There are several compelling reasons to explore the physician assistant career path—job security and high pay are foremost among them. However, there’s another reason to consider becoming a PA beyond the strength of the current physician assistant job outlook. The future of the PA profession is especially bright when viewed through the lens of career longevity. There is every reason to believe that demand for physician assistants in primary care and specialty medicine will increase as provider shortages disrupt health care.
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts there will be a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034. At the same time, the U.S. population will grow by 10.6% and there will be a 42.4% increase in the number of aging adults in the nation. PAs—a class of licensed patient care providers who work semi-independently—may be the key to alleviating a health care access crisis. They’re not doctors, but they perform several critical tasks usually performed by physicians such as conducting physical exams, counseling patients, creating treatment plans, diagnosing illnesses and injuries, interpreting diagnostic tests and prescribing medication.
The majority of work done today by the more than 125,000 PAs currently practicing in the U.S. is conducted in general and family practice settings. Physician assistants can also work in specialty settings such as dermatology, emergency services, hospitals, surgical facilities, outpatient care clinics, health education centers and psychiatric clinics. To meet the growing demand for health care services in the U.S., many states have already adopted expanded scope of practice laws designed to ease physician shortages by granting PAs more autonomy.
The change will only work if motivated medical professionals answer the call and step into the newly created jobs for PAs. Many nurses, EMTs and other hands-on patient care professionals who want to do more are unaware that they can start making a bigger impact in the lives of patients—and set themselves up for stable careers—relatively quickly by joining this profession. Students complete the Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in just two years and enjoy an uncommon level of opportunity and flexibility in their health care careers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the physician assistant job outlook is outstanding. Over the past five years, the number of physician assistants increased in all 50 states. The BLS projects that job opportunities for PAs will increase by 31% in the next 10 years—an astounding growth rate that adds up to more than 40,000 new jobs for physician assistants. By 2030, close to 170,000 PAs will be practicing medicine in the U.S. alongside registered nurses, doctors and specialists. The stability of this profession is notable. More than 10,000 new PAs earned their licenses and entered the profession during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
Not only did PA make CNBC’s list of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in the United States; it was also the highest-paying role on that list. According to BLS data, the median pay for physician assistants in the U.S. is about $115,000, and the highest-paid PAs can earn $160,000 or more. That makes the ROI of physician assistant education high. Aspiring PAs can earn the required master’s degree for about $114,700 in a program such as the University of Pittsburgh’s MS in PA Studies versus $250,000 to $330,000 for medical school.
The physician assistant career path has many branches because PAs can work in every medical setting and specialty. Looking at the breakdown of physician assistant careers by employer type and setting can help you decide what you want your PA career to look like. According to the BLS, 54% of full-time physician assistants work in private practices, 24% work in hospitals, 8% work in outpatient care centers and 3% work for institutions of higher education. Those aren’t the only settings that welcome PAs, however. Physician assistants also work in community health centers, nursing homes, mental health facilities and the armed forces.
Many aspiring PAs find the career flexibility available to physician assistants attractive. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, “PAs are educated as medical generalists and recertify as medical generalists,” which allows them to move between specialties without having to pursue additional training. Surveys find that close to 50% of PAs work in different specialties at different points in their careers. According to the NCCPA, 18.7% work in surgical subspecialties (e.g., orthopedic surgery, cardiothoracic vascular surgery and neurosurgery), 18.1% work in family medical general practices, 12.4% work in emergency medicine, 9.5% work in internal medicine subspecialties (e.g., cardiology, gastroenterology and oncology), 4.4% work in internal medicine, 4.1% work in dermatology, 3.6% work in hospital medicine and 6.7% work in either general surgery, general pediatrics or psychology.
Demand for PAs is high, but job seekers in this field must be aware that opportunity tends to be clustered in certain areas. The BLS and the NCCPA together provide a rich look into the employment of physician assistants at the state and local levels.
