Have questions about becoming a physician assistant? View this comprehensive Physician Assistant FAQ guide. Many different topics are addressed from applying to physician assistant programs to prerequisites, requirements, finding jobs and more.
In order to become a physician assistant, you must complete an accredited program in physician assistant studies. Most of these require a bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite and result in a master’s degree, but a few are offered at the undergraduate level or as a hybrid bachelor’s/master’s program. Upon completion of your studies, you will need to become certified by taking a national exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). You will need to retake this exam throughout your career – every six years – in order to maintain your certification. You must also obtain a state license.
According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, “a physician assistant (PA) is a medical professional who works as part of a team with a doctor. A PA is a graduate of an accredited PA educational program who is nationally certified and state-licensed to practice medicine with the supervision of a physician.”
In most cases, six years of additional study are required – four at the undergraduate level and two at the graduate level. While this is the norm, however, it is theoretically possible to complete the work as an undergraduate in four to five years. The time it takes a person to complete a physician assistant graduate program will vary depending on their personal circumstances and their ability to pass the required courses and accumulate the credit and clinical hours required to meet graduation requirements.
A physician assistant degree is often compared to other medical roles such as a nurse or doctor, but there are key differences between each field. View the differences between a nurse practitioner vs. physician assistant as well as other medical professions here.
A physician assistant obtains certification by passing a national exam. This happens after an individual has completed a master’s degree in physician assistant studies. A few accelerated BA-PA programs for physician assistants are available, and students who complete these may be eligible to take the exam – and earn certification.
Registered nurses generally complete a four-year college degree. Alternatively, physician assistants are most often required to complete a two-year master’s degree in addition to four years of college.
Graduate school in physical therapy has its own requirements, many of which may be met with an undergraduate degree in physician assistant studies. Consult the admissions requirements for physical therapy programs in which you are interested, and keep in mind that most physical therapists now earn doctoral degrees before practicing.
Yes, this path is certainly viable. Keep in mind, however, that while physician assistant training and work experience are naturally useful in becoming a medical doctor, it is highly unlikely they will diminish the time you need to spend in medical school.
No, you do not need to have a pre-med major to become a physician assistant. College graduates with a wide range of undergraduate degrees are regularly accepted into schools with physician assistant programs.
You will need to take courses in the biological and physical sciences – especially anatomy and biochemistry – both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. As a graduate student you will also take more specialized courses such as clinical practice, medical procedures, and patient evaluation. Check with your program of interest to learn more about pre-requisite course requirements.
Most programs list a GPA of 3.0 as the minimum. At top-rated schools, applicants need a considerably higher GPA even to be considered. That said, exceptions are possible, especially if the program is not one of the most competitive in the country. If you do not have the minimum GPA requirement at one or more of your chosen schools, you should speak with an admissions officer before applying and see how you might be able to demonstrate your academic aptitude in some other way.
Some experience in health care is often required before a person can be admitted to a physician assistant program. Requirements vary from program to program, however; some list a specific amount of experience required while others are more flexible. Also, the nature of that experience can take many different forms, including work performed as a student or volunteer.
Yes. Even before beginning a physician assistant program, prospective PAs are usually required to have some kind of experience in the health care field. More importantly, specialized clinical experience is an extensive and essential part of all physician assistant programs.
If you have the educational requirements for a physician assistant program but need experience, think of ways in which the knowledge and skills you already have might be put to use in the health care industry. Perhaps you are in a good position to perform clerical or administrative work in the field. Or, if you are an athlete, consider taking a position (paid or volunteer) as a coach, instructor, or lifeguard.
According to US News and World Report (2011), the physician assistant program at Duke University is the best in the country. Given the origins of the profession at this institution, this is hardly surprising. Other highly ranked programs can be found at the University of Iowa, the University of Utah, Emory University, George Washington University, and Baylor College of Medicine.
Most schools with physician assistant programs do not require a specific undergraduate major. They often require coursework in the biological and physical sciences, however. Whether you choose to major in one of these subjects (e.g. biology, chemistry, etc.) or in another field is ultimately up to you, as long as you have time in your schedule to complete some coursework in these areas. These courses can also be taken after completion of an undergraduate degree. Pre-requisite course work varies among institutions be certain to check with your program of choice in order to ascertain specific pre-requisite course requirements.
Physician assistants need a significant amount of clinical training, which is not normally feasible at the undergraduate level. They need to interact with patients and doctors on a regular basis, much like medical students, which requires a specialized learning environment.
The entrance requirements for physician assistant programs are similar to many other kinds of graduate programs. Many PA programs are highly selective, which means admission to a program may be more difficult than in some other fields. Due to the unique training requirements, there may be a limited amount of online physician assistant programs compared to traditional campus experiences.
Earning your degree from an accredited institution and obtaining NCCPA certification (by taking a national exam) are the most important requirements for finding a position as a physician assistant. You may find additional education helpful for career advancement, however, especially since a master’s degree is the norm.
Medical experience can be gained in many different ways; actual employment as a medical professional is not necessary. For example, you might consider volunteering at a local health care facility while you are studying. Or, you can take courses (including non-academic ones such as CPR training) that put you in touch with the profession.
Physician assistants can and do work abroad. Most do so through US organizations with international programs, including the military and nonprofit aid groups.
Yes, but the training and certification are not interchangeable. You will still need to take the national exam for physician assistants administered by National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) – and obtain a state license – before you can practice as a PA. Depending on when and where you obtained your medical training, you may be required to complete an accredited PA program before you will be eligible to take the exam.
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