How to Become a Physician Assistant

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Physician assistants, or PAs, collaborate with teams of physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare professionals in addition to diagnosing and treating patients. Jobs for PAs are projected to grow 30% between 2014 – 2024, a relatively high growth rate compared to other occupations. With a median salary of nearly $100,000, a career as a PA could be a great alternative for those interested in healthcare but unsure about the extensive commitment that comes with medical school. Read on to figure out how to successfully break into this rewarding field!

Step 1: Take prerequisites and gain healthcare experience.

If a PA career is something you might be interested in, start looking into the application requirements as early as possible – ideally during your freshman year of college. Similar to premedical studies, PA prerequisites generally consist of at least two years of college coursework in relevant sciences. In particular, most PA programs require fundamental courses in the following:

  • Chemistry
  • Physiology
  • Anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Biology

Specific PA programs may have additional requirements, so take the time to research programs that interest you and find out what they expect from applicants. In addition to fulfilling academic prerequisites, you should also find opportunities to gain extensive hands-on experience in the health field – this is the key to figuring out whether pursuing a career in health is the right path for you. Anything from a position as a lab assistant to working as a paramedic can give you valuable insights into the world of healthcare.

Step 2: Attend an accredited PA program.

The majority of PA programs are 3 years in length and award master’s degrees upon completion. As a PA student, you’ll take a variety of challenging courses ranging from anatomy to physical diagnosis and medical ethics.

On top of academic studies, you’ll also complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, with an emphasis on primary care in various medical facilities. Your rotations may include family medicine, internal medicine, OB/GYN, pediatrics, and other health fields.

Step 3: Become PA certified.

Upon graduating from an accredited PA program, you will need to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). The material covered on the exam can be organized into two categories:

  1. Organ systems and the diseases, disorders and medical assessments PAs encounter within those systems; and
  2. The knowledge and skills PAs should exhibit when confronted with those diseases, disorders and assessments.

Once you’ve passed the certification test, you may use the title PA-C (Physician Assistant-Certified). Graduation from an accredited program and subsequent certification are both required in order to obtain a PA license in all states.

Step 4: Obtain a state license.

You must apply for a state PA license in order to practice, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your state’s licensing requirements ahead of time. This will allow you to plan accordingly to ensure that you meet all the necessary requirements by the time you are ready to apply for licensure. Requirements for license renewal can also differ by state.

Step 5: Maintain certification.

To maintain national certification, you will need to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) credits every two years and take a recertification exam (the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam, or PANRE) every 10 years.

CME ensures that practicing PAs are knowledgeable about the latest medical research and can be earned in a variety of ways, such as through attending lectures and conferences. In addition, CME encourages continual improvement of interpersonal and communication skills, patient care, and professionalism.


Ready to see if a career as a physician assistant is right for you? Check out these videos from PathSource to hear what real PAs have to say!

PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT: Motivated By Positive Patient Feedback

ARMY PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT (PA) PROGRAM MANAGER: Must Be Proactive To Be A PA

PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT (PA): You Have To Keep Learning


If you have an iPhone, download PathSource for free on the App Store for unlimited access to videos about PAs and hundreds of other professions. For Android users, a light version is available to download on Google Play with videos coming soon!

–Candice Tandiono, PathSource Intern

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