A physician assistant (PA) is a licensed medical provider who works alongside doctors, surgeons and other medical professionals to examine, diagnose and treat patients. Why become a physician assistant? Many people feel called to become healthcare providers such as PAs because it enables them to make a positive difference in the lives of those in their community.
Now is a great time to consider a career in medicine. Use this career guide to discover the answer to the question, “How do you become a physician assistant?”
In This Article:
- How Do You Become a Physician Assistant? 6 Steps Toward Your Future
- Why Become a Physician Assistant?
How Do You Become a Physician Assistant? 6 Steps Toward Your Future
There are several steps to take in the process of becoming a physician assistant and earning your pre-physician assistant emphasis. From understanding the position itself to earning certification, it’s important to be aware of the path you need to take to reach your goal of being a physician assistant.
Step 1: Understand the Responsibilities of a Physician Assistant
Physician assistants work in all healthcare specialties, from pediatrics to geriatrics and everything in between. PAs work under the supervision of physicians, however, at some facilities, a PA may serve as the primary care provider. This is especially true in rural areas where there aren’t always enough doctors available. PAs acting as primary care providers still collaborate with a physician, who is usually present at the facility a few times a week.
Some of the specific duties of a physician assistant can include the following:
- Questioning patients about their medical histories
- Conducting physical examinations and review patients’ symptoms
- Requesting diagnostic tests and interpret the results
- Administering treatments
- Providing patient education and counseling
Licensed PAs are authorized to prescribe medications. The types of treatments they provide can vary from one state to the next. In general, however, a PA may set broken bones, suture wounds and administer vaccinations.
Step 2: Begin Preparing in High School To Become a Physician Assistant
If you are still in high school and you’re thinking of going into medicine or health science, you can begin preparing right away. Make an appointment with your guidance counselor to discuss your career goals. Your guidance counselor can help you strategically structure your schedule, which might mean adding more science and mathematics courses. Whenever possible, try to take electives in medicine-related topics, such as anatomy.
You can also bolster your college application by seeking out relevant volunteer opportunities and part-time jobs. Look into volunteering options at nursing homes and local hospitals. You can also check for volunteer openings at local blood drives.
You might even find an internship opportunity geared toward high school students at the county health department. Not only can this experience boost your college application, but it will also allow you to determine whether a career in medicine is the right choice for you and whether a physician assistant program is something you want to pursue.
Step 3: Earn an Undergraduate Physician Assistant Emphasis
It is necessary to earn a master’s degree to become a physician assistant. The pre-physician program is not required for a physician assistant master’s degree, you can also get your undergrad in biology. Some universities may offer a pre-physician assistant degree program, such as a Bachelor of Science in Biology geared toward aspiring PAs. This would be an ideal choice because of its focus on medical studies.
If your school does not offer a PA-specific bachelor’s degree, you can look for the next best option. Consider majoring in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, nutritional sciences or exercise science, for example.
In addition to choosing your major wisely, you may want to consider adding a minor. Some appropriate minors for future PAs include psychology, sports physiology and a foreign language. A foreign language minor can be is relevant because physician assistants work with patients of all backgrounds.
While working toward your bachelor’s degree, it can be helpful to look into internship opportunities and job shadowing experiences. These can strengthen your graduate school application while simultaneously helping you determine whether a career in medicine truly appeals to you.
Step 4: Acquire Healthcare Experience (HCE) or Patient Care Experience (PCE) Hours
After earning your undergraduate physician assistant degree, you’ll need to earn a graduate degree from an accredited PA program. Most accredited PA programs require applicants to demonstrate a certain amount of healthcare or patient care experience hours. The specific requirements vary, so spend some time thoroughly researching PA programs, choosing a few that would fit your preferences and developing a plan for meeting their prerequisites.
Step 5: Apply to an Accredited PA Graduate Program
The majority of PAs are required to have a postgraduate degree from an accredited PA program. More than 200 PA degree programs have been accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.
These programs offer a blend of classroom instruction and hands-on training. The curriculum varies slightly from one program to the next. However, in general, you can expect an in-depth study of the following subject areas:
- Human anatomy, physiology and pathology
- Clinical medicine
- Physical diagnosis
- Internal medicine
- Emergency medicine
PA students must complete multiple clinical rotations during their studies. A clinical rotation is much like an internship. It takes place in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital or nursing home, and it focuses on one particular area, such as pediatrics or emergency medicine. Students gain practical experience working directly with patients under close supervision.
Step 6: Earn Your Physician Assistant Certificate and License
After graduating from an accredited PA program, aspiring physician assistants must earn a certification. The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants administers the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE).
Aspiring PAs can take the certification exam up to six times within the first six years of graduating from their PA degree program. Individuals who do not pass the exam within those parameters must successfully complete an unabridged, accredited PA degree program once again.
Once you have passed the certification exam, you will need to obtain licensure. Each state establishes its own licensure requirements. It’s wise to check the licensure requirements and procedures in the state in which you plan to practice before beginning your physician assistant studies.
After you have officially become a certified, licensed PA, you’ll need to make sure that you meet all the requirements for maintaining your certification and license. You’ll need to complete continuing medical education (CME) hours and take a recertification exam periodically. Be sure to check the maintenance requirements every year or so, as they may be subject to change over time.
Why Become a Physician Assistant?
Now that you know the answer to the question, “How do you become a physician assistant?” you may be wondering, “Why become a physician assistant?” There are many compelling reasons to become a physician assistant, and every professional has their own motivation for entering the field.
Many PAs decide that healthcare is the right choice for them because they feel called to give back to others. It’s also possible that some PAs may have decided to enter healthcare after seeing how healthcare professionals positively affected them or a loved one.
Although the altruistic reasons to become a PA are certainly compelling, it’s also a good idea to consider job prospects when evaluating a potential career path.
As of May 2021, physician assistants have a median annual salary of $121,530, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 The BLS estimates job growth for physician assistants to increase by 28% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all professions. At this rate of job growth, employers expect to hire about 12,700 new physician assistants each year through 2031.2
Begin working toward an exciting career as a PA at Grand Canyon University. Apply to enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Physician Assistant program, which instills foundational skills and knowledge in key areas such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology and pharmacology. Click on the Request Info button above to learn more about our physician assistant emphasis.
1 The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Physician Assistants as of May 2021, retrieved on Feb. 2, 2023. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as physician assistants. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path. Grand Canyon University can make no guarantees on individual graduates’ salaries as the employer the graduate chooses to apply to, and accept employment from, determines salary not only based on education, but also individual characteristics and skills and fit to that organization (among other categories) against a pool of candidates.
2 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Physician Assistants, retrieved on Feb. 2, 2023.
Approved by the associate dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on March 10, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.