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Physician Assistant


According to U.S. News and World Report's 2014 "100 Best Jobs" ranking, physician assistant (PA) is one of the top 15 best jobs in America. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 30% job growth rate for the profession through 2020.

There are many reasons for the career's appeal:

  • The average length of a PA program is 27 months.
  • Average starting salary is $90,000.
  • It offers flexibility to practice in different areas of medicine without additional education and training

Physician assistants can practice and prescribe medicine in all 50 states and the District of Columbia (regulations vary by state) under the license of a physician and can work in a variety of health care settings. Although PAs are trained as generalists in medicine, they can also work in specialty areas of medicine. PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, preventive and therapeutic services, as designated by a licensed physician.

Working as members of the health care team, PAs may also:

  • Diagnose illness and disease
  • Examine and treat patients
  • Instruct and counsel patients
  • Order or carry out therapies
  • Order and interpret lab tests and X-rays
  • Prescribe medications
  • Record progress notes
  • Take medical histories
  • Treat injuries by suturing, splinting and casting
  • Perform or assist in surgeries

PAs also may have managerial duties, order medical and lab supplies and equipment or supervise technicians and assistants. While PAs practice under the license of a physician, they may also be the principal care providers in practices where a physician may be present for only one or two days each week. In such cases, the PA confers with the supervising physician and other medical professionals as needed or as required by law. PAs may also make house calls or go to hospitals and nursing homes to check on patients and report back to the physician.

To learn more, watch a video profile about physician assistants (located in the Health Science category).

Working Conditions

Physician assistants usually work in a comfortable, well-lighted environment. Those in surgery often stand for long periods, and others may do considerable walking.

Schedules vary according to practice setting, and often depend on the hours of the supervising physician. A PA's workweek may include weekends, nights, early morning hospital rounds to visit patients or being on call for emergencies. Physician assistants who work in clinics usually work a 40-hour week.

Academic Requirements

In order to practice, all physician assistants (PA) must graduate from an accredited PA program, pass the national certification exam and obtain a license in the state where they will practice. It is not possible to obtain a license without first graduating from a PA program and passing the certification exam.

When researching PA programs, you will find that requirements may include completed bachelor’s degree, science and other courses, minimum GPAs, healthcare experience or standardized exams.

Specifically, science courses may include but are not limited to: Anatomy, physiology, biology, microbiology or bacteriology, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics and genetics. Any or all science coursework can include a lab requirement.

Other required courses may include but are not limited to: Psychology, sociology, humanities, college-level algebra, calculus, statistics, medical terminology, speech, English, composition, technical writing or literature.

It is important to review the prerequisites of the program or programs you are interested in, as each program may differ in its requirements.

The number of accredited PA programs has increased from 174 in 2013 to 187 in 2014. Over 90% of programs offer a master's degree. The remainder offer either a bachelor's degree, associate’s degree or certificate of completion. 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 searchable list of PA programs via the PA Program Directory. The directory is updated annually in May and can be used to search 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.