How to Become a Physician Assistant

May 27, 2024

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It’s easy to get lost in the fine details when researching how to become a physician assistant (PA). While there is some variation in the paths professionals take to get hired as a PA, there are three essential steps. 

Steps to become a physician’s assistant

  1. You will need to earn at least a bachelor’s degree (although master’s degrees are heavily preferred) that is accredited through the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  2. Take and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to earn the nationally recognized certification
  3. Apply for and be granted a state license to practice medicine

You’ll find some limitations within these requirements. For example, fewer than 300 colleges and universities in the country are accredited through the ARC-PA. You cannot qualify to take and pass the PANCE from just any undergraduate or graduate course of study in life sciences. You will need to verify that the school offering the preparatory program for PA studies has either provisional or continued ARC-PA accreditation.

Learn How to Knock Out Your Pre-PA Requirements

While some undergraduate PA programs exist, over 82 percent of PAs have a master’s degree. Even if you gain certification with a bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely still need a master’s degree to qualify for most physician assistant jobs.

The PANCE also has certain limitations applied. Alongside the requirement that you successfully graduate from an ARC-PA certified educational program, you will also need to take the PANCE within six years of graduating. Additionally, you’re only allowed six attempts to take and pass the certification exam within those six years. If six years pass, or if you cannot pass the exam after six tries within that six-year timeframe, you will be required to retake an ARC-PA certified degree program if you want to take the exam again.

What is a physician assistant?

A physician assistant is a skilled medical professional who works with a supervising physician to provide patient care in outpatient practices, inpatient settings, operating rooms, and emergency departments. Most PAs fulfill many of the same duties as a physician, including eliciting a patient history, performing physical exams, formulating comprehensive management plans, and prescribing medications. Depending on the specialty, PAs may also perform or assist physicians with both medical and surgical procedures.

The primary difference between a physician and a physician assistant is the additional years of training required of physicians, expanded scope of practice, and the current availability of administrative roles within major medical facilities. Traditionally, physician assistants dedicate most of their time to direct patient care. However, more and more PAs are serving in expanding leadership roles within healthcare organizations.

Where do physician assistants work?

Most private or public healthcare facilities that hire physicians also hire physician assistants. Physician assistants must have a supervising physician to practice medicine. However, the level of supervision required depends on state laws, which can range from direct to indirect supervision. Most PAs operate with a significant degree of independence within their organizations, only deferring to their supervising physician when the physician’s expertise is necessary or requested.

Once certified, PAs can work in public or private hospitals, private medical practices, medical research facilities, clinics, ambulatory surgical centers, rehabilitation centers, and many other locations.

Many physician assistants choose to pursue specializations in surgery, emergency medicine, internal medicine, dermatology, oncology, and pediatrics, among many others.

Learn how much physician assistants make

Become a physician assistant in under three years: Keck Graduate Institute

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the physician assistant profession is projected to add over 39,000 jobs by 2029, representing a 27 percent increase. With an average annual income that exceeds $130,000, now is the right time to consider a career as a physician assistant.

Keck Graduate Institute’s Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPA) degree is a 27-month program that offers hands-on learning in some of the most advanced medical facilities in Southern California. Learn from skilled and knowledgeable medical professionals and earn real-world experience in patient care.

As a part of your degree, Keck Graduate Institute will help you prepare for and pass the PANCE exam. We also provide continuing support and career counseling until you’ve found your first job as a physician assistant. With focused attention from Keck Graduate Institute’s faculty and staff, you may be able to get your MSPA, earn your national certification, obtain state licensure, and land a high-paying physician assistant job in less than three years.

Contact us today to learn more about Keck Graduate Institute’s innovative MS in Physician Assistant Studies, including application requirements and available financial aid opportunities.


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