How to Become a Physician Assistant: The Ultimate Guide

April 25, 2024
12 min read


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/25/24

If you’re wondering how to become a PA, 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. 

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What is a Physician Assistant? 

Knowing how to become a PA 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: 

  • “Obtain patient medical histories
  • Conduct physical exams
  • Diagnose and treat illnesses
  • Order and interpret tests
  • Develop treatment plans
  • Counsel on preventative healthcare
  • Assist in surgery
  • Write prescriptions”

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.” 

Specializations of Physician Assistants

Physician assistants can specialize in a wide variety of areas. Here are some examples of specialities that you may be interested to look into: 

PA Specialty What They Do
Critical Care Assist medical staff in the intensive care unit
Dermatology Treat skin-related health problems and diseases
Emergency Medicine Assist doctors and nurses in the emergency room
Neurosurgery Assist neurosurgeons by performing patient exams and providing aid during surgery
Psychiatry Provide mental health care to patients
Occupational Medicine Treat patients who have been injured in the workplace
Orthopedic Surgery Treat musculoskeletal issues and assist orthopedic surgeons
Urgent Care Care for patients who need immediate attention

Source: Inspira Advantage

How to Become a Physician Assistant: Steps to Follow

Becoming a physician assistant means achieving good grades, gaining hands-on healthcare experience, and more. You’ll need to follow a set timeline to properly become a PA. These are the steps you should know: 

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree 

Most PA applicants hold a bachelor’s degree. There are 300 accredited PA programs to choose from. Application requirements for PA programs can vary. However, most institutions have course requirements, including: 

  • Biology 
  • Anatomy 
  • Physiology 
  • Chemistry 
  • Microbiology
  • Genetics 

Course requirements vary, so ensure you check program requirements before applying. Some PA schools are easier to get into than others. 

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, and some don’t require the GRE, either. Pay attention to the guidelines of your specific school, though! 

Step 2: Get Hands-On Healthcare Experience 

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: 

  • Emergency room technician
  • Paramedic
  • Surgical tech
  • Emergency medical technician (EMT)
  • Certified nursing assistant (CNA)
  • Medical assistant
  • Lab assistant/phlebotomist
  • Registered nurse
  • Medic or medical corpsman

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.” 

Step 3: Complete the CASPA Application

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. 

There are many types of PA programs you could pursue. If you’re also working full-time, you might wish to look into a part-time PA program. Or, if you have extenuating life circumstances, you can participate in an accelerated PA program to get your license more quickly. 

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: 

  • Letters of Recommendation: These letters are written by PAs, professors, physicians, and supervisors to illuminate your skills and character. 
  • Transcripts: You must obtain all undergraduate/postgraduate transcripts.
  • List of HCE/PCE: You must input your HCE and PCE in your CASPA application.
  • Coursework: You’ll input relevant coursework to the programs you apply to. 
  • Personal statement: You’ll write a 500-600-word essay demonstrating your knowledge of and passion for the PA profession.

Regarding 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.” 

Step 4: Participate in PA School Interviews

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: 

  • Why you want to become a PA 
  • Your understanding of the roles and responsibilities of PAs
  • Your awareness of the intense level of training necessary to achieve such a responsibility
  • How your previous clinical and non-clinical experience has prepared you 
  • Why you should be accepted

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.” 

Step 5: Complete PA School

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: 

  • Medical ethics
  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Anatomy
  • Pathophysiology
  • Microbiology
  • Physiology
  • Clinical laboratory science
  • Behavioral science
  • Physical diagnosis

PA programs generally require students to complete approximately 2,000 hours of supervised clinical training or rotations. Your rotations could focus on: 

  • Psychiatry
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • Internal medicine
  • General surgery
  • Emergency medicine
  • Family medicine

Exposure to various fields helps broaden your knowledge. 

To decide on a PA program, take a look at our tool, which helps you explore accredited PA programs. You can compare and contrast schools based on location, class size, program duration, and more to find the perfect PA program. 

Step 6: Pass the PANCE to Earn Your License 

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. 

Transitioning From Other Medical Professions

Making the change to a PA position from another medical profession, such as a nurse, nurse practioner, or physical therapist, will be easier than starting from the ground up. Your previous patient care experiences will assist you in your training. 

However, even if you have held a previous medical position, you will still need to be sure you have completed the necessary prerequisites for a PA program. You will become a PA after completing two years of education! 

PA Salary & Job Outlook

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

Being 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. 

Alternative Career Choices

Depending on your skills and interests, you may wish to change careers from a physician assistant to another, similar career. Here are some alternative career choices with similar skillsets to a PA: 

  • Clinical professor
  • Medical doctor
  • Medical writer
  • Public health advocate 
  • Registered nurse 
  • Pharmaceutical researcher 

FAQs: Becoming a PA

Do you still have questions about getting your PA license? Check out these frequently asked questions to get the answers you need. 

1. How Does the Scope of Practice of a PA Compare to an MD? 

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. 

2. Does Shadowing a PA Count as Clinical Experience? 

Although shadowing a PA can benefit you, it won’t count toward your required HCE/PCE hours. 

3. Is the MCAT Required for PA School? 

The MCAT isn’t required by any PA programs, but you must take the GRE to apply to some programs.

4. How Long Does It Take to Become a Physician Assistant? 

Including time spent in college, it can take approximately six to seven years to become a PA. 

5. What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Physician Assistant? 

PAs must graduate with a bachelor’s degree, complete a PA program, and take the PANCE to gain licensure. 

6. What Degree Is Needed to Be a PA? 

PAs must earn a specialized master’s degree at the end of the PA program (and take the PANCE) to practice. 

7. How Hard is It to Become a PA? 

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. 

Becoming a PA: A Rewarding Career Path

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.

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