If you’re wondering how to become a physician assistant, we have you covered. Read on to learn more!
Although most people first think of doctors or nurses, physician assistants (PAs) play a vital role in the healthcare system. According to U.S. News and World Report’s Best Healthcare Jobs annual ranking, PAs claim the #2 spot.
Below we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about becoming a PA, including what skills, experiences, and grades are needed to succeed.
Becoming a physician assistant means achieving good grades, gaining hands-on healthcare experience, and more. These are the steps to becoming a PA you should know:
Most PA applicants hold a bachelor’s degree. There are 300 accredited PA programs to choose from. Application requirements can vary by program. However, most institutions have course requirements, including:
Course requirements vary, so ensure you check program requirements before applying. The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) provides a list of PA program course requirements. For example, Duke University and James Madison University require physiology and anatomy, but other requirements differ.
Amelia Maurer, a PA school applicant, said, “I was totally caught off guard when I realized all of my prerequisite courses had to be completed before applying to the majority of schools.” Research before you apply so you’re not sidelined by any surprises!
PA programs can be selective, and academic success is an essential element of your application: many schools require a cumulative GPA of 3.0 to 4.0 to apply. Although schools might have different standards, many have GPA cutoffs.
For example, James Madison University states, “an overall grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 or higher is preferred. However, students who are successful in gaining admittance typically have an overall GPA higher than 3.0.”
Most PA programs don’t require the MCAT, although applicants are expected to take the GRE to apply to some programs.
The path to becoming a PA involves gaining hands-on healthcare experience. Eight of the 12 leading PA programs require between 1,000 and 4,000 hours of paid healthcare experience (HCE) and patient care experience (PCE).
According to the AAPA, “healthcare experience is work in which you are not directly responsible for a patient’s care; patient care experience is when you are directly responsible for a patient’s care.” Experience typically accepted includes:
After pursuing a degree at the University of South Florida, Lieutenant Junior Grade German S. Herrera, a primary care PA at Coleman Federal Corrections Complex in Florida, says that he "spent the majority of the following year completing prerequisite courses and developing a resume to be a competitive applicant for PA school.”
Once you finish the preliminary PA education requirements and get the healthcare experience you need, you’re ready to craft your application. You’ll likely use the CASPA application. Using this service, you can apply to multiple PA programs with a single application.
PA schools have rolling admissions, so it’s in your best interest to submit your application as early as possible. PA applications typically aren’t due until September or October. Maurer advises that most students recommend applying early, in June or July. The CASPA application includes multiple elements:
In terms of personal statements, Erin Myhre, a cardiology and critical care PA at Piedmont Healthcare, said, “don’t leave anything for the admissions committee to assume – use lots of examples, stories, personal experiences, and lessons you’ve learned.”
After you submit your CASPA application, the waiting game begins. However, many programs may not give you much notice between inviting you to an interview and interview day. Our advice is to begin prepping for your interviews as soon as your CASPA is complete.
PA schools use three interview formats: multiple mini interviews (MMI), traditional, and a hybrid of both. MMIs are a series of stations where you interact with real or fake patients and answer ethics and traditional questions.
Traditional interviews are as they sound: you’ll have a standard one-on-one or panel interview. Your interviewer(s) will ask questions about your motivations, experiences, application, and more. A hybrid interview model borrows elements from the two interview styles.
There are five imperative elements you should strive to impress upon the admissions committee during your interview:
You should also be prepared for the possibility of virtual interviews! Savanna Perry, a dermatology PA, recommends you “use every opportunity to incorporate a personal story to illustrate your point. You want to relate to your interviewer and this strategy makes you more memorable.”
Interviews are a crucial part of the application process, but don’t stress about them too much! The AASPA says you have advocates on the admissions committee at this stage. The interview is used to “confirm their understanding of your academic excellence, clinical maturity, why you want to be a PA, your understanding of the various roles PAs play in the medical team and your level of ability to communicate under stress.”
Most PA programs take two to three years of full-time study to complete. Although tuition rates vary by program, annual tuition fees range from $30,000 to over $120,000.
Students are exposed to different medical procedures, specialties, and skills to get the foundational knowledge and experience they need in a clinical setting. Around 1,000 hours of classes are taken inside classrooms and laboratories, which include:
PA programs generally require students to complete approximately 2,000 hours of supervised clinical training or rotations. Your rotations could focus on:
Exposure to various fields helps broaden your knowledge.
After you graduate from an accredited PA program, you must obtain a state license. Ann Marie Strong, a Family Medicine Physician Assistant in Minneapolis, said, “most PAs round out their skills with on-the-training” instead of undertaking optional residencies and additional training.
To get your license, you must sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) from the NCCPA. After passing the PANCE, you can practice as a PA and earn the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified” (PA-C). Now you can find a position and apply all your knowledge in a real-world setting.
Knowing how to become a physician assistant begins with understanding the role. PAs are licensed medical professionals educated in the medical model who diagnose, treat, and manage diseases while collaborating with physicians.
Jeffrey Katz, the former president of the American Academy of PAs (AAPA), said, “I diagnose and treat patients, illnesses and diseases and counsel them on their path to wellness.” A PA’s duties differ depending on the setting they work in, but some duties can include:
PAs aren’t independent practitioners. Depending on each state’s scope of practice, MDs are responsible for delegating tasks and supervising PAs.
According to Dawn Morton-Rias, president and CEO of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), “PAs provide 80 to 90 percent of the services ordinarily provided by physicians.”
Physician assistant job prospects are plentiful. Three-quarters of PA school graduates receive multiple job offers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, PAs earn an annual median salary of approximately $121,530.
Becoming a PA has many benefits, such as mid-career flexibility. The generalized education you receive means you can work in numerous settings. The AAPA states that 49% of PAs change their specialty in their careers.
PAs must sit for a recertification exam every ten years and complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years to maintain their certification.
Do you still have questions about becoming a PA? Check out these frequently asked questions to get the answers you need.
A critical difference between PAs and MDs is their levels of autonomy. PAs aren’t independent practitioners. MDs act as the most responsible provider, having total liability over their patients. They can also perform duties independently.
Although shadowing a PA can benefit you, it won’t count toward your required HCE/PCE hours.
The MCAT isn’t required by any PA programs, but you must take the GRE to apply to some programs.
Including time spent in college, it can take approximately six to seven years to become a PA.
PAs must graduate with a bachelor’s degree, complete a PA program, and take the PANCE to gain licensure.
PAs must earn a specialized master’s degree at the end of the PA program (and take the PANCE) to practice.
Becoming a PA takes hard work and dedication. You’ll need to complete course requirements, take the GRE, get the clinical experience you need, and craft a winning application. There are many steps on the way to certification.
The path to becoming a PA isn’t an easy one, but you’ll get there with time and dedication. Although there are many steps to pursue a career in medicine, finally getting there can be incredibly rewarding. After you finish PA school and get your certification, you’ll have a collaborative career focused on helping people daily.