Physician Assistant Degrees and Careers

Discover what a physician assistant does, learn what education you'll need and see what career options are available.

The Basics: Physician Assistant

What you'll do: As a physician assistant, you'll perform the same functions as a doctor, handling all but the most complex cases. Your typical duties will include taking medical histories, examining and treating patients, ordering and analyzing lab tests and x-rays, prescribing medication and treating minor injuries. You may act as a primary health care provider who works with physicians on a referral or consultation basis.

Where you'll work: Over half of all physician assistants work in primary care medicine. You'll work in private practice offices or clinics, hospitals, public health clinics, schools, prisons, or home health care agencies. 

Degree you'll need to practice: Bachelor's degree

Median annual salary: $90,930*
 

Education for Physician Assistants

Unlike nurse practitioners, who have similar jobs, physician assistants must have some experience in the allied health field prior to entering their two-year nurse practitioner program.

After earning your bachelor's degree, most students complete a two-year master's physician assistant program. During the first year, you’ll take medical science courses such as:

  • Biochemistry
  • Pathology
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Disease prevention
  • Pharmacology

In the second year of your master's studies, you gain clinical experience in primary care medicine. You'll study the broad spectrum of medical and surgical care, allowing you to practice in the variety of specialties rather than one specific area of study. These include the the following:

  • Inpatient medicine
  • Surgery
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Geriatrics
  • Emergency medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Pediatrics

You may enter your master's studies coming from a different area of medical study, or you may have earned a physician's assistant bachelor's degree (BA-PA). This accelerated four-year program allows you to earn your bachelor's in conjunction with your graduate level PA certificate. The third and fourth years include nine months of clinical course work and 12 months of clinical rotations. Most BA-PA programs will admit students on a conditional pre-professional status, until the first two years are complete.

Licensing and Certification

To become a certified physician assistant and be eligible for the acronym PA-C, you must complete the following:

  • Graduate from a program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE)

To maintain active certification status, PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years. Additionally, a recertification exam is required every six years. Recertification can be attained alternatively by combining learning experience with a take-home exam.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Physician Assistants.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.