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Physician Assistant


According to Money magazine, physician assistant is one of the top 10 best jobs in America. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 38% job growth rate for the profession through 2022. In addition to the demand, the job is attractive because:

  • The average length of the program is 27 months.
  • The average starting salary is $90,000.
  • It offers the flexibility to move into different areas of medicine without additional education and training.

Physician assistants (PAs) are medical providers who are licensed to diagnose and treat illness and disease and prescribe medication for patients. PAs work in physician offices, hospitals and clinics in collaboration with a licensed physician. Because of their advanced education in general medicine, modeled after physician education, PAs can treat patients with significant autonomy within the physician/PA relationship. In the primary care setting, PAs can provide almost all of the clinical services that physicians provide, including performing physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses and prescribing medications.

PAs work together with physicians as part of an integrated medical team. PAs have their own patients and, under a written agreement with a licensed physician, make clinical decisions and provide a broad range of diagnostic, therapeutic, preventive and health maintenance services. The physician-PA team relationship is fundamental to the PA profession and enhances the delivery of high-quality health care.

Every day, thousands of people have access to quality health care because there are PAs in their communities. PAs are critical to increasing access to care for rural and other underserved patients, as they are often the only health providers in these areas. PAs made nearly 300 million patient visits and prescribed or recommended approximately 332 million medications were in 2008.

PAs also work in specialties outside of primary care. The PA profession is designed to be adaptable, preparing PAs to work with physicians in primary care or medical and surgical specialties and sub-specialties, as the need arises.

PAs are focused on patient care and may undertake educational, research and administrative work. Studies show that in a primary care setting, PAs can provide nearly all of the clinical services a physician does, including:

  • Taking medical histories
  • Performing physical exams
  • Ordering and interpreting laboratory tests
  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses
  • Counseling patients
  • Assisting in surgery
  • Setting fractures

Learn More About This Career

Working Conditions

PAs usually work in a comfortable, well-lighted environment. Those in surgery often stand for long periods, and others may do considerable walking. Schedules will vary according to practice setting or may depend on the hours of the collaborating physician. A PA’s work week may include weekends, nights, and early morning hospital rounds to visit patients. PAs will also be on call in case of emergencies for certain periods.

Academic Requirements

In order to practice, all PAs must follow these steps in order:

  1. Graduate from an accredited PA program.
  2. Pass the national certification exam.
  3. Obtain a license in the state they wish to practice.

There are no processes available to students to bypass attending a program to take the licensing exam to practice. When researching PA programs, students will find that requirements for entry into the programs may vary. In general, requirements may include a completed bachelor’s degree, science and non-science prerequisites courses, minimum GPAs, health care experience and standardized exams.

Science courses may include but are not limited to:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biology
  • Microbiology or bacteriology
  • Chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Physics
  • Genetics

Any or all science coursework may include a lab.

Non-science courses may include but are not limited to:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Humanities
  • College-level algebra
  • Calculus
  • Statistics
  • Medical terminology
  • Speech
  • English
  • Composition
  • Technical writing
  • Literature

It is important to carefully review the prerequisite course requirements of all programs because they may vary, in some cases greatly.

The number of accredited PA programs has increased from 184 in 2014 to 196 in 2015 and over 90% of programs offer a master's degree. The remainder of PA programs offer either a bachelor's degree, associate’s degree, or certificate of completion, all of which are acceptable to qualify for the certification exam, licensing and eventual practice. Starting in 2020, all PA programs will be required to offer a master’s degree upon completion of and graduation from a PA program.

The Physician Assistant Education Association provides a list of PA programs. The directory is updated annually in May and can be used to search and compare admissions criteria for each PA program.

The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) makes it easy to apply to multiple PA programs using a single application, one set of transcripts, one set of letters of recommendation and one personal statement.