Physician Assistants


Education and Training Requirements

High School

Since a physician assistant needs to be good with numbers and understand how the human body works, anyone interested in this job can begin preparing in high school by taking math and science classes, such as biology and chemistry, as well as health classes. English and social science classes, such as psychology, will also help you improve your communication skills and give you an understanding of people. Acceptance to a PA school is extremely rigorous. Get in the habit while in high school of earning high grades.

Also, keep in mind that it's not too early to gain some experience in the health care field. Many postsecondary institutions take into consideration an applicant's hands-on experience when deciding whom to accept, so look for paid or volunteer positions in your community.

Postsecondary Training

Most states require that PAs complete an educational program approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Most educational programs are graduate programs leading to the award of master's degrees in either Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS), Health Science (MHS), or Medical Science (MMSc), and require a bachelor's degree and GRE or MCAT scores for entry. Most PA educational programs last 24 to 36 months.

Acceptance to PA programs is highly competitive. The University of Colorado reported that the graduating class of 2019 had 1,570 applicants and only accepted 44, which is approximately 2.8 percent. The average GPA for these students was 3.73. 

The beginning of most programs involves classroom instruction in human anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, microbiology, clinical pharmacology, applied psychology, clinical medicine, and medical ethics. Then students engage in supervised clinical work, usually including assignments, or rotations, in various branches of medicine, such as family practice, pediatrics, and emergency medicine.

Physician assistants may also complete residency training, similar to physicians' residencies but significantly shorter, in fields such as OB/GYN, emergency medicine, critical care, orthopedics, neurology, surgery, and other medical disciplines.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Currently, all states require that PAs be certified by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). To become certified, applicants must be graduates of an accredited PA program and pass the Physician Assistants National Certifying Examination (PANCE). According to NCCPA, the examination consists of two parts:

"1. Organ systems and the diseases, disorders and medical assessments physician assistants encounter within those systems; and

"2. The knowledge and skills physician assistants should exhibit when confronted with those diseases, disorders and assessments."

Once certified, PAs are required to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education courses every two years, and in addition must pass a recertification examination every 10 years. Besides NCCPA certification, most states also require that PAs register with the state medical board. State rules and regulations vary greatly concerning the work of PAs, and applicants are advised to study the laws of the state in which they wish to practice.

Licensing for physician assistants varies by state. New graduates should contact their state's licensing board to find out about specific requirements. Some states grant temporary licenses to physician assistants who have applied for the PANCE. For permanent licensure, most states require verification of certification or an official record of their exam scores.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

When you begin to work as a licensed and certified physician assistant, you will rely heavily on your clinical training. PAs who wish to specialize will need to complete a residency.

Interpersonal skills are critical to being a successful physician assistant because you will work with many different kinds of people, from the physician who supervises you to the many different patients you see every day. In addition to being a caring individual, you should also have a strong desire to continue learning to keep up with the latest medical procedures and recertification requirements. Since ill individuals depend on a physician assistant's decisions, anyone interested in this job should have leadership skills and self-confidence as well as compassion.