Learn exactly how to become a physician assistant with this detailed guide. Many people wish to get into medicine and help people live healthier and happier lives but don’t want to invest so many years to become a medical doctor. The assumption is then that the next best thing is to become a nurse. However, this isn’t the only option. Another terrific medical profession is to become a physician assistant (often abbreviated as a PA). In this article we take a deep dive in exploring this career and look at important considerations such as how long does it take to become a physician assistant, how much can you expect to make in the profession, what you can do to start down this path today, the pros and cons & much more. So let’s take a closer look at how to become a PA!
What Does a Physician Assistant Do?
A physician assistant helps doctors, surgeons, and other medical personnel provide high-quality healthcare to patients in need. A physician assistant will assume more responsibilities than a registered nurse and is capable of performing a broad variety of duties, either in support of a doctor or independently. Depending on the level of responsibility they’ve been assigned, they can conduct basic or more sophisticated exams, record medical histories, order tests and analyze the results, speak with patients about preventive healthcare, diagnose illnesses, prescribe medications, create and supervise treatment programs, perform simple medical procedures, or assist in surgery.
As an indispensable link in the medical care chain, physician assistants are skilled and highly trained clinicians who can handle the same types of responsibilities as doctors. A physician assistant is a versatile healing professional whose supportive services may be required by practitioners in every medical specialty.
How Much Does a Physician Assistant Make?
The annual median salary for physician assistants in 2019 was $112,260 per year. From a regional perspective, the demand for physician assistants is currently highest in the Northeastern and Middle Western United States, and salaries in these areas are generally above the industry average.
In actuality, the demand for physician assistants everywhere is booming, regardless of the region. The U.S. Bureau of Labor States is projecting that employment opportunities for physician assistants will increase by 31 percent between 2019 and 2029, which makes this one of the fastest-growing of all job categories.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Physician Assistant?
So, how long does it take to become a physician assistant? Two to seven years, depending on your experience and education.
If you already have a bachelors degree in a scientific field and some medical experience, you could be working as a physician assistant in a little over two years.
However, if you are not yet in college it will take approximately 6 to 7 years to become a physician assistant.
For a more personal assessment and answer to the question of how long does it take to become a PA, see the step by step details below.
How to Become a Physician Assistant: A Step-by-Step Guide
So, how do you become a physician assistant exactly? Here are the steps you’ll need to take to launch yourself into this exciting and rewarding career.
Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program in Science
You cannot train to become a physician assistant in a bachelor degree program. Instead, you should prepare for more specialized graduate-level coursework by choosing an undergraduate major that will give you a good intellectual and practical grounding in scientific procedures, logic, and problem-solving.
Some appropriate undergraduate majors for aspiring physician assistants include chemistry, biochemistry, biology, health sciences, psychology, pharmacology, nursing, gerontology, child development, neuroscience, and nutritional studies. Most PA graduate programs have prerequisite courses they expect applicants to have taken sometime during their undergraduate careers, and you should check with some PA master’s degree training programs to get a better idea of what elective courses you should select.
Step 2: Accumulate the Necessary Work Experience to Qualify for Graduate School Admittance
A bachelor’s degree is not sufficient to gain admittance to a physician assistant graduate program. Before your application can be considered, you’ll have to gain at least 1,000 hours of experience working in medical care or health care fields. This can include a mixture of different types of healthcare work, or one specific type, but your experience should include a significant amount of direct patient care.
You can obtain the necessary work experience by pursuing a full-time paid position in a relevant field. Some of the jobs that could help you qualify for admittance to a PA graduate program include paramedic or EMT, certified medical assistant, emergency room technician, certified nursing assistant, physical therapist, community health worker, or registered nurse.
Another way to gain relevant work experience is to volunteer at healthcare facilities, or with community health programs that provide medical services at low or no cost. Hours served in supervised internships while pursuing your bachelor’s degree can also be counted as relevant work experience, although you wouldn’t be able to meet the standards required for graduate school admittance based on this type of experience alone.
In many instances, you’ll need additional education and/or training to qualify for employment in a healthcare-related profession, even if your plan is to stay there only temporarily. You might have to take a certificate program or continuing education classes to match job requirements. This could entail a significant time commitment, which is why you should be certain that your interest in becoming a physician assistant is strong and that you’re prepared to put in the extra work necessary to bring your goal to fruition.
It is common for people interested in becoming physician assistants to spend approximately one year working after they receive their bachelor’s degree, before they apply for admittance to PA graduate program.
Step 3: Apply for Admission to a Physician Assistant Master’s Degree Program
To become a licensed physician assistant, you must successfully complete a master’s degree program sanctioned by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). This organization maintains a list of programs that have met its accreditation standards, and at present there are more than 250 schools in the United States that offer this level of professional instruction.
The admissions process for ARC-PA programs is highly competitive, with an approximately 30 percent acceptance rate across the board. Your application package will be submitted through the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA), and must include:
- Undergraduate academic records (a 3.00-3.25 GPA is usually the minimum standard)
- Proof that all required prerequisite courses have been completed, either during undergraduate studies or through continuing education
- Documentation of all work experience, whether paid or volunteer
- Graduate Record Examination Scores
- Three or more letters of recommendation (from academic or healthcare professionals)
- A 5,000 character personal statement explaining why you want to become a physician assistant
If your application makes the priority list, you’ll be contacted so a personal interview can be arranged. This interview is the final step in the process, and if your performance is acceptable you’ll be admitted to that school’s PA master’s program.
