How to become a Physician Assistant

Learn how to become a physician assistant, the best way to get a degree, and more from the experts at College Monk.

What is a physician assistant (PA)? What do physician assistants do, and how do you start on the path toward this rewarding career? This article provides in-depth information about the duties, education requirements, and career outlook for PAs. 

Looking for a career that allows you to work in the medical field without the years of schooling required to be a doctor or a surgeon? 

Being a physician assistant (PA) might be right for you. 

Physician assistants (PAs) work as part of a medical team and practice medicine under the direction of physicians and surgeons. They're formally trained to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment. 

Becoming a PA is an accessible career option that requires an undergraduate and graduate degree, clinical hours, and continuing education hours each year to maintain certification.

What does a Physician Assistant do ?

Physician assistants practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. 

Depending on the location and capacity in which they’re working, PAs may take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X-rays, make diagnoses, and prescribe medications. 

They also treat minor injuries and are trained to provide sutures, splints, and casts. PAs make medical notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out various treatment plans.

Additional PA responsibilities include:

  • Review patients’ medical histories.
  • Conduct physical exams to check patients’ health.
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests, such as x-rays or blood tests.
  • Make diagnoses concerning a patient’s injury or illness.
  • Provide immunizations and routine care.
  • Educate and counsel patients and their families. For example, a PA may answer questions about how to care for a child with asthma.
  • Prescribe medication when needed.
  • Research the latest treatments to guarantee the quality of patient care.
  • Conduct or participate in outreach programs, talking to groups about managing diseases and promoting wellness.

According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), PAs can make up to about $168K a year in the US.


What’s the Difference Between a PA and a Doctor?

While PAs and doctors work together, they aren't the same kind of medical professionals. 

The largest difference is that PAs have a much shorter path to licensure than physicians (another name for a medical doctor), and earn less than physicians do.

Physicians also have more professional obligations once they begin working in the field. 

Here are a few things to know about both PAs and physicians:

PAs can perform many of the same tasks as physicians in the healthcare field, including writing prescriptions, working directly with clients, and diagnosing conditions.


  • Unlike physicians, PAs must work in collaboration with other medical professionals. They are not licensed to practice on their own. Instead, they must operate under the oversight of a supervising physician.
  • PAs have more freedom to change or redirect their specialties with minimal additional training or certification requirements. 
  • PAs typically have more predictable work schedules than physicians and don't spend as much time on-call.
  • PAs spent about 2-4 years in school before becoming licensed, including full-time clinical rotations. 
  • PAs obtain an estimated 2,000+ clinical hours. 

The BLS reports that PAs are employed throughout the country in all 50 states. 

Physicians, on the other hand...

  • Are licensed to provide patient care and make sensitive medical decisions without the authorization of other medical professionals. 
  • Doctors don't have as much freedom to change their focus or career path as PAs do.
  • Physicians have more extensive education requirements. While PAs obtain a 4-year BA and then an MS, Doctors obtain a 4-year BA or BS, and then an MD degree. It’s not uncommon for doctors to be in school for 8-10 years, with an added 3-8 years of residency before they are fully licensed to practice. 
  • Physicians must obtain an estimated 6,000 clinical hours as well as 10,000 residency hours.

Steps for becoming a Physician Assistant


Earn A Bachelor’s Degree

Though prospective physician assistants can major in any area, most choose to obtain their undergraduate degree in health science or a related field. This field of study provides the background knowledge needed to obtain a PA master’s degree.

While most colleges and universities don’t offer a PA undergraduate degree, a bachelor’s in health science will provide overviews of important topics including:

  • Medical Terminology
  • Statistics
  • Healthcare Ethics
  • Quantitative Methods

Today, most PA graduate programs require applicants to have at least three years of healthcare experience. Many bachelor’s degree grads choose to obtain this experience by working as an emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic before applying to a PA graduate program.


Earn A Master’s Degree

Master’s degree requirements vary by school, but most require prospective students to have at least 2,000 clinical hours of healthcare experience. Some schools offer a physician assistant shadowing program or internship opportunities to fulfill the clinical hours requirement. 

Prospective students must make sure any program they’re considering is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). 

Once a student is admitted to a PA program, the coursework will take about three years to complete. During these three years, students will complete a mixture of classroom and hands-on work. 

Today, all PA programs are required to provide 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. This provides students with a wide variety of clinical experiences and prepares them for a career in a challenging field.


Pass The Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE)

After completing an ARC-PA-accredited program, graduates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). 

Only those who graduate from an ARC-PA program may sit for the exam. The test is five hours long and includes 300 multiple-choice questions designed to assess basic medical and surgical knowledge. 

Candidates may take the text six times over six years. If a student doesn't pass within this timeframe, they must complete another ARC-PA educational program before attempting the exam again.


Consider Additional Certification Or Board Certification

Physician assistants can advance their careers by specializing in fields such as nutrition, vascular health, ambulatory care, or orthopedic care. These are great options for grads with a specialized field of interest.


