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    How to Become a Physician Assistant

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: June 4th, 2024
    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 2-3 years after you finish your undergraduate degree 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!

    Related: Top medical school scholarships

    What does a physician assistant do?

    Physician assistants, aka PA’s, act most like doctors in the healthcare world, with a few minor differences. 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 on their own, though they may be able to assist and take point under the eyes of a doctor. 

    How much do PA’s make? 

    Despite not being fully-fledged doctors, PAs are still highly-paid and very much in-demand. Physician assistants received a median annual salary of $130,020 in 2023. Not to mention, job growth for this profession is expected to skyrocket by 27% over the next decade. 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!

    Don’t miss: Fastest growing careers

    Steps to becoming a PA

    The following steps don’t have to be completed in any exact order, though you’ll find that some of them do have a natural flow. You may gain health care experience before you receive your undergraduate degree, or vice versa, either is totally fine! The point is that you keep a vague idea of all these steps in your head so that you aren’t missing any of the pieces of the puzzle when it comes time to apply to PA school!

    Start preparing in high school

    We know not everyone that is interested in being a PA is in high school. However, for those who are, It’s never too early to start preparing for a career in medicine. 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, 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. 

    Complete prerequisite courses 

    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, nursing, health sciences, and psychology. If you don’t finish these prerequisites in college though, don’t worry! You can finish prerequisites even after you’ve graduated. The important thing is that you have them done and do well in them! 

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

    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. 

    Related: Highest paying careers to consider

    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-character essay explaining why you’ve chosen to become a PA. It’s important to note that a character limit includes letters, spaces and grammar. 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. 

    Complete PA school 

    Most PA programs last around 26 months. 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 2,000 hours or more in clinical rotations operating as a part of various medical teams. 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. 

    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

    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!

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Physician Assistants typically can finish their schooling in 2-3 years after they complete their undergraduate degree
    • PA’s do not need to complete any residencies or internships after they graduate and can begin practicing once they pass the proper certifying exams
    • PA’s play a unique role in healthcare by sharing the responsibility of care with medical doctors
    • PA’s scope of practice varies slightly by state, so make sure you understand what you’re state regulations are

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    Frequently asked questions about how to become a physician assistant 

    What questions should I ask a PA program?

    This is a great question to ask! It’s important to remember to do your homework on the programs you’re applying to. You can inquire about what their previous classes’ pass rates looked like, where you’ll be completing clinicals and what accreditations the school holds. Most of these answers can probably be found on their websites, but don’t be afraid to ask questions that you can’t find the answers to! 

    What is the hardest thing about being a physician assistant?

    PA school can be an intense process. You’ll likely begin your schooling with an intense courseload and then move on to a rigorous schedule of clinical rotations. As for what’s hardest though, that really depends on the individual. Some may find certain subjects difficult, but patient care comes easy, while others may find the opposite to be true. The important thing to remember is that you are not alone! Everyone struggles with something in this process!

    What is unique about PA’s?

    PA’s serve a unique role in healthcare. They often get to spend more time with patients and are able to be involved with more of the overall care process. While it’s true that PA’s are overseen by doctors, they still get to experience a relatively high level of autonomy in regard to their patients. 

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