Become a Physician Assistant in 6 Easy Steps

Physician assistants play an important role in supporting doctors and nurses. They are vital to the healthcare network in general as they work closely with other medical experts to provide the best all-around care.


For those interested in pursuing a career as a physician assistant, it’s important to know the different aspects of the job, including assessing the best physician assistant programs for you.


If you’re curious to know how to start working as a physician assistant, including job outlook, how to become one, and the best physician assistant programs, keep reading.


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What is a Physician Assistant?


Before embarking on a new career path or even before looking for a degree program, you should know exactly what a physician assistant does. 


A physician assistant supports various healthcare teams and works under the supervision of doctors or medical experts. Some of their responsibilities are the same as doctors, such as prescribing medication or diagnosing an illness. 


Because of this, there’s a lot of coursework and extensive training involved in becoming a physician assistant.



Should You Become a Physician Assistant?


There’s no easy way to answer whether or not you should pursue this as a career, but there are ways you can assess whether or not you’re ready to become a physician assistant.


First and foremost, you need to have the passion and drive to put in a lot of hours into your education and formal training. This definitely isn’t an easy career path and it involves a significant time commitment, but it’s also highly rewarding.


Like anyone in the medical field, you’ll need to be able to separate emotions from your work, at least in some capacity. As a physician assistant, you’ll be regularly faced with stressful situations like patients with life-threatening illnesses as well as death. It’s important to have the emotional stability to handle these situations when they arise.


As for technical skills, you’ll need to be very detail-oriented in order not to miss any critical information when it comes to working with patients. It’s also important that you’re organized and work well in a team. 


Finally, you’ll need excellent communication skills so that you can share relevant information with other doctors, healthcare staff, patients, and families. 



Physician Assistant Salary and Job Outlook


Physician assistants generally earn a good salary. According to The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a physician assistant in 2019 was $112,260. 


Of course, this salary can change depending on where you work. For example, physician assistants who work in education earn slightly less, while salaries are commonly higher for those who work in outpatient care centers. Where you live also plays a role in how much you’ll earn. States like Connecticut, Washington, and Alaska report the highest median incomes for physician assistants.


As for job growth, this is definitely an industry that’s set to grow within the next decade. Physician assistant jobs are expected to grow by up to 31% until 2029, which is higher than the average growth in most other occupations. Therefore, your physician assistant education will surely pay off as you have great chances of landing a job.



How to Become a Physician Assistant



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Here are the steps you can expect to go through in order to complete your education, get training, and ultimately get certified as a physician assistant.



Step 1: Get Your Bachelor’s Degree


It may seem obvious, but earning your bachelor’s degree is the very first step upon which you’ll build your entire career’s foundation. 


When selecting your bachelor’s degree program, try and consider what programs will increase your chance of getting accepted into a graduate program. Not all grad schools have strict requirements when it comes to your undergrad program, but you still want to study something in a relevant field, like health sciences or nursing, in order to increase your chances of getting accepted. Which brings us to the next step…



Step 2: Complete Your Master’s Degree


Even though physician assistants aren’t the same as doctors, they still need a master’s degree in order to qualify for certification. When browsing the physician assistant programs, it’s important that you choose one that is accredited by the ARC-PA, or the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.


During your master’s degree, you’ll take a number of different courses, such as anatomy, biochemistry, medical ethics, pharmacology, preventative medicine, and more. You’ll also participate in clinical rotations in different types of settings so that you can gain more hands-on experience.



Step 3: Pass the Certification Exam


In order to become a physician assistant, you’ll need to pass the PANCE, also known as the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. You have up to six attempts in six years to pass this exam — however, it’s worth putting in the extra effort to pass this exam as soon as possible after graduating, as you’ll need to pass it before you can get your state license to practice.



Step 4: Get (And Stay) Certified


Finally, after all those years of schooling and training and after successfully passing your PANCE exam, you’ll be able to get certified to begin working as a physician assistant.


But this doesn’t mean it’s the end of your journey. Some physician assistants opt to get extra or specialized certifications to increase their knowledge and their ability to work in different clinics. 


For example, you can opt to get a specialized certification in orthopedic surgery, pediatrics, psychiatry, or a number of other fields.


That’s also not the end of it. Physician assistants need to earn continuing education credits every two years in order to maintain their certification and then retake the PANCE after 10 years of practicing to be recertified. 



The Best Physician Assistant Programs


If after reading more about what it takes to become a physician assistant you’re still interested in this as a career, then you’re probably ready to begin looking into physician assistant programs. Here are some of the best ones you can consider and apply to in the US:


  1. Duke University, Durham NC
  2. University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
  3. Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX
  4. University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
  5. Emory University, Atlanta, GA


Online Physician Assistant Programs


Some schools allow you to earn your degree online. Your coursework will be online and you’ll still be able to participate in clinical placements to prepare you for your career. The main advantage is the flexibility of being able to complete your coursework online from a variety of locations. Here are some great online physician assistant programs:


  1. Yale University School of Medicine
  2. A.T. Still University of Health Sciences
  3. Touro College and University System
  4. University of Nebraska Medical Center
  5. University of North Dakota



The Bottom Line


Becoming a physician assistant is no easy feat, but it’s a highly rewarding career path if you’re passionate about working in healthcare. Choosing between the many physician assistant programs isn’t simple, but having a better idea of the programs and their requirements while in the early stages of your education will make your journey a lot easier.


Of course, if you want to begin your journey by studying online, University of the People (UoPeople) offers a great online health sciences degree to get you started. The program is tuition-free and completely remote, so you can earn a bachelor’s degree from wherever you are and on your own schedule.


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