Masters programs for aspiring physician assistants generally take between two and three years to complete. Classwork will cover a full range of topics relating to health science, clinical practice, healthcare management, and other specialized subject matter designed to prepare physician assistants for the challenges of their profession.
Opportunities to gain supervised working experience in clinical settings will be offered during the second and third year of studies, and will be organized in a series of rotations that give you exposure to different types of medicine and medical practice. Your individualized program may include clinical work in specialties like family medicine, prenatal care, pediatrics, behavioral and mental health treatment, emergency medicine, woman’s health, and internal medicine, to name just some of the possibilities.
A final Capstone project will complete your master’s degree program, allowing you to demonstrate that you’ve acquired expert knowledge in the field and are capable of handling the full responsibilities of a professional physician assistant.
An often asked question is how many years is PA school. The answer is typically two years.
Step 4: Take and Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE)
With a master’s degree in hand, you’ll be eligible to sit for the PANCE, the official certifying exam for physician assistants who plan to practice in the United States. This exam consists of 300 multiple choice questions, which will be completed in six blocks of 60 with a 60-minute time limit for each.
You can register for the PANCE through the website of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), which sponsors the exam several times each year at Pearson VUE testing centers around the United States. You can take the test up to six times in six years, if you fail to pass it the first time.
Step 5: Apply for State Licensing
Before you can seek employment in any state, you’ll have to apply for a state-level physician assistant license. Applications are accepted by state licensing boards, and while there might be slight differences in fees and procedures the requirements everywhere are essentially the same: you must have a master’s degree that certifies your qualifications, and you must have scored a passing grade on the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam.
Step 6: Seek Employment as a Physician Assistant
As a licensed and certified physician assistant, you’ll be qualified to apply for employment in hospitals, outpatient clinics, urgent care centers, private practices, or anywhere else that healthcare services are provided. Your previous work experience and clinical experience in graduate school may help guide your choices, but your PA master’s degree will qualify you to seek employment in any type of specialty. Your achievements will prove your flexibility and capability of working in different environments, and you should be able to successfully compete for virtually any job opening that is available for newly licensed physician assistants.
It generally takes from seven to eight years to become a full-time physician assistant, and strict continuing education requirements will keep you learning at all times. But once you officially enter the profession, your skills will remain in high demand.
Step 7: Improve Your Prospects and Establish Your Knowledge with Additional Certifications
Specialized certificates are available to physician assistants who’ve gained clinical experience working in the relevant capacity. Achieving specialized certification can improve your chances of finding jobs with more responsibility and higher compensation levels.
The NCCPA awards specialty certificates, called Certificates of Added Qualifications (CAQS) to physician assistants in seven subcategories:
- Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery
- Hospital Medicine
- Emergency Medicine
- Orthopedic Surgery
To sit for CAQ exams, you’ll need to be licensed for state practice and certified for national practice. You’ll also need to provide proof of experience in the specialty (one or two years should be sufficient), testimony from one supervisor or co-worker who can testify to your skills, and evidence that you’ve been taking continuing education courses to upgrade your knowledge level.
Pros and Cons of a Career as a Physician Assistant
Pros of Becoming a Physician Assistant
Physician assistants are often the primary care providers for individuals seeking medical evaluation and treatment, which means they have ample opportunities to interact directly with patients and to practice medicine at the highest level. Despite not possessing the same academic qualifications as a doctor, physician assistants make excellent wages and can find employment in a broad variety of healthcare environments, and in a wide spectrum of specialties. The demand for trained physician assistants is growing everywhere, as medical practices and facilities increasingly are relying on these highly skilled professionals to deliver vital healthcare services.
Cons of Becoming a Physician Assistant
Physician assistants earn slightly more than half of what the typical doctor makes. Yet the duties they assume will frequently rival those of doctors, indicating that physician assistants generally make less than their job responsibilities might indicate they should. Even though they work shorter hours than doctors, physician assistants spend a lot of time immersed in high-stress situations or environments. While the path to professional employment is less arduous that for doctors, physician assistants do have to invest many years of their lives to become properly trained, and may actually have to train for another medical career first before they can shift their focus to pursuing their master’s degree in PA studies.
Important Characteristics of a Physician Assistant
The best physician assistants are skilled and versatile communicators, with sharply honed skills in speaking, listening, and writing. They must be able to establish good working relationships with doctors, nurses, clinical staff members, and patients alike, fitting in seamlessly with healthcare teams while making patients feel like they’re being listened to and treated with respect.
Physician assistants should exude high levels of confidence and competence. Because they aren’t doctors, some patients might feel like they are less qualified to handle their cases and provide them with the best available care. Outstanding physician assistants are able to overcome these perceptions by staying calm, cool, and authoritative, which requires them to have a high degree of self-assurance.
When someone reaches the pinnacle of success as a physician assistant, it is a testament to their determination and diligence. It takes years of study and clinical practice to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to function at a high level in the profession, and the work required to get there can be stressful, challenging, and exhausting. With acceptance rates hovering around the 30 percent level in most PA graduate programs, only those who’ve truly dedicated themselves to learning and progressing will make the cut, and ultimately complete their ascent to long-term career success.
We hope you now have a clear idea of how to become a physician assistant, as well as, how long does it take to be a physician assistant. As you we learned, how many years to become a physician assistant depends to quite a bit on whether or not you already have a bachelors degree in a related field and if you have experience relevant to this profession. We plan to add more related guides, such as how to become a dermatologist assistant, in the future for those looking for more of a niche guide, but this article should be the best starting point for those wishing to assess whether or not they might want to start launching a career as a physician assistant.
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