How to Become a Physician Assistant

Learn the steps needed to begin a career as a physician assistant, from education to licensure. Explore the possibilities a career as a physician assistant can offer today.


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Gabby Hyman

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Physician assistants (PAs) are licensed healthcare professionals who practice under the direction of a medical doctor. Duties can vary by state, but commonly include taking medical histories, assisting the physician during the exam, collecting lab specimens, drawing blood, administering medications, and taking electrocardiograms. Prospective students have many options along the path to passing the required Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Training may begin with an associate or bachelor’s degree prior to the required two years of post-baccalaureate education. This guide will help you take the necessary steps to begin your career as a licensed PA, from earning your degree, to passing the PANCE exam prep, to tips for landing your first job.

Is Becoming a Physician Assistant Right for You?

Before deciding on PA career and a training program, make sure that this career is right for you. Students may enter the profession only to discover that they’re not cut out for it. The rigorous education and demands of the job can be overwhelming. Here are ten questions to evaluate your aptitude for earning a PA degree and thriving in the profession:

  • Are you passionate about helping people?
  • Can you commit time and money toward a comprehensive degree program?
  • Are you a nurturing person?
  • Are you comfortable working with patients who are terminally ill or gravely injured?
  • Do you thrive in an often fast-paced environment packed with stress and pressure?
  • Would you be squeamish about handling body fluids or blood?
  • Can you work long hours without succumbing to burnout?
  • Are you comfortable working with angry or hostile patients?
  • Are you capable of protecting the rights and confidentiality of your patients?
  • Can you admit your mistakes and seek guidance from your superiors?

Answering “Yes” to most or all of these questions is a good sign that becoming a physician assistant could be a great move for you.

Research Physician Assistant Programs

In order to register for the PANCE exam, applicants must have graduated from one of the 238 education programs approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The ARC-PA maintains a listing of all accredited PA programs. Programs average 24-27 months to complete. Prospective students have a broad choice among college learning modes (campus and online) and types of PA programs. The right choice depends on where you are along the path to licensing. For example, if you already have a bachelor’s degree, you are prepared to enter a two-year postgraduate program required for taking the PANCE. Be sure to evaluate all prospective PA programs to ensure they are ARC-PA accredited. Let’s break down the decisions.

Deciding Between Campus & Online Learning

Many students considering their PA education should know there are viable online options. It’s critical that your online degree program is accredited. It’s the only way to qualify for the PANCE exam. Compare the online PA degree to the college’s strictly campus program, ensuring that the number of required credits match. Here’s how the various degree programs work in PA education.

Campus PA programs

Campus-based programs combine didactic learning with clinical rotations. Some campus programs allow students to take didactic training along with college medical students. Depending on the extent of prerequisites, programs typically take from 24-27 months to complete. Benefits of undertaking a campus program include direct face-to-face time with faculty, college academic advisers and fellow students. On the other hand, campus students must adhere to a regular schedule without the scheduling flexibility common to online learning. The campus option is best for students who live near the school, are able to commute, and can wrap their schedule around their busy lives. In taking time off from work, students can lose income.

Mostly online PA programs

These online programs combine the first year of didactic training with onsite clinicals and field internships. They also take from 24-27 months to graduate. The courses contain the same content as their campus counterparts. Some classes include labs, requiring onsite attendance. But self-paced online programs offer students exceptional flexibility. They’re best for students who cannot commute or adhere to class schedules. There are online components requiring attendance at synchronous courses that entail regular attendance via live video conferencing. During the balance of the first year, online students work asynchronously, completing coursework at the time and place of their choosing. There can be pitfalls. For example, wholly online didactic programs may make collaborative projects more difficult because of the lag in communication with peers. The asynchronous portion of coursework is self-paced. That means students risk falling behind, extending their time to graduation. Therefore, online students must create their own schedules and stick to them, with a commitment to completing their work on schedule.

Partially online (hybrid) PA programs

Hybrid PA programs combine the best of both instructional worlds. They can be completed within the same time frame common to strictly on-campus PA degrees. Some didactic coursework is completed online, but training and clinicals are conducted in-person. Hybrid degrees allow students to attend on-campus courses to gain face-time with their instructors and academic counselors. PA hybrids may speed up time to completion since students can finish coursework ahead of schedule. And the online courses allow students to review videos and presentations as many times as they need. A PA hybrid is right for students who want to combine required attendance with the online flexibility to work when they choose. There are some limitations to hybrid learning. For instance, hybrid programs require a learning curve to master the technology and the college class delivery systems in the self-paced component. Hybrids require the student’s commitment to attend some campus courses despite their existing schedules.

