Physician assistants are part of a growing field of medical professionals. And the job outlook for PA-Cs is growing much faster than average. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 31% job growth for physician assistants between 2018 to 2028.
The profession was originally developed to fill gaps in patient care left by physician shortages. Becoming a PA-C is challenging, but it offers a wide range of life-long rewards. Some of these include financial, personal, professional, and relational benefits.
Physician assistants also enjoy a general education. This allows them the option of changing their specialty mid-career. Physicians, on the other hand, do not have this option. A physician’s education is specific to their specialty and changing would require many more years of medical school.
If you are passionate about working in the medical field and believe you would enjoy flexibility in your career choice, it’s time to explore how to become a physician assistant.
How To Become a Physician Assistant
The steps to becoming a physician assistant can begin in high school. Others decide to take this path after having practiced for several years as an EMT, paramedic, medical assistant, or other healthcare professional. No matter when you decide, the journey to becoming a PA-C will be similar.
Applying to PA School
Before you can apply to a physician assistant degree program, you must meet the prerequisites. This requires thought and planning. First, you must understand the path to becoming a physician assistant. This will help you layout exactly what you need to do to accomplish your goal.
The most common route to a PA program begins with finishing high school and achieving a bachelor’s degree. Some of the common undergraduate degrees are in hard science and behavioral science. These degrees include biology, sociology, nutrition, physiology, and psychology.
The GPA requirement for admission varies, depending upon the school. However, The PA Life reports the overall GPA expected is 3.49, with a 3.46 in science and a 3.56 in non-science classes. The Physician Assistant Education Association maintains a searchable directory of PA programs along with their expected requirements. We also have a list of physician assistant jobs on our job board.
Some PA programs work with PA student candidates if their GPA is lower than expected. If this is you, it is important to shine in other aspects, such as your healthcare experience and your personal statement. This helps schools feel more confident about admitting you.
There are a small number of programs that accept PA candidates directly out of high school. These are accelerated programs that admit exceptional students into a 5-year academic path. The first 3 years are focused on achieving a bachelor’s degree and the last 2 on finalizing a master’s degree. After successfully completing the accelerated PA degree program, the candidate can practice as a PA.
Each person who applies to PA school is expected to have 2,000 hours of patient care experience. While some programs waive this prerequisite (such as in an accelerated program), the experience gives you an advantage over other students.
Physician assistant programs want to enroll individuals who are passionate about healthcare. It’s difficult to know or prove your passion without work experience. The hours you spend working with other healthcare providers show your dedication to the profession. They also help you form a personal statement that speaks to the admissions committee.
Your healthcare experience must be in a paid position, outside of working with your family. In other words, caring for your aging grandmother does not count. Some positions the admissions committee find favorable include, but are not limited to:
- Registered nurse
- Medical scribe
- Technicians such as EEG, EKG, emergency room and x-ray
- Respiratory therapist
- Dental hygienist
- Physical therapist
- Occupational therapist
- Chiropractic assistant
- Medical assistant
Nearly every PA program uses the Centralized Application Service For Physician Assistants (CASPA). This is a digital application service that makes the process more efficient.
Create your profile as a prospective student, and CASPA will send information to help you successfully fill out the application. Once inside the application, enter the schools you have attended, link transcripts from the schools, and enter the courses you’ve taken.
Additionally, CASPA allows you to upload letters of evaluation, your personal statement, and any certifications. These additional documents are sent as part of your PA school application.
You may have thought of these as letters of recommendation or reference letters. But they are really evaluations from your professors, academic advisors, employers, and/or healthcare professionals.
Essentially, they are from anyone who can speak to your character, work ethic, and work quality. It is important these letters are not from family members.
Pay close attention to the criteria for evaluation letters from your PA school, as they may need a certain number from science and non-science professors. It may be tempting to ask a famous family member or family friend to write a letter of evaluation. However, schools may look at this unfavorably and discount the letter.
This is a part of your application where your personality can shine. It’s an opportunity to express who you are and your past experiences. It gives the admissions committee an opportunity to learn more about you. In fact, it may be one of the most important and toughest pieces of the application.
Your personal essay clearly states why you’re pursuing the profession while demonstrating your knowledge of it. If you are starting your personal statement, consider the steps we’ve outlined.
While it is not necessary to include certifications in your application, they can be the icing on the cake. Consider getting certified in basic life support (BLS/CPR), HIPPA, or the higher-level Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support / Pediatric Advanced Life Support (ACLS/PALS) certifications.
