How to Become a Physician Assistant (PA)

In Career Advice, Education, Physician Assistant
June 16, 2016

How to Become a Physician Assistant (PA)

If you’re searching for how to become a physician assistant (PA) and the steps needed to maintain the licenses and certifications involved, look no further!

A career as a physician assistant (PA) offers competitive salaries, benefits, job availability, and satisfaction. Overall, PAs have a great outlook both for openings and rising salaries due to the current shortage of healthcare professionals.

As healthcare has improved over the past several decades, Americans are living longer and are requiring more care. With future advancements, the demand for skilled physician assistants will only continue to rise, as hospital and healthcare organizations raise salaries and increases benefit packages to attract new talent to their organizations.

If you’re serious about taking this career path, be sure to stay on top of how to become a physician assistant due to the changes that are sometimes made to the way these professionals are trained.

How to Become a Physician Assistant (PA):

Physician assistant is one of the fastest growing job opportunities in the nation. To enter into practice, a graduate from an accredited physician assistant program must also successfully complete a national certification exam and obtain a license in the state where they wish to practice.

Requirements for entry into PA programs may vary but, in general, requirements include a bachelor’s degree that encompasses a course of study in science and non-science prerequisites, with a minimum GPA of 3.3, health care experience and standardized exams to earn your license.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (4 Years)

The first step to becoming a physician assistant is to major in the physical sciences or a pre-med program at your school. Physician assistant programs can be highly competitive, so it can pay off well to hit the ground running and stay on top of your studies consistently.

The prerequisite required by physician assistant programs include chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology, and biology courses.

A typical undergraduate semester may look like this:

Grade Level Example Courses
Freshman Year

 

  • General Chemistry I & Lab
  • General Chemistry II & Lab
  • Biology & Lab
  • Calculus I
  • English 101
  • English 102
  • Humanities Requirement
  • Physics I & Lab
  • Physics II & Lab
Sophomore Year
  • Organic Chemistry I & Lab
  • Organic Chemistry II & Lab
  • Fundamentals of Microbiology & Lab
  • Genetics
  • Physiology
  • Humanities Requirement
  • Electives
Junior Year

 

  • Cell Structure & Function
  • General Virology & Lab
  • Microbial Genetics & Lab
  • Biochemistry I
  • Biochemistry II
  • Physics
  • Electives
Senior Year
  • Upper Level Biology
  • Upper Level Chemistry
  • Upper Level Physics
  • Upper Level Psychology
  • Upper Level Kinesiology
  • Electives

In any or all of the science coursework undertaken, a laboratory experience may be included. The non-science courses, as those examples listed above, may vary from institution to institution but there will be a non-science component in any accredited program.

2. Complete an Accredited PA Program (2 Years)

The second step in becoming a physician assistant (PA) is to complete an accredited PA program. The Physician Assistant Education Association maintains an updated directory of admissions criteria for PA programs across the country. The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) streamlines applications to multiple PA programs.

Most of the programs take about 26 months to complete. When you complete the program you will be rewarded with a master’s degree. During your time there you will receive classroom instruction and be involved in clinical rotation.

Classroom instruction consists of the following:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Physical diagnosis
  • Pathophysiology
  • Microbiology
  • Clinical laboratory science
  • Behavioral science
  • Medical ethics

Along with your classroom instruction, you will complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations where you will learn about primary care in hospitals, physician offices, and long-term care facilities.

Your rotations might include:

  • Family medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • General surgery
  • Emergency medicine
  • Psychiatry

3. Become a Certified Physician Assistant

After you graduate your PA Program you can take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

If you pass the PANCE and maintain your certification, your title will be Physician Assistant-Certified or PA-C.

The exam contains the following:

Section/Category Section Breakdown
History Taking and Performing Physical Exams
  • 16 % of test
  • Tests cognitive skills, focus, identifying historical info, identifying pertinent info
Using Lab and Diagnostic Studies
  • 14% of test
  • Tests equipment usage, selecting appropriate diagnosing studies, collecting and interpreting lab studies
Formulating Most Likely Diagnosis
  • 18% of test
  • Tests skills in correlating normal and abnormal diagnostic data,
    formulating differential diagnosis, and Selecting the most likely diagnosis
Health Maintenance
  • 10% of test
  • Tests skills in counseling and patient education techniques,
    communicating with patients to enhance health maintenance, and adapting health maintenance to the patient’s context
Clinical Intervention
  • 14% of test
  • Tests ability to formulate and implement treatment plans,
    Recognize and initiate treatment for life-threatening emergencies, demonstrate technical expertise, to use counseling techniques, and to work effectively
Pharmaceutical Therapeutics 
  • 18% of test
  • Tests ability to select appropriate pharmacologic therapy for selected medical conditions, monitor pharmacologic regimens and adjusting as appropriate, evaluating and reporting adverse drug reactions
Applying Basic Science Concepts
  • 10% of test
  • Recognize normal and abnormal anatomy and physiology
    relate pathophysiologic principles to specific disease processes,
    correlate abnormal physical examination findings to a given disease process, correlate abnormal results of diagnostic tests to a given disease process

4. Earn the Required License

Once you pass the PANCE and jump through all the hoops you can get licensed. You need to obtain your state license in order to practice. Check to see what is required of your state and apply with the licensing board.

5. Maintain Certification Through Continuing Education

To keep your national certification, you must complete 100 hours of continuing education courses every two years and take a recertification exam (Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam, or PANRE) every 10 years.

Summary

The career path of a physician assistant is fairly straight-forward. Complete a bachelor’s degree in a physical science (biology, chemistry, physiology, etc.), then complete an accredited physician assistant program, earn your certification and license, then check with your state’s board to find out how many continuing education units (CEUs) you need on a yearly basis to ensure you license remains valid.

Stay on top of how to become a physician assistant because the requirements can change and vary from year to year. We will update this page in the future if any major changes are made to the way physician assistants are trained, certified, or licensed.

Want to learn more? Check out our career profiles and satisfy your thirst for knowledge.

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