If you’ve been accepted into PA school it’s time to celebrate! After you’ve taken a few minutes to jump up and down, text all your best friends, and post on Instagram, you may start wondering what comes next.
And that’s a good question since you want to be well prepared and won’t be blindsided by the curriculum.
After shadowing another PA or MD, you know patient care is fast-paced and exciting. You’ve done hours of clinical experience in healthcare settings, and now it’s time to complete your master’s degree, one of the final steps before starting in the PA profession.
You likely already know PA programs are rigorous. As you prepare to start your program, it’s helpful to remember why you decided to become a physician assistant, and it’s best to keep these reasons in mind throughout your schooling.
The program will be demanding, but it will provide you with the opportunity to help people through difficult times and celebrate their successes. Your practice will be an adventure that encourages your personal and professional growth through life.
Your work may be challenging but your hours can be flexible. Your salary will be close to the highest in the medical profession and the field is expected to grow 31% by 2028. All-in-all it’s a very good outlook.
Medical Education for Physician Assistant Studies
If you’ve not been accepted yet, it’s helpful to know you have PA school options. There are 250 accredited PA school programs in the U.S., and although the prerequisites and GPA may vary slightly from school to school, nearly all require a bachelor’s degree and 2,000 hours of clinical experience in a healthcare setting.
Your PA program should be accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). At the completion of your program, you’ll be awarded a master’s degree and be eligible to sit for the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (PANCE).
Please note that in order to sit for PANCE and become a PA-C, your school must be accredited by ARC-PA. program.,.
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics says earning the degree will take 2 years following your bachelor’s degree, there are other options, including direct entry and online programs.
No matter the program you choose, your education will include work in the classroom, laboratory instruction, and clinical rotations with a physician.
In addition, the admissions committee will be looking for individuals who have strong communication skills, show compassion, are detail-oriented, and exhibit emotional stability.
Necessary Medical Education Coursework
The American Academy of PAs finds that most programs last 3academic years over 26 months. Classroom instruction and clinical rotations provide a well-rounded education and prepare you to practice as a PA-C after completing your master’s degree and certification. Classroom instruction includes:
- Behavioral science
- Clinical laboratory science
- Diagnostic studies
- Medical ethics
- Medical terminology
- Physical diagnosis
- Preventive medicine
In addition to in-class work, you’ll perform clinical rotations in primary care and other fields, including:
- Emergency medicine
- Family medicine
- General surgery
- Infectious disease
- Internal medicine
- Obstetrics and gynecology
- Women’s health
Direct Entry and Dual Degree PA Program
While most of the accredited programs in the United States are traditional schools, other options are Direct entry and dual-degree PA programs. These programs enroll exceptional students directly from high school to aid them in an accelerated academic path.
There are 41 accredited programs that accept applications. The students complete a 5-year program during which they receive a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and a Master’s in Physician Assistant Studies. These programs are rigorous and admission is highly competitive.
To be considered, a high school student should be in the top 10% of their class. And while health care experience is not required, the schools do find it beneficial, so performing community service in the medical field may increase a student’s admission chances.
Schools also require a combined critical reading and math SAT score of at least 1220 and a math score of 570, or a combined ACT score of 24 or higher.
Online PA Degree Program
A second unique program is an online school. However, it is important to note that an entire program cannot be completed online because it’s necessary to get hands-on work experience. In addition to the online coursework, many schools also require on-site classes with clinical training. It’s a popular option for individuals who have busy schedules or when there is no traditional PA school located close by.
Each program has individual requirements and accommodations. For instance, some work with those who are working while going to school and others discourage their students from working during the program.
Some programs are designed much like a dual entry, during which students finish a bachelor’s degree on their way to their masters. Other programs require a bachelor’s degree before entering the online PA program.
The time commitment also varies from 12 months to 3 years. Some allow you to take up to four years or 5 years to finish the program. Most online programs work with their students to find clinical rotations in areas close to the students’ home rather than mandating they attend rotations convenient to the school.
No matter the PA program you choose, it’s important to ensure it holds an ARC-PA accreditation so you are able to sit for your PANCE and become licensed to practice in a clinical setting.
How Long Does a Physician Assistant Program Take?
