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How to Become a Physician Assistant

two male physician talking to the male patient

Have you always wanted to work in the medical field but, for whatever reason, don’t see yourself as a doctor?

Perhaps you dread the many years of school or the difficult tests.

Or, maybe you just don’t want the high-stress life of a doctor

Whatever the case may be, you should know that there are other great jobs available in the medical industry.

One such job is to become a physician’s assistant, a job that many people greatly enjoy.

You may be wondering how to become a physician assistant. But before you stress over all of that, take some time to educate yourself on this line of work so that you can decide whether or not it is right for you.

What, Exactly, How to become a Physician Assistant?

Before you worry about how to become a physician assistant, you should first know what the job consists of and what these professionals do.

As the name implies, they serve as assistants to doctors, but they actually have some pretty important medical work to do themselves. They often diagnose illnesses, create treatment plans, prescribe medications, and so much more.

Exact responsibilities can vary depending on the setting in which you work. However, one thing is for sure, a physician assistant is a person who has a very important job to do.

The Importance of Education

a male physician using stethoscope on female patient

Image: CC BY 2.0, Army Medicine, via flckr

While you might not be thrilled by the years of education required to become a doctor, you should know how to become a physician assistant requires its own share of schooling.

While these professionals don’t have to go to school for quite as long as a doctor, they do need to earn at least a master’s degree from an accredited program specifically geared toward physician assisting.

And, while there are many such programs to choose from, they do tend to be quite competitive.

Plus, to even get into a program, you will need a bachelor’s degree, preferably but not necessarily in a related field.

Most master’s level programs also look for experience in the field. This includes direct contact with patients or past medical fieldwork, such as having been a nursing assistant or a paramedic.

However, if your degree is not in a related field, don’t panic.

Many programs will accept students from more diverse backgrounds since they bring their own unique skills to the programs that they enter.

Once you are accepted into a program, you can expect it to take about three years to complete on average, though you can often finish more quickly if you really commit yourself.

In any case, your training will consist of both classroom time and real-world experience. Good programs will give you enough of both to adequately prepare you for a career in the field.

Two Types of Training: How to become a Physician Assistant

When you do enroll in a physician assistant education program, you can expect for your training to be broken up into two categories or phases.

These include the classroom/standard education phase and the clinical phase, in which you actually gain real working experience.

Things that you will learn and engage in through both phases include:

  • Basic medical science information
  • Clinical Rotations
  • Behavioral sciences information
  • Family medicine information
  • Behavioral ethics information
  • Internal medicine information
  • Obstetrics and gynecology information
  • General surgery information
  • Emergency medicine information

Really, this is just a small sampling of all that you will learn and participate in.

The goal in most physician assistant programs is to provide you with training, information, and experience across a wide range of different medical fields and areas of specialization – no matter what your specific focus or career plans may be.

What Will Your Actual Job Look Like?

male doctor using stethoscope on female patient

Image: Public Domain in the United States. Josie Kemp, U.S. Air Force, via Wikimedia

Now that you know how to become a physician assistant, you may be wondering what actually working in the field will look like and be like.

This really depends on where you plan to work. Duties can vary greatly based on the type of healthcare practice at which you become employed.

In general, though, most physician assistants will do things like take medical histories when patients first come in, do preliminary physical exams, and order and read medical tests.

Some physician’s assistants may also be tasked with diagnosing illnesses and conditions, creating and carrying out treatment plans, prescribing medicine, assisting in surgeries, and doing clinical research.

When looking for and applying for jobs, it is always good to inquire about the specific responsibilities for that particular position. That way, you can find a job that ultimately lines up with the type of work you prefer to do as a PA.

The good news is that, in this line of work, you definitely do have a choice. You will have all kinds of workplace options available to you once you receive the proper training.

Understanding Your Workplace Options

As mentioned, physician assistants work in a wide range of different capacities and in a wide range of different settings.

The setting in which you work will go a long way toward determining what responsibilities you will have. Thus, while you are receiving your training, you will want to think about which option most appeals to you. That way, when you do graduate, you can spend your time trying to find jobs that line up with your specific interests.

For example, some PAs prefer to work in the busy, fast-paced hospital setting. Others, however, prefer a quieter working life and will often work at smaller private practices.

Some give back by working at community health centers or nursing homes. Others go on to become teachers in the field, to do research in the field, or to work for government agencies or the military.

The opportunities truly are limitless.

This is really nice if you want the option to try new and different things within the same field as part of your career or if you just want to have a lot of possible career opportunities when you graduate.

A Growing Field that is in High Demand

The good news about being a PA, aside from the many opportunities available, is that this field is booming right now.

Demand for PAs is high, which means that, as long as you complete your training and complete it well, you should not find it super difficult to find a job.

Plus, these rates of growth and demand are not showing any sign of slowing down according to projected statistics. This is a job that should be in high demand for many years to come, thus offering you a shot at a very secure future.

Do You Have What It Takes?

Now that you understand how to become a physician assistant, the big question is, do you have what it takes to succeed in this field?

While there is no set list of qualities you absolutely have to have to excel at this profession, having certain traits and characteristics certainly helps.

Motivation

For example, you have to be seriously motivated to become a PA. As you can tell, it takes years of training that you have to excel at. There is also rigorous testing and lots of hard work in general.

And, once you finish your schooling and get hired somewhere, the hard work really begins. If you are not a very motivated person, then you will find it difficult to have success in this field or even to complete the training that it requires.

Mental Stability

In addition to being motivated, you also have to be mentally healthy and stable. The reason this is so important is that you will deal with some difficult things in this line of work.

While you will help people and while the job will often be rewarding, there are times when you will have to deal with very ill or even dead people. Sometimes, patients you care about will die. This is a harsh reality of the job that every PA must deal with.

Emotional Preparedness

Because there are such difficult things you have to go through as a PA, it is important for you to be able to separate your working life and your home life and to keep your emotions in check. And you can’t do any of that if you are not an emotionally stable, emotionally healthy person.

Of course, with all of that said, there is nothing wrong with wanting to help people. In fact, to be a good PA, you need to have that quality.

You should enjoy working with and communicating with people, and you should be able to handle people when emotions are high. The key is just to keep a professional distance and to remember that you cannot save every patient that you work with.

Ready to Become a PA?

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider before deciding if it is the career path for you.

If it is, though, and you put in the work, you should find this to be a very rewarding and fulfilling career option.

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