Understand (and Complete) Prereqs

According to the American Academy of PAs, the majority of degree programs have prerequisite requirements for labs in anatomy/physiology, biology, chemistry, microbiology, and physiology. Other required preparation courses may include studies in psychology, statistics, genetics, medical terminology, math, and biomechanics. Applicants should have completed a four-year science or medical degree with a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0. In addition, most physician assistant programs require applicants to have at least three years of hands-on healthcare experience. Experience can include — but is not limited to — patient care as a medical assistant, emergency medical technician (EMT), certified nursing assistant (CNA), medic or medical corpsman, or registered nurse. Prerequisites may vary from school to school. Prospective PA students should check the prerequisites at their institution of choice.

Apply to Your PA Schools of Choice

Once you have completed your program research and completed your prerequisites, it’s time to apply to your schools of choice. A limited number of schools have their own application process. Most accredited PA colleges (95 percent ) use the online Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). CASPA allows you to apply to multiple PA schools simultaneously from any online device. The fee is variable by the number of schools to which you apply. As you apply, here are key things to keep in mind:

Application documents

Depending upon the institution, application requirements may include:

Application fees

Considering the total cost of a PA degree program, students would be remiss for ruling out a school with a relatively low application fee. Evaluate whether the school uses the CASPA system where fees are based on the number of schools. The school may also accept completed paper applications to the school admissions office, where fees typically cost $40-$50. Each state has a limited number of PA degree programs that require no application fees.

Deadline requirements

It is crucial to keep all deadlines in mind when applying to physician assistant programs. According to CASPA, every school sets their own deadlines. Contact each prospective degree program to find out the final date to apply. CASPA deadlines fall into two major categories:

Applications are due by 11:59 PM ET on the school’s deadline. No supporting documentation due at the time of application, to be submitted later.

Application, transcripts, a minimum of two letters of evaluation, and payments must be received by 11:59 PM ET on the school’s deadline.

Program tuition

Tuition and fees are directly tied to the kind of university, its ranking, and whether it is a private or public institution. A survey from The Physician Assistant Life found that the average total cost for in-state tuition is $79,941. Non-residents pay an average of $90,659 for tuition. There’s a wide range of total costs between private and public institutions. For comparison’s sake, the private University of Southern California’s total tuition is $171,836 while tuition for the degree at Wichita State University is $27,395.01.

Scholarships & grants

There are scholarships that offset the cost of PA programs. You’ll find scholarships and grants available from your college, from PA associations, and PA career-related corporations. Top scholarships include the Susan Vincent Memorial Scholarship, $1,000; the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship Program, annual tuition of $28,000 plus monthly stipend, and The National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program, offering two-year financial support for full-time enrollment in exchange for two years of service.

Financial aid

Students can apply for financial aid by completing the online Department of Education’s FAFSA application. Federal Direct PLUS Loans are designed to aid graduate students. You can borrow $20,500 per academic year. The maximum lifetime borrowing limit is $138,500. The Federal William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program is the nation’s largest lending program. The Ford program offers the Federal Perkins Loan Program, open to graduate students and offered through the U.S. Department of Education. These are low-interest loans, with a 7 percent rate. There are also private lenders, however their interest rates can run as high as 14.05 percent.

Complete Your Coursework & Field Internship

A PA degree program lasts up to 27 months, totaling 150 or more credits. The curriculum is divided into two main phases: didactic instruction and clinical rotations. Prospective students may also need to complete an 18-credit summer prerequisite program prior to their first semester/quarter. That means that you should block out a calendar and strategy for completing all graduation requirements on time. The second 12-months of a program are usually comprised of required field internships and more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. The process involves finding a healthcare facility in or near your location that accepts interns. You may want to identify a mentor PA with whom you can shadow during clinical rotations.

Earn Your Physician Assistant Certification & Licensure

PA’s must gain certification and licensing in order to work in the profession. Credentials can only be secured by passing the PANCE exam. Here are detailed steps to earn a PA license, detailing the content of the exam:

Becoming Certified

Before you’re qualified to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying (PANCE) Exam, you must graduate from a Physician Assistant Program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). College preparation pays off. According to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, the 2018 pass rate for the PANCE exam was 97 percent, with a 98 percent pass rate for first-time takers. Eligible PAs can register for PANCE online; the exam registration fee is $475. The five-hour computer-based exam is made up of 300 multiple-choice questions. The exam assesses each graduate’s medical knowledge. Students will encounter questions on 460+ topics and 13 individual organ systems. Questions cover Cardiology, Pulmonary, Hematology Psychiatry, ENT, Nutrition and GI, Musculoskeletal, Dermatology, Reproductive, Genitourinary, Infectious Disease, and Endocrinology.