The length of a PA program can vary between 2 and 5 years, which begs the question, does a longer program guarantee higher success on the PANCE exam? Not really.
According to research by the Physician Assistant Education Association, those who attended a shorter program performed similarly on the PANCE to those who graduated from a longer program..
Except for the dual entry and online programs, The PA Life reports that longer programs are designed to accommodate a master’s senior project. However, this delays entry into the PA profession, reducing the number of practicing physician assistants available to cover shortages of medical care. Longer programs also increase physician assistant debt.
Researchers from the Physician Assistant Education Association suggest that the growing need for physician assistants should be considered as educators plan the length of their future programs.
The “more is better” approach is not always practical. The Association of American Medical Colleges announced in early 2019 they expect a shortage of nearly 122,000 doctors by 2032 since demand is growing faster than supply.
An aging population, growing numbers who live with chronic disease, and long medical school programs all contribute to rising demand and short supply.
Managing Stress During Your PA Program
While rigorous, PA school is doable. Many students speak openly about the time crunch and the need for time management to fit everything into one day. For example, one student described being in school Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., just like a full-time job.
To keep up, you may find yourself studying long into the night. Be sure to find balance when creating successful study habits. For example, you may find it to be more effective to study more during the week and take off a block of time on the weekends. Or it may be better for you to spread out studying over 7 days.
The key is to find what works best for you and then stay on top of your schoolwork. Challenges also include learning the information in a short amount of time, while making time for family and friends. But the reward is finishing school and beginning work as a physician assistant.
If you’re interested in reading about student experiences in PA school, we suggest “The Truth About PA School” published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. The essay is written by a PA student, and it details her personal growth in PA school.
PA school taught her about humility, her shortcomings, her strengths, and how to interact with classmates and faculty under extreme pressure. In the end, she learned that character is defined by compassion, perseverance, and the will to continue.
Another group of newly graduated physician assistants from The University of South Alabama put together a two-page, bullet point sheet on the things they wish they’d known before attending PA school.
Some of those included being able to learn more from collaboration rather than isolation, being open with your family about demands on your time during the program, and always carrying a snack because you may not have time to eat. Have a look at their survival guide to help ease the transition into your PA program.
Time Management is Key
Time management skills are crucial since getting behind is not an option. Here are some quick time management skills that will support your efforts in school.
Decide on your schedule and stay focused. Create a dynamic list that may change depending upon your circumstances, but stay focused on the activities that move you towards your goal. Avoid “busy work.” Instead, focus on high-value activities that help you complete your tasks.
Minimize your interruptions from social media, cell phones, and friends. When you’re in the middle of something important, don’t break your concentration with distractions.
Work Hard and Be Timely
Work hard, and don’t procrastinate! Sometimes it’s easier to put off the hard things and finish the small things first. But procrastination only makes the final task more difficult. Set a block of time to study and then reward yourself with something great, like a meal at your favorite restaurant or go for a walk or hike outside in the sunshine.
Multitask, If Possible
Multitask effectively. There are very few things you can work on simultaneously and still stay productive. For instance, while exercising or cleaning you can listen to a taped class or podcast, or give yourself a pop quiz. On the other hand, you can’t effectively listen to a taped class while studying for another.
Take time for a brain dump at the end of the day. Before going to bed, spend a little time to clear your mind and relax. Then, get yourself a good night’s rest. It will help you absorb more material the next day.
After You Graduate From PA School
Even while you’re in school, you can connect with groups in the industry. These are people who can share tips to help you get through school and answer questions about certification examinations, clinical rotations, and practicing in specialty areas.
Join your professional association, the AAPA, which demonstrates your commitment to the field. The association will also provide you with the information and support you need as you venture out into medical practice.
Once you’ve graduated, it’s time to celebrate and get ready for the final steps before you begin your PA profession. First, you’ll sit for the national certification examination – PANCE to practice as a physician assistant certified (PA-C). After you pass the test, you’ll be able to apply for your state license, get your National Provider Identifier, and apply for a Federal DEA number to prescribe controlled substances.
Whether you’re just starting to apply to PA school, are midway through your PA program, or have recently graduated, these are exciting times. Your life may be changing more quickly than you imagined. And, while the work is hard and challenging, you’ll be living a very rewarding life.