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How to Become a Physician Assistant

If you have ever had a cold or minor injury, you have likely visited a physician assistant to be diagnosed and treated. But, have you ever thought about becoming one? Learning how to become a physician assistant is a great career decision.

Working in the medical field is always a noble profession and helping people pays well. For anyone who enjoys learning about the human body and using that knowledge to help people, becoming a physician assistant is the right career path for you.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is the family doctor most people see. They practice under the direction of a licensed physician, meaning they aren't quite at the top but are pretty close. These are the people you visit for primary medical services.

Physician assistants are commonly known as family doctors since people typically bring their family to the same one for years. They help diagnose common illnesses such as a cold, flu, or strep throat, and treat minor injuries and abrasions.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

While physician assistants work under the direction and supervision of a licensed physician, they can do quite a bit on their own. In fact, they often work without their supervisor being on the premises and they make most primary care decisions themselves.

Takes Medical Histories

A very important part of any job in the medical field is obtaining a patient’s medical history. This is the part of your doctor’s appointment in which they ask you about your family history of illnesses, what medications you take, and if you have any history of illnesses or surgeries. This information helps physician assistants to make the best possible decisions for their patients.

Performs Physical Exams

Physical exams are commonly carried out on children, teenagers, and sports players. It is actually recommended that most people have a physical exam done regularly. These exams involve a physician assistant taking your height, weight, and examining your body for any signs of potential medical issues.

Diagnoses and Treats Injuries and Illnesses

Physician assistants spend a lot of time examining patients who are sick or injured. They are responsible for diagnosing these illnesses and injuries and deciding on a treatment course. Oftentimes, treatments include prescribed medications and ordering testing to be done. For more serious situations, physician assistants may refer patients to a specialist.

Essential Physician Assistant Skills

Extensive Medical Knowledge

For anyone working in the medical field, having as much medical knowledge as possible is extremely important. Without completing numerous medical courses, physician assistants would be unable to properly diagnose and treat patients, rendering them unable to work.

Strong Work Ethic

Many physician assistants work long hours and overtime. Having a strong work ethic is important to holding down a job as a physician assistant because you will likely be required to work well over the standard 40 hours a week. If you enjoy your job, this will likely be exhausting but rewarding.

Ability to Remain Confidential

Most of what patients share with physician assistants is personal and bound to confidentiality. Physician assistants are bound by the Hippocratic oath to protect patient confidentiality. While it may be tempting to discuss interesting cases with your family and friends, it is a violation of trust and the oath to do so. Protecting patient confidentiality is a huge part of working in the medical field.

Physician Assistant Salaries and Job outlook

Even the lowest-paid physician assistants earn an average of $72,000 per year. These are often the new hires with little to no experience. As you progress in the field, you will easily make closer to the national average of $112,260 per year. If you are lucky, you can even begin earning more than $150,000 per year.

As with any job, the salary you earn is largely based on your education, experience, and location of employment. If you have higher education and plenty of years of work experience, you will get paid more than someone who meets the bare minimum requirements. Some areas have a higher-demand for physician assistants, so their hires get paid more than areas where the demand is much lower.

Due to the growing and aging population, demand for healthcare workers is rising rapidly. Especially now, as the large baby boomer generation is reaching their older years, more and more people are falling ill or becoming injured and the need for healthcare providers is more necessary. Employment of physician assistants is expected to jump a whopping 31 percent by 2028, which is much faster than other occupations. This will open up a plethora of jobs and make finding employment much easier in the upcoming years.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Physician Assistant? 

Most employers hire physician assistants who have completed master's degrees or higher. On average, this means spending about six years in school. On top of that, many programs will require additional hours to be completed in work experience, so overall, it takes six to seven years to become a physician assistant.

After earning your degree, you will also need to earn your certification and licensing. While many students choose to do these things as soon as possible, some take a few months to really study and prepare for the exams. This tacks on some extra time to the process of becoming a physician assistant.

How to Become a Physician Assistant: A Step by Step Guide

The path to becoming a physician assistant is very straightforward, especially when compared to other career paths in the medical field. All you need to do is earn a degree, get your experience hours, and become certified and licensed.

Step 1: Earn a Physician Assistant Degree

While there are some jobs physician assistants can fill with only a bachelor’s degree, it is strongly recommended that you pursue a master’s or even doctoral degree. Having more education not only makes you a more efficient worker, but also increases your employability and pay.

There are different programs available for you to enroll in. Many students choose the traditional route of earning a bachelor’s degree and then applying for a master’s degree program for physician assistants. This is a great route, but there are also options to combine a bachelor’s and master’s degree into one program that only takes five years to complete instead of the traditional six. Taking this way route can help you achieve your goals quicker.

Step 2: Complete Required Experience Hours

After earning your degree, you will need to check the requirements for your specific state. Most states require a minimum of a few months of experience hours to be completed before you can become certified and licensed. In most states, these hours can easily be completed as an internship throughout your degree program, but some students may find it easier to complete an internship after earning their degree.

The required experience hours will be completed under the supervision of a licensed physician assistant. You will be able to put your skills to the test in real-life scenarios and get a feel for the workplace. By completing these hours, you will gain valuable work experience and confidence in your education.

Step 3: Take the National Certification Exam

Every physician assistant is strongly encouraged to take the national certification exam. In fact, you must pass it and become certified before you can legally practice as a physician assistant. The exam is called the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam and is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

The exam itself is taken in an online testing format. You will be required to pay a fee of $475 to take the exam, and should you not pass, you will be required to pay the same fee each time you retake the exam. The exam can be retaken 90 days after a failed attempt, and you have a limit of three attempts per year.

Step 4: Apply for a State License

After becoming nationally certified, you will need to apply for a license in the state you intend to practice in. Every state has slightly different requirements, but the majority follow the same standard basis.

You will be required to submit an application with your college transcripts, the licensing fee, your certification exam scores, and if you have been licensed in previous states, a request for those states to send in proof of your license. It often takes four to eight weeks before you will hear back from the licensing board, but you can begin work as soon as you receive your license.

Should You Become a Physician Assistant?

Becoming a physician assistant is a great way to earn an awesome salary while improving people’s lives. If this sounds like a good gig to you, you should become a physician assistant.


Can a registered nurse become a physician assistant?
Yes; there are no registered nurse to physician assistant programs, but registered nurses have a considerable advantage in being accepted into physician assistant programs.
What can physician assistants do that registered nurses cannot?
The primary difference is that physician assistants can provide diagnoses and prescribe treatments, while registered nurses cannot.
Is physician assistant schooling harder than nursing school?
Both schools are challenging, but one is not necessarily harder than the other. They are just different types of challenges.
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