What degree does a physician assistant need? For that matter, what exactly is a “PA,” anyway?

If you have ever seen a PA instead of a doctor for a medical appointment, you might have wondered what exactly this healthcare professional is. Despite what the job title might suggest, a physician assistant is not exactly an assistant to a physician, as a medical assistant is. Rather, PAs are licensed, fully-qualified medical practitioners themselves with an advanced education that includes clinical experience. However, physician assistants are not medical doctors and instead work in collaboration with and under the supervision of physicians. You can become a PA much faster and with much less expense than it takes to become a doctor, but earning a specific graduate-level degree is essential for attaining this career goal.

what degree do you need to be a physician assistant

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What Degree Do You Need to Be a Physician Assistant?

If you want to be a physician assistant, you must go to PA school – the same way an aspiring doctor must go to medical school. There’s no other way to qualify for this career in the United States as of 2021. Physician assistant school is a graduate-level program that culminates in a master’s degree.

What to Expect From a Master’s Degree Program for PAs

On average, earning your Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies takes 27 months, according to the Physician Assistant Education Association. Upon graduating, new physician assistants can start working toward licensure and get started in roles that, while entry-level, are full-fledged PA jobs. Of course, as they acquire more experience, physician assistants can advance into roles where they have more extensive responsibilities or work in specialties, like acute care, that require more specialized knowledge and skills.

This is a major difference between career preparation for PAs and that for doctors. While PAs should expect to spend a little over two years in school beyond their bachelor’s degree, they will immediately be ready to join the workforce in their full professional capacity. Physicians, on the other hand, spend four years in medical school, followed by residency training that lasts for at least three years and, in certain specialties, as long as eight years. While medical residents are doctors, their earning potential is consistent with their status as in-training doctors.

There is a wide range of tuition rates for PA schooling, so which university you choose to attend will have a big impact on the price of your education and, potentially, any student debt you take on. The cost of earning this graduate education can easily climb into the six-figure range at some schools, even for in-state students. However, other physician assistant schools are much more reasonable in terms of the cost of investing in your education and career, with tuition rates in the range of $60,000, $50,000 or even $40,000 for state residents. In comparison, students going to medical school to become physicians expect to see total tuition costs in the $200,000- to $300,000-range.

The Physician Assistant Education Association reported that there are 250 accredited master’s degree programs for PAs across the United States. The curriculum of an accredited master’s degree in physician assistant studies generally includes both lectures and laboratory-style instruction in the following courses:

  • Pathology
  • Human anatomy
  • Diagnostics
  • Physiology
  • Clinical medicine
  • Pharmacology
  • Medical ethics

During your studies in physician assistant school, you will spend (approximately) one year on didactic learning through lectures, laboratory courses and other traditional types of coursework. During the second phase of their PA career preparation, experiential learning is the priority. Physician assistant students undertake clinical experiences in areas such as family practice, inpatient practice, outpatient internal medicine, general surgery, emergency medicine, orthopedic medicine, pediatric medicine practice, geriatric medicine, women’s health and behavioral medicine.

Why PAs Need to Go to Physician Assistant School

This specific education is necessary because all states in the U.S. now impose on physician assistants a licensure process that includes earning a passing score on the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) test offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Only candidates who have completed a physician assistant-specific master’s degree program that has earned accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) are eligible to sit for this exam. Thus, if you don’t earn the required degree from an accredited program, you can never take the next step toward professional licensure in this occupation.

Although having such a narrow path to this career may be less than convenient, it’s not difficult to understand why state agencies, professional certification organizations and accreditation organizations are strict about the requirements to become a PA. Physician assistants do a lot of the same work that doctors do, including performing exams, ordering and reading the results of diagnostic tests, formulating diagnoses and prescribing treatments – and that means they must be knowledgeable about medical conditions, symptoms, diagnostic tests, evidence-based treatments and the standard of care. In most states, PAs can prescribe at least some medications that are not available over the counter, according to the American Medical Association.

Although they collaborate with and work under the supervision of doctors, that doesn’t mean that a doctor is constantly following them into patient exam rooms or even checking in with them throughout the day. In fact, in certain states and types of medical facilities, a physician may not even be on-site while PAs are practicing. Collaboration might occur by telephone or electronic communications, like email, and it may not happen daily or even weekly.

This isn’t to suggest that collaboration with physicians isn’t an important part of a PA’s job duties. The American Medical Association reported that PAs must be supervised by doctors in 47 states, hold collaborative agreements with physicians in two states and fulfill other formal arrangements regarding physician supervision in the remaining two states (with Washington, D.C. counting as a state for the purposes of this breakdown). 

Bachelor Degrees for Physician Assistants

Before you can even start seriously considering, you need to ask yourself another important question: “What bachelor degree do I need for physician assistant career preparation?”

At the undergraduate level, there’s no one answer to the question “what degree does a PA have?”, because each physician assistant is a unique individual who has followed their own unique path into the field. Generally, physician assistant schools don’t require applicants to have a specific undergraduate major. They may, however, require applicants to meet certain prerequisites and have some amount of healthcare experience.