Maintain Certification

Certified physician assistants need to take the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE) during the last two years of the six-year certification maintenance or the 10-year-certification maintenance cycle. 

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) offers practice exams to help PAs prepare for the PANRE.

Physician Assistant Salaries

Physician Assistant

Physician Assistant Degree Levels


Most colleges and universities don't offer a P.A.-specific bachelor’s degree. Instead, those who know they want to pursue this career can earn a four-year degree in a related scientific field like nutrition, biology, or biochemistry. 

At some colleges, science programs also offer physician assistant tracks to prepare students for a master’s program. In these programs, students cover key subjects like human anatomy and physiology, psychology, medical physiology, pharmacology, and principles of clinical medicine. 

Graduates have a thorough understanding of the physician assistant profession, ethical and moral requirements in the medical field, and how to provide primary care services.

  • Pharmacologic principles

  • Gene therapy & Pharmacogenetics

  • Patient Education & Drug therapy

  • Patient instruction and counseling

  • Compliance with prescribed therapeutic regimens

  • Writing prescriptions

Community and Public Health
  • Global public health

  • Infectious diseases

  • Integrating medicine & public health

  • Health maintenance

  • Disease prevention

  • Impact of ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation on the community

Principles of Emergency Medicine and Surgery
  • Anaesthesiology

  • Intensive care medicine

  • Pharmacology and Toxicology

  • Fundamentals of preoperative care

  • Emergent care practices

  • Handling life-threatening illness and injury


All PAs must obtain a master's degree. 

The first half of the three-year master’s degree program focuses on courses such as health care ethics, health care policy, and healthcare management. Students will also spend a significant portion of the program gaining clinical experience. 

Throughout the course, students will develop advanced problem solving and critical thinking skills, and build the interpersonal skills that will serve them well while working with doctors and nurses in a medical setting.

Fundamentals of Clinical Medicine
  • Medical Fundamental Chemistry

  • Medical Genetics

  • Systemic Anatomy

  • Study of the disease process

  • Managing medical problems in the primary care setting

  • Differential diagnosis of symptoms

  • Drug Profile

  • General properties of drugs

  • Ethical issues related to drug research

  • Principles of pharmacotherapy

  • Individualizing medication regimens

  • Drug safety and drug mechanisms

  • Mechanisms of diseases

  • Immunologic Diseases and Conditions

  • Diseases and Conditions

  • Basic physiologic regulatory mechanisms

  • Clinical correlations for the treatment of disease

  • Mechanism of disease as a physician assistant

How to Become a Physician Assistant: Online Degree Programs

If you’re wondering how to become a physician assistant, an online degree could be a good option. Convenient, accessible, and affordable, online education is a good way to obtain the education you need to make your degree dreams come true. 

Choosing an online program, however, can be difficult. 

Here are a few things to look for as you browse programs:

Advising Assistance

While there are plenty of online degree options available for physician assistants, it’s important to know that you cannot complete all the requirements of any program online. 

Becoming a physician assistant requires many hours of hands-on experience in a real-world practicum setting. While you’ll do the academic aspects of your course online, you should look for a program that offers assistance with finding a clinical placement where you live. This will make your journey through the program easier. 

Synchronous and asynchronous learning

If you’re pursuing an online PA degree, convenience is one of your top priorities. That’s why it’s important to look for a course that offers a mixture of both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Synchronous classes take place at a given time each week and require live participation, while you can complete asynchronous coursework on your own schedule. This combination of learning methods is the most convenient and allows you to fit your education into your life rather than the other way around. 

Academic support

PA degree programs are demanding. Look for a program that offers plenty of support from faculty and student advisors, which will make navigating the program easier and more streamlined.


Finding the Right Physician Assistant Program for You

If you’re interested in learning how to become a physician assistant, the first step is finding the right degree program. Fortunately, there are dozens of PA school options out there. 

Here are a few ways to find the right program for your undergraduate degree or ongoing clinical experience:


1. Find an accredited PA program

Accreditation is the most important consideration for anyone considering becoming a PA student. 

Any program you consider attending must be accredited. Attending an accredited online degree program enhances your future job outlook and helps you gain access to student loans and scholarships. Additionally, only students who attend accredited universities are eligible for the exams required for PA licensure. 

Look for a program that is ARC-PA certified, which means it was accredited by the Accreditation and Review Commission on Physician Assistant Education. 

This is critical whether you're pursuing an undergraduate degree or a graduate-level degree in the PA profession.


2. Look for a program that helps with clinical experience

Find a physician assistant program that offers support with clinical placements. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of obtaining an undergraduate degree in an accredited PA program. 

Ideally, the program will set you up with an advisor who can help you find a location for your clinical rotation that suits your goals and professional objectives and connects you with a supervising physician who can help you grow.


3. Consider the cost

Budget is important when it comes to finding the right physician assistant program. Be sure to compare costs at the programs you're interested in. You may find that it's possible to get a degree that qualifies you for a physician assistant job for less than you had imagined.

If you're searching for the right program for your physician assistant education, College Monk can help. Browse our selection of online degree programs now to find the right fit for your physician assistant studies.