Certification Resources: The American Academy of PAs (AAPA) maintains a listing of organizations providing help and guidance for taking the PANCE exam. You’ll find exam-preparation advice below.

Requirements for Licensing

All 50 states require PAs to graduate from an accredited program and pass the PANCE before starting to practice. Eligible PAs can register for the PANCE online; the exam registration fee is $500. Following registration, PA graduates have a 180-day time frame to take the five-hour PANCE exam comprised of 300 multiple-choice questions.

State Laws and Regulations: Each state sets its own scope of practice for PAs, including the requirement to work under the supervision of a physician. The American Medical Association offers a free chart that lists PA requirements by state.

Statutory and Regulatory Requirements for Initial Licensure and License Renewal:

The American Academy of PAs (AAPA) lists licensure requirements for each state for first-time licensing and renewals.

List of Licensing Boards:

The AAPA provides a listing of licensing boards for each state, including links to the boards, board addresses and phone numbers.

Preparing for Your PA Exam

The multiple-choice, computer-based PANCE exam assesses each applicant’s medical knowledge. It is offered throughout the year. Remember: You must be a graduate of an accredited program to register for the test. Students may take the exam up to six times before they lose their eligibility. Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone. There are solid resources that help students prepare for PANCE, including practice tests and review courses to get you ready.

Identify your areas of weakness: The first step in preparation is to identify weak areas where you need further review. Taking practice exams can red-flag your potential difficulties. The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) offers a mock PANCE exam to students for $50. You may take the practice exam as many times as you want, but you should take the mock test within the 180-day window for taking the real exam.

Gather study material: Books, websites, professional journals, podcasts and eBooks can be a great way of studying for PANCE. Some of these include:




Consider a review course: Books, websites, professional journals, podcasts and eBooks can be a great way of studying for PANCE. Some of these include:

Keep Your Certification Up-to-Date

In order to maintain your PA certificate, you must take the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam. Under recent regulation, PA-C holders must recertify every ten years and meet the requirements of at least 100 CME credits. It costs $350 for the recertification exam. There’s an additional $50 reactivation fee if your certification has expired.

For practicing PAs with certifications due for renewal in 2018-2019, there’s a special Alternative to PANRE program. Find out more about renewal eligibility.

Earn a Certificate of Added Qualification

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) is the United States’ sole certifying and testing organization. Earning a certificate of qualifications (CAQ) indicates to the healthcare community that you have been prepared for the additional skills and PA roles required for promotions or the expansion of your job duties. It can lead to higher earnings as well. Applicants for the Emergency Medicine application must hold a current PA-C certification and an unrestricted PA license. Certificate candidates must earn a minimum of 150 credits of CME focusing on emergency medicine practice and including 3,000 hours of experience in emergency medicine. The seven specialties offered are in Invasive Cardiovascular & Thoracic Surgery, Emergency Medicine, Hospital Medicine, Nephrology, Orthopedic Surgery, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry. The exam is comprised of 120 multiple-choice questions in the practice of your specialty. The NCCPA provides sample exam questions and practice exams. The registration cost is $50 per exam.

Prepare Your Resume & Job Applications

When creating and submitting your resume, be sure to emphasize your role in health organizations and your PA achievements. Leading with achievements, licenses, and concrete examples of how you solved problems can separate you from other applicants. Cite your rotations, research, procedures/skills, licenses and certifications. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel in building effective resumes; there are plenty of useful examples from job boards and professional organizations. Be sure to revise your resume to specifically address the requirements outlined in the employer’s job posting. Here are a few examples of PA resumes:

  1. New Graduate Physician Assistant Sample Resume by ThePALife
  2. Resume Tips from Physicians Assistant Solutions
  3. Sample Resume and Curriculum Vitae from Physician Assistant Life
  4. Physician Assistant Sample Resume for Job Seekers from Melnic
  5. Physician Assistant Cover Letter Sample from Indeed

Get Ready for Your Interviews

Your job interview is multifold, examining your training experience and personality profile. Always put your best foot forward. You also have an opportunity to learn more about the employer. Even if you’re not hired, you can learn how to improve your interviewing skills. Even if the hospital or clinic has a casual dress code, impress the employer and wear a suit, not scrubs. Shake hands and make eye contact. Be sure to ask your own questions. Ask about the organization’s ranking, the workplace culture, and how your performance will be evaluated. Here are seven job-specific questions you may face:

  1. Why do you want to join this hospital/clinic?
  2. Do you feel comfortable working without a physician in the office?
  3. How have you resolved differences with a colleague?
  4. Do you prefer working independently or as part of a team?
  5. How have you improved patient safety in the workplace?
  6. How do you deal with a difficult patient?
  7. How do you respond to stress?