion opportunities on campus and eight clinical placements in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences network of various health care settings throughout the United States.
A nationwide shortage of physicians and other healthcare providers is driving demand for physician assistants. If you are ready to embark on your career as a PA, reach out to an enrollment advisor for more information and guidance.