What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Physician Assistant?

Best Degree Path for Becoming a Physician Assistant

If you’re passionate about caring for patients and would like a job in the healthcare industry that doesn’t require years of study and high tuition costs of medical school, the role of physician assistant might be right for you. Physician assistants are licensed healthcare professionals who work directly with patients under the supervision of doctors. They perform physical examinations, order tests, diagnose medical conditions, administer treatments, prescribe medications, and take notes on patients’ conditions. Although medical school isn’t necessary for a physician assistant role, a college education is a requirement.

Undergraduate Options for Aspiring Physician Assistants

Naturally, physician assistants, like medical doctors, need a formal education to develop the necessary expertise to diagnose and treat patients’ medical conditions. Because they prepare for the career through a master’s degree program rather than medical school, they are often able to cut in half the amount of time they must spend in school after earning their bachelor’s degree.

Getting that undergraduate degree is the first step in the educational path of an aspiring physician assistant. There’s no one right bachelor’s degree to get into a physician assistant graduate program. Some schools offer undergraduate degrees in physician assistant or pre-physician assistant studies, but these majors aren’t the only, or even necessarily the best, options. Students most often pursue a major in the field of science, but the major itself is less important than completing the right prerequisites, which may include:

  • Anatomy & physiology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Healthcare Ethics
  • Mathematics or Statistics
  • Microbiology Medical Terminology

A Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies

After earning a bachelor’s degree, students should enroll in a master’s in physician assistant studies program at an institution accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. Over two years of full-time study, graduate students will take coursework in medical ethics, pharmacology, pathology, physical diagnosis, human anatomy & physiology, and clinical medicine. In addition to their education in the classroom and in the laboratory, students will gain hands-on experience through clinical training under the guidance of experienced doctors.

Before they can practice, physician assistants must attain a state license, which typically requires a passing score on the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). All states require physician assistants to be licensed. The PANCE examination is administered through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). When a physician assistant passes the licensing exam, they receive the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified” or PA-C.

In order to keep PA-C certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years. During a two-year period, recertification is not required. However, the recertification exam is required every 10 years.

In addition to state licensure, laws require physician assistants to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. Though collaboration between a PA and physician is extremely important, indeed, required for practice, the physician does not need to be working directly with the PA on-site at all times.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a Physician Assistant

Experience in a Related Occupation

Applicants to graduate physician assistant programs generally need to have experience working in patient care in order to be considered for admission. Some programs require one to three years of patient care work history, while others call for five or more years of patient care experience. Work history does not have to be in a directly related field, though working in the healthcare field helps. Experience may be gained working as an EMT, paramedic, nursing assistant, or registered nurse.

Without work experience, some applicants gain meaningful healthcare experience through volunteer opportunities in clinics, healthcare facilities, hospitals, and medical centers. Volunteer opportunities also exist in nursing homes, outpatient facilities, and charitable organizations that focus on special-needs populations. Experience may be acquired while working with at-risk groups, homeless populations, and orphaned youth.

To learn which work experience is required, specific criteria can be obtained by contacting the program to which you plan to apply.

Important Qualities of a Physician Assistant

In addition to education and certification credentials, there are important qualities an aspiring physician assistant should possess. These qualities cannot always be taught in the classroom, but they can be acquired through experience working or volunteering in patient care.


The role of the physician assistant is to treat patients who are sick or injured. Patients may be in pain or distress. Meeting with patients and their families requires compassion and understanding. A PA must possess a good bedside manner and treat patients with respect, sensitivity, and understanding.

Effective Communication

Having solid communication skills helps with any job, but in patient care, it is especially important. Like physicians, physician assistants must convey complex medical issues and treatments to patients in a manner that they can understand. PAs must also communicate with doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare workers to ensure the best possible care is initiated and provided.

Emotional Stability

As a physician assistant, it is important to have the ability to remain calm and stable during times of pressure or distress. Physician assistants working in high-stress departments, such as emergency medicine and surgery, face stressful situations and challenges. A PA must remain calm and provide assurance to patients and staff in order to provide quality care.

Organizational Skills

Being detail-oriented, observant, and organized helps physician assistants focus on the evaluation and treatment of patients. Strong organizational skills allow PAs to identify problems and carry out the proper treatment plans.

Problem-Solving Skills

Along with good organization skills, physician assistants must have strong problem-solving capabilities. Physician assistants must be diligent in evaluating a patient’s symptoms and administering the proper treatment. Medical issues can be complicated. Often, more than one problem may be impacting the patient. Being able to identify the right treatment plan requires critical thinking and good problem-solving skills.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a Physician Assistant

Why Pursue a Career as a Physician Assistant?