Most of the typical prerequisites for physician assistant school are science-related. Students should generally take a sequence of laboratory courses in general biology, as well as classes in microbiology, genetics, human anatomy and physiology, chemistry and medical terminology. Students in any major can meet these requirements through their general education coursework, major coursework and electives, but majoring in the sciences certainly makes it easier to check off these requirements.

Nursing

Nurses and PAs serve two different functions and even approach clinical patient care from different approaches – the nursing model vs. the medical model. However, majoring in nursing is a great idea for aspiring physicians. For one thing, the curriculum of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree covers many of the prerequisites for PA school, with coursework like anatomy and physiology, general microbiology, nursing pharmacology and pathophysiology. In their clinical coursework and their nursing careers, students majoring in nursing also gain valuable experience in direct patient care in clinical settings.

Biology

Biology, the scientific study concerned with life and living organisms, is a natural science that offers exceptional preparation for PA school and, eventually, the practice of medicine. If you decide to major in biology, you’re bound to fulfill most of your science prerequisites for physician assistant school without the need for much additional science coursework. Biology majors typically take classes in introductory biology, organismal biology, cellular biology, molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry, ecology and evolution.

Chemistry

Another science option to consider is chemistry, the physical science that explores the composition, properties and interactions of material substances. Chemistry pertains to the practice of medicine in multiple ways, including the chemicals that are produced and the chemical reactions that take place in the human body, as well as the use of pharmacological treatments in medicine. Chemistry majors study chemistry from all angles and subdisciplines, including organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, chemical equilibrium and dynamics, structure and bonding, separations and electrochemistry and the use of spectroscopy to study the atoms and molecules that make up chemical substances.

Exercise Physiology

If you’re more interested in health and its applications than in general science, exercise physiology is another major to consider in preparation for PA school. Physiology is a branch of biology that emphasizes the functions of organisms and the parts that make them up. The more focused area of exercise physiology is concerned with the functions of physical exercise. Despite physiology’s relationship to biology, the field of exercise physiology specifically is generally part of the discipline of kinesiology, which is the study of the mechanics of movement. Exercise physiology majors study general biology and chemistry as well as courses in health and wellness, kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, exercise testing, human structure and function, exercise pharmacology and cardiovascular pathophysiology.

As healthcare experience goes, students might have experience working in roles like nurse, CNA, EMT, medical assistant, home health aide, orderly, phlebotomist, medical scribe or any type of healthcare technician. Generally, any sort of paid or volunteer experience that involves direct patient care work in clinical patient care, research or shadowing capacities can count toward your experience. Ideally, PA school applicants should have hundreds of hours of experience. 

Choosing What Bachelor Degree for PA Studies Is the Best Fit for You

When it comes to choosing your undergraduate college major, you should consider which programs of study will help you achieve your goal of becoming a physician assistant. However, you should also take into account your own personal strengths and interests.

Don’t declare a nursing major if you don’t really want to be a nurse, at least for long enough to count toward the healthcare experience component of your physician assistant application. Don’t force yourself to major in biology if you’re not interested in the science behind the practice of medicine just because you think this major is what PA school admissions teams are seeking. Getting into PA school isn’t easy, and getting subpar grades because you chose a major you’re not really interested in or good at won’t help you reach your goals. You would be better off excelling in a major that really holds your interest – even if that major is engineering, business, communications, psychology or theatre.

If you choose a less traditional major in preparation for PA school, just make sure that you build enough science electives into your schedule that you can meet the usual prerequisites for physician assistant programs. 

Working as a Physician Assistant

Doctors’ offices employ the most PAs, accounting for 53 percent of the occupation in 2020, according to the BLS. Hospitals employed 26 percent of physician assistants, and outpatient care centers provided jobs for 8 percent of PAs. PAs may be expected to do everything from routine sick and well visits to assisting surgery or prescribing medicine. In other words, this job confers a lot of responsibility. While physician assistants can work in just about any specialty, they are particularly likely to work in primary care and to provide preventive care or handle routine illnesses and injuries.

In recent years, the healthcare industry has changed considerably. The number of American individuals who now have health insurance – and thus, access to general and preventive medical services – has and will continue to increase. This means there is a greater demand for clinical healthcare practitioners, including PAs. The BLS predicted that new job opportunities for physician assistants will increase by 31 percent between 2020 and 2030, resulting in 40,100 additional jobs.

An advantage of PAs, particularly for preventive and routine health situations, is that they are able to provide more cost-effective care than physicians. Physician assistants earn significantly less money than doctors, with a 2020 median salary of $115,390 per year compared to physicians’ overall median salary of more than $208,000, the BLS reported. However, this earning potential is still significant, especially since PAs are quicker to train, spend less money than doctors on their education and have less extensive responsibility for patients.

The official credential for PAs who have passed the PANCE test to pursue licensure is Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C). After achieving this professional milestone, physician assistants must maintain their credentials through a combination of continuing education and regular recertification exams, the BLS reported. 

Additional Resources 

What Kind of Graduate Degree Do I