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How to Become a PA: Learn the Basic Understanding of a PA

When you’re looking into jobs in the medical field that don’t require a doctorate but still pay well, you might think of a nurse. However, nursing isn’t your only option. You can make a lucrative salary, practice medicine, and help people if you choose to become a physician assistant.

Before Knowing How to Become a PA, Know the Job First 

A physician assistant (PA) does the same type of work as a physician, only as a PA, your responsibilities aren’t always as intense as a physician’s. You often work with a team of medical experts to treat patients. Your job is similar to a nurse practitioner’s (NP), but you require a different level of education and training.

As a PA, you have to gather data and review patients’ medical histories as well as examine them. In many cases, you perform diagnostics in order to diagnose patients. Once you perform or receive the results of the diagnostics, you must analyze them.

After you and usually the team of doctors or surgeons you work with come to a conclusion regarding the diagnosis of the patient, you execute a course of action to treat them. You may set broken bones or prescribe medications under the direct supervision of a physician. A PA often provides immunizations to patients.

Part of the duties of a PA include providing patient education and counseling. You help people and their families take care of the condition at home.

Physician assistant assisting a patient

After you diagnose the issue and supply a patient with a treatment, you monitor the patient. It’s also possible you’ll participate in outreach programs that promote the wellness of a community.

Some of your job responsibilities may vary since not every state has the same regulations as to what a PA can do alone and under the supervision of a doctor.

If this sounds like something you’d like to do for a living, you must learn how to become a PA to determine if this is a career possibility for you.

Places Where Physician Assistants Work

physician assistant writing on a paper

A majority of physician’s assistants work in doctor’s offices. Depending on the location, you may basically practice as a doctor most days because the physician may only come into the office a few times a week. You only contact the physician if you experience an issue that’s beyond your knowledge base.

Physician assistants also work in local, state, and private hospitals as well as outpatient care centers. Some PAs work in educational or employment services, although these are the least common job environments for PAs.

How to Become a PA: Educational Requirements


The first step regarding how to become a PA is to complete your education.

Typically, you need a master’s degree to practice as a physician assistant. You start by earning a bachelor’s degree, usually where you major in a health-related subject. Then, you complete a two-year postgraduate degree program to order earn a master’s degree in a physician assistant program.

Getting into a PA Program

Over 200 accredited PA education programs exist, as noted by the BLS. Make sure you carefully review the prerequisites of the schools before you complete your undergraduate program, so you know what you should major in.

Usually, if you want to earn your master’s degree, you must complete at least two to four years of coursework in a science-related field. Many times, health-related degrees focus on science.

It’s common for a prospective PA to work in the medical field before they complete their education and practice as a PA. For instance, you may want to work as a nurse or an EMT. You could also choose to work as a CNA or another similar medical profession to gain the necessary experience in patient care.

Completing a PA Program

After you begin your master’s degree program, you have both classroom and laboratory instruction. During your coursework, you learn about physiology, pharmacology, human anatomy, and pathology. Part of your education focuses on clinical medicine and how to perform and interpret diagnostics. You must also learn about medical ethics.

During your PA program, you must complete supervised clinical training that often focuses on various aspects of medicine. For example, you practice in family medicine, emergency care, pediatrics, and internal medicine. At this point, you may work under a physician who wants to hire a PA, so once you complete the clinical portion of your education, you may have a position with that physician.

How to Become a PA: Obtaining Your Physician Assistant License

taking the exam

After completing your education, the next step about how to become a PA is to obtain your licensure.

Every state and the District of Columbia require PAs to have a license and keep it active. You must take an initial examination to get your license through the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which is through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

After the initial test, you must keep your certification by completing 100 hours of continuing education credits every two years. Every ten years, you must pass a recertification exam.

State licensure laws also require a PA to have an agreement with a supervising physician. The supervising physician doesn’t have to remain onsite at all times but does need to collaborate with the physician to practice.

Choosing a Specialty as a Physician Assistant

doctor testing a patient

Once you complete all the steps about how to become a PA, you can opt to further your education even more by choosing a specialty. Typically, much of your time spent in clinicals is in primary care, but if this doesn’t interest you, it’s possible to specialize in another area of study such as cardiology, gynecology, psychiatry, or emergency medicine.

You may want to consider the salary you can make from specializing. For example, a PA who works in dermatology can earn an average of $130,000 annually. A PA in urgent care earns the same average yearly salary. If you choose to work in surgery, you can make an average of $115,000 yearly.

On the other hand, if you want to know which specialty best suits your personality, you may want to take the MSAT, which is the Medical Specialty Aptitude Test. It takes about 15 minutes and consists of 130 questions. Some of the questions ask you to rank your preferences, and at the end, the test gives you possible specialties that match your personality and interests.

Earning New Responsibilities as a Physician Assistant

As you gain clinical experience and expand your knowledge base from taking care of patients, you can heighten your responsibilities and salary in other ways than just specializing. After you gain experience, you can supervise staff members or PA students. You could even find yourself in a position where you’re the executive leader of a healthcare organization.

Salary a Physician Assistant Can Expect

After you take the necessary steps regarding how to become a PA, you usually have to work full time and may have to work weekends, evenings, and holidays. It’s possible to earn a physician assistant salary, you have to remain on call, meaning you have to work on a moment’s notice.

A physician assistant earned an average of $104,860 per year as of May 2017. The lowest percentile of earners made $66,590 per year while the highest percentile of earners made $146,260 per year.

as of May 2017

 lowest percentile oF earners

$66,590 / year

highest percentile of earners

$146,260 / year

Where you work determines your wage. For instance, PAs who worked in employment services made an average yearly salary of $114,780. The next highest pay was in outpatient care centers, where the average PA earned $111,740 per year. People who worked in hospitals, including state, local, and private facilities, made an average of $108,250 per year. Physician assistants who worked in doctor’s offices made an average yearly salary of $102,890.

Job Outlook of a Physician Assistant

If you take the steps necessary for how to become a PA, you can expect to enter a field where the job potential is growing. From 2016 to 2026, the BLS projects a 37-percent job growth. This growth rate is much faster than the average for all other occupations.

Job Growth

First and foremost, the demand for individuals in the healthcare field will grow as a result of the aging population growing. Keep in mind, people are living longer, which means they experience more health problems. Therefore, these individuals will seek out the assistance of a PA to help manage their health conditions.

Additionally, the aging population requires preventative care and treatments for general illnesses, so they turn to a PA for assistance.

More and more commonly today, PAs and other similar professionals like nurse practitioners are practicing medicine. And as long as there are people who need a healthcare professional, the country has a need for PAs and other similar medical professionals.

You get to diagnose and treat patients while earning an impressive salary. The educational requirements are lengthy, but you can become a PA in less time than it takes to become a doctor, especially since you don’t have to earn a doctorate or complete a residency.

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