According to the BLS, these states have the most physician assistant jobs:
- New York (13,750 positions)
- California (11,490 positions)
- Texas (8,990 positions)
- Florida (7,310 positions)
- Pennsylvania (7,300 positions)
You may find more opportunities elsewhere, however. The BLS also tracks the states with the highest concentration of physician assistant jobs (i.e., the number of physician assistant jobs per one thousand jobs):
- New York (1.58)
- Connecticut (1.50)
- Maine (1.44)
- Alaska (1.44)
- North Carolina (1.43)
If earning potential is a chief concern, the BLS reports the highest paying states for physician assistant annual salaries are:
- Alaska ($150,430)
- Connecticut ($146,110)
- Rhode Island ($135,800)
- California ($135,180)
- Nevada ($134,710)
Where you want to work may determine which data you find most compelling. The NCCPA tracks the number of physician assistants engaged in primary and non-primary care in all 50 states, and the balance varies significantly from state to state. In Alaska, for example, 47.9% of physician assistants practice in primary care settings; this is the highest number for any state, while PAs who work in Ohio are more likely to work in other settings.
According to the BLS, jobs for PAs tend to be concentrated in these regions:
- Greater New York City (11,440 positions)
- Greater Los Angeles (3,880 positions)
- Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington (3,430 positions)
- Philadelphia-Wilmington (3,240 positions)
- Greater Atlanta (2,990 positions)
However, the cities with the highest concentration of physician assistant jobs are:
- Bloomsburg, PA (4.78)
- Muncie, IN (4.53)
- Augusta, GA (3.77)
- Fayetteville, NC (2.77)
- Ann Arbor, MI (2.70)
Meanwhile, the cities where physician assistants tend to earn the most include:
- Salinas, CA ($168,220)
- Waterbury, CT ($165,230)
- Portsmouth, NH ($158,020)
- Yuba City, CA ($155,830
- Santa Rosa, CA ($153,660)
To become a physician assistant, you must first earn a bachelor’s degree often in one of the sciences or a medical subject. Aspiring PAs often major in anatomy, biology, chemistry, microbiology or physiology. Some colleges and universities offer undergraduate pre-PA programs, but these tracks are relatively rare.
You must also accrue hands-on patient care experience. Most successful applicants to physician assistant studies programs have worked as EMTs, RNs, medical assistants, patient care attendants or physical therapy assistants. Some come from health care-adjacent fields such as clinical research, medical translation and patient advocacy, though only some PA programs accept non-patient care work.
At this point, you are ready to apply to a PA studies master’s program such as the PAS-Hybrid. PA studies programs combine rigorous coursework with clinical rotations that give students thousands of hours of experience in several health care settings and specialties. After completing the degree program, you will sit for the 300-question, five-hour, multiple-choice Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) to receive the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential.
You want to take advantage of the job growth in this health care sector, but the commitment involved presents a challenge. Perhaps none of the PA programs in the United States are within commuting distance or you want to attend a top physician assistant master’s program without relocating. Pitt’s Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program is one of the few hybrid degree programs for PAs. It allows qualified applicants to enroll in a highly respected MS in Physician Assistant Studies program without relocating.
The PAS-Hybrid pairs interactive virtual lectures by expert faculty with hands-on immersion opportunities and eight exceptional clinical placements within its network of over 2,000 health care settings across the country. The physician assistant studies curriculum focuses on developing health literacy and communication skills, collaborative practice and patient-centered care. Pitt’s Physician Assistant students also receive extensive training in society and population health, professional and legal aspects of health care, health care finance and health care system management. Ultimately, PAS-Hybrid graduates are prepared to take advantage of the projected growth in the PA field—and to push the edge of what is possible and drive innovation in health care.
The ARC-PA has granted Accreditation-Provisional status to the University of Pittsburgh Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program sponsored by University of Pittsburgh. 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.
Accreditation-Provisional does not ensure any subsequent accreditation status. It is limited to no more than five years from matriculation of the first class.
The program’s accreditation history can be viewed on the ARC-PA website at http://www.arc-pa.org/accreditation-history-university-of-pittsburgh-hybrid/.