Job Outlook

Employment growth is projected to be quite favorable for physician assistants over the next nine years. In fact, the role of physician assistant has one of the fastest job growths of all occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a projected growth of 31% for employment of physician assistants. This percentage is much faster than the average for all occupations. According to BLS, the favorable job prospects for PAs are expected in primary and generalized care, and across all specialties. Physician assistants will especially be needed in medically underserved and rural regions.

So, why the demand for physician assistants? BLS reports an increase in hiring needs of physician assistants due to the growing and aging population. With members of the baby boom generation living longer and more active lives, the individuals of this population will require more medical and healthcare services as they age. Also, an expected increase in the number of patients with chronic illnesses and diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, will drive the increase in healthcare services required to treat this population. Over the next several years, we should see an increase in the need for physician assistants to provide preventive care and work alongside general practitioners to treat the sick.

Since the duties of a physician assistant are similar to the services provided by physicians, PAs are expected to have a growing role in the treatment of patients. As states allow physician assistants to diagnose and treat patients, and states continue to expand allowable procedures, we should see physician assistants take on more responsibilities. In the future, an emphasis will be placed on team-based healthcare service models that incorporate physician assistants. This model should become commonly used and, as a result, increase the demand for physician assistants.

Earnings Potential

In addition to a favorable job growth, a good reason to pursue a role as a physician assistant is the earnings potential. BLS reports the median annual wage for physician assistants as $115,390. As explained by BLS, the median annual wage is the wage that half the workers in this role earned more than and half earned less than. The highest earners (top 10%) in the occupation of physician assistant made more than $162,000 and the lowest 10% of earners made less than $76,700.

Earnings vary by geographic location and industry. BLS reports the top five highest-paying industries in this profession as the following:

Outpatient care centers: $124,610
Hospitals – state, local, and private: $118,600
Employment services: $115,780
Physician offices: $113,460
Educational services – state, local, and private: $110,770

How to Advance as a Physician Assistant

Once you’ve completed your physician assistant degree and earned certification, you may pursue additional education in a specialty. Postgraduate physician assistant programs in specialty areas like emergency medicine and psychiatry are available from top-ranked, accredited institutions. To secure a spot in one of these competitive programs, a physician assistant must graduate from an accredited program that is certified by the NCCPA.

Advancement in a career as a physician assistant comes as education and experience are gained. Physician assistants can take on new roles in specialties, acquire new responsibilities, and gain greater clinical knowledge. By doing so, PAs position themselves for higher wages and advancement. With experience, some PAs take on the role of mentor, assisting physicians in supervising staff and aspiring physician assistants. Also, PAs may land leadership and administrative roles by becoming an executive of a healthcare organization.

Best Degree Path for Becoming a Physician Assistant

Work Environment of a Physician Assistant

Approximately half of all physician assistants work in physician offices. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the largest employer of PAs are physician offices. 54 percent of all physician assistants work in physician offices. The second-largest employer of physician assistants is hospitals, which employ approximately 25% of all PAs. Outpatient care centers employ about eight percent of all physician assistants, and four percent are employed by educational services at the state, local, and private level. Lastly, employment services make up about one percent of the employment of physician assistants.

Physician assistants work full time. Many work beyond the traditional 40-hour work week. It is not uncommon for them, especially those working in hospitals, to work nights, weekends, and holidays. Physician assistants may be on-call, which means they must be ready to respond to emergencies with little notice.

A typical day for a physician assistant can be both physically and emotionally demanding. Most of the day is spent on their feet, meeting and evaluating patients. PAs working in surgery centers stand for extended periods of time.

Physician assistants work on teams with physicians and healthcare professionals. Specific duties are overseen by the supervising physician or surgeon. A PA may work in all areas of medicine, from emergency services to pediatric healthcare. In some areas of the country, especially in rural or underserved regions, physician assistants may act as a primary care provider at a clinic where the physician is only present one day a week. By law, the physician and physician assistant must collaborate, but the role of the PA can be mostly autonomous.

In some areas of the country, physician assistants may make house calls or visit nursing homes and life care facilities to treat patients. The specialty you choose will influence your work environment. And, while the job is not always easy, it can be highly rewarding.

Final Thoughts on the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Physician Assistant

The role of a physician assistant is complex. While not a physician, a PA carries out many of the same duties a physician does on a daily basis. Physician assistants practice medicine on teams with physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. They examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, order interpretive tests, prescribe medicine, and monitor treatment plans. While specific duties vary by specialty and medical practice, the general duties of a PA are often the same.

To secure a role as a physician assistant, you will be required to obtain proper education. Physician assistants need to hold a master’s degree from an accredited program and/or institution. Also, since states require licensing, physician assistants must pass licensing requirements. Although physician assistant programs vary in scope and required coursework, programs generally take two to four years of undergraduate study and two years of graduate study.

BDP Staff:
May 2021

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This concludes our article on the best degree path for becoming a physician assistant.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris