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How to Become a Physician Assistant

For anyone interested in a career in healthcare, becoming a physician assistant is an attractive option. These medical professionals are very similar to doctors, yet they don’t have to go through as many years of training. While it typically takes 10-14 years to become an MD, it usually only takes about 6-9 years to become a licensed PA. If you’re interested in following this path, this guide will cover everything you need to know about how to become a physician assistant. 

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What does a physician assistant do?

Also known as PAs, physician assistants are respected members of the healthcare community. Similar to doctors, they diagnose illness, prescribe medications, and develop treatment plans. They work in all areas of medicine, including primary care, family medicine, emergency medicine, and psychiatry. Although they share a lot of the same duties as doctors, it’s important to know that PAs aren’t qualified to practice medicine independently. This means they usually work under the supervision of a physician. They’re also not able to perform surgeries, although they may assist when needed. 

Despite not being fully-fledged doctors, PAs are still highly-paid and very much in-demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistants received a median annual salary of $115,390 in 2020. Not to mention, job growth for this profession is expected to skyrocket by 31% over the next decade. This increased need largely stems from the growing elderly population, who will require more medical care as they age. So if you’re looking for a rewarding career in healthcare (that doesn’t require as many years of training as an MD), then becoming a PA may be right for you. Keep reading to learn how to become one. 

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1. Start preparing in high school

It’s never too early to start preparing for a career in medicine. If you’re still in high school and you have your sights set on becoming a PA, there’s a few things you can do to get a jump start on your career. First of all, load up on as many advanced science and math courses as you can. Classes like anatomy, physiology, health education, computer applications, and nursing will give you a sense of the type of coursework to expect in college. If you can, try to take AP or IB classes. These classes will strengthen your college application, and you may even receive college credit for them. 

Outside of the classroom, seek out science and medicine-related extracurriculars. Try volunteering at a hospital or nursing home, helping out at your school’s blood drive, or participating in clubs like Science Olympiad. Another option is to shadow a physician assistant and observe their work. This is a great way to get a feel for the career, especially if you’re not completely sure about becoming a PA. 

2. Complete prerequisite courses in college

To become a PA, there’s no particular field you need to major in during your undergrad years. However, there are certain prerequisite courses you’ll need to take in order to be eligible for PA school. The majority of PA programs have the following prerequisites:

  • Chemistry
  • Physiology
  • Anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Biology

Although there’s no required major, most undergraduates on the PA track choose to major in a science-related field. Popular options include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, nursing, physical therapy, health sciences, neuroscience, nutrition, and psychology.

Also see: Pre-med requirements: Classes you need for med school

3. Gain healthcare / patient care experience 

Along with prerequisite courses, most PA programs require at least 1,000 hours of real-world healthcare or patient care experience. Healthcare experience (HCE) is work in which you are not directly responsible for a patient’s care. Patient care experience (PCE) is when you are directly responsible for a patient’s care. Here’s a few examples of how this experience can be gained:

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

To accumulate the necessary experience, a lot of PA hopefuls take a gap year in between graduating college and applying for PA school. Every program is different regarding the number of hours required, so be sure to check on your PA school’s website. A full list of accredited PA programs can be found on the ARC-PA website

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4. Apply to PA school 

Now that you’ve graduated college and gained the necessary healthcare experience, it’s time to apply to PA school. You’ll likely use the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) to apply. Most PA schools use the following criteria to evaluate applicants:

Undergraduate transcripts

PA schools use your transcript to review your grades and ensure you’ve satisfied all the necessary prerequisites. It sometimes takes weeks for your transcript to be sent, so be sure to request a copy early in the application process. 

Letters of recommendation

PA programs use letters of recommendation to gain insight into your character and work ethic. Throughout college and your HCE / PCE training, try to form strong relationships with professors and supervisors who can speak to your strengths. 

List of HCE/PCE

While filling out the CASPA, you’ll need to provide an accurate list of all your HCE / PCE. You’ll also be asked to differentiate between the various types of hours you’ve accumulated. As such, it’s important to keep a detailed log of your hours as you accumulate them. 

Personal statement

As part of your application, you’ll be required to write a 5,000-word essay explaining why you’ve chosen to become a PA. Considered one of the most important aspects of your application, this is your opportunity to share your personal story. 

GRE scores

Considered the SAT or ACT equivalent of grad school, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) tests students on analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. Not all PA schools require applicants to take the GRE, so be sure to check with the schools you’re applying to. 

Related: The GRE: Everything you need to know

5. Complete PA school 

Most PA programs last around 26 months, which is the equivalent of three academic years. During this time, you can expect to receive a mix of classroom instruction and clinical rotations. In the classroom, you’ll study subjects such as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, pathophysiology, microbiology, medical ethics, and more. You’ll also spend over 2,000 hours in clinical rotations operating as a part of various medical teams. For instance, you’ll work in fields such as family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and psychiatry. Clinical rotations give you hands-on experience treating patients using the concepts you studied in the classroom. 

6. Pass the PANCE 

After graduating from PA school, you’ll need to become certified by passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). This is a five-hour exam consisting of 300 questions. It generally takes a few weeks to receive your PANCE results. If things don’t go your way the first time around, you can retake the exam. 

Also see: Tips to reduce test taking anxiety

7. Obtain state licensure and find a job 

Last but not least, you’ll need to become licensed to practice in your state. Each state has different requirements, so you’ll need to consult the licensing board regulations in your state. After you obtain your license, all that’s left to do is find a job and start seeing patients!

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