Physician Assistant School Interview
The final step in the physician assistant application process is the PA program interview. Unlike other advanced practice providers, such as nurse practitioners, a physician assistant must first pass an interview to be admitted into a PA program.
During a PA school interview, you will answer questions from an admissions committee. The committee is looking for candidates who display characteristics that show they will thrive as a healthcare professional.
Some of these characteristics include a passion for the healthcare profession, strong problem-solving skills, detail-oriented focus, emotional stability, and compassion.
Admissions committees often use specific types of questions that elicit biographical information and critical thinking skills. Questions also include those that ask about your ethics and look for how you react to out-of-the-ordinary situations. They’re trying to determine if you will be a cultural fit in their PA school.
It is important to get your anxiety under control before the interview since your goal is to appear as amazing as your CASPA application. As you prepare for your meeting, review, and study the 5 types of PA program interview questions admissions committees often ask.
Physician Assistant Programs
Your physician assistant program culminates in a master’s degree. Most PA programs require you to attend full-time for 24 to 27 months. Before applying to any specific PA program, be sure to review the program requirements, as they can vary.
Your PA program coursework includes in-class science courses and participation in clinical experience. Your clinical experience involves training in primary care as well as specialty clinical rotations.
Some of the specialty rotations may include pediatrics, internal medicine, general surgery, gynecology, and family medicine. During your program, the information comes quickly, and you’re expected to learn it — not memorize it. In other words, you are expected to know, remember, and implement the information learned throughout the program.
Each program is rigorous and challenging. It’s important you identify strategies you can use to relax. This will help reduce your potential for burnout. Since you have little free time for recreation, it’s important to make the most of the time you have.
PA-C burnout can be impacted by an ever-changing environment and a continuously-growing body of knowledge. As a physician assistant, you will be expected to learn and understand everything. Many of the factors contributing to burnout are outside your control.
This is a key factor in perceived and real stress. It is important to develop tactics to prevent burnout early so you have strong coping strategies as you dive into your career. Learn more about burnout, how to prevent it, and treat it in our past article, Physician Assistant Burnout (Symptoms and Treatment).
PA school accreditation is critical to your success. You cannot sit for your certification examination without graduating from an accredited PA program. It is necessary to be certified in order to practice, so it’s necessary to graduate from an accredited program.
According to the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, there are currently 254 ARC-PA accredited programs in the United States. The ARC-PA oversees all accredited PA programs, so be sure your PA school is on their list of accredited programs.
Historically, the accreditation process has been influenced by the American Medical Association. Up until 1976, the AMA Council on Medical Education accredited all PA programs. After 1976 it was undertaken by the AMA Committee on Allied Health Education and Accreditation until 1994. In 2000, The ARC-PA took over.
Your master’s degree prepares you to perform many of the same functions as an MD. Physician assistants take medical histories, do examinations, order and analyze tests and x-rays, prescribe medication, and treat minor injuries.
In addition to work done in the office, many PAs assist during surgery. As a PA-C, your education is generalized. This offers you the opportunity to choose a specialty after graduation that most appeals to you. It also increases your flexibility throughout your career.
After graduation, you will sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). It is offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
Passing the PANCE is necessary to practice as a PA-C. You have 6 attempts to pass the exam in 6 years. Once you have passed the examination, you will be a physician assistant-certified (PA-C) and may apply for your state license to begin practicing.
After graduation, you have the opportunity to earn additional certifications in specialty areas and take on a residency. Some of these specialties are emergency medicine, cardiovascular surgery, pediatrics, psychiatry, and hospital medicine.
To maintain your license, you must complete 100 hours of continuing education credits every 2 years and pass the PANCE every 10 years for recertification. Physician assistants are expected to demonstrate clinical competence, operational management, effective communication, and be adaptable and flexible.
Choosing to Become a Physician Assistant
As the population grows and the physician shortage increases, it’s expected there will be a growing number of positions for physician assistants. A generalized PA education means you can be flexible throughout your career path. Plus, you’ll work in a position that pays well.
You can choose to work within a wide range of specialties, from family practice and general medicine to cardiovascular or orthopedic surgery. Before choosing to become a physician assistant, it’s best to understand what physician assistants do. Consider shadowing another PA. This looks good on your CASPA application and it helps you make the right career choice.
As you consider choosing to become a physician assistant, concentrate on the reason why you believe this career choice is the right one. Understanding why you want to be an advanced practice provider will help you navigate the road to becoming a physician assistant, the rigors of the program, and help you stay true to your values as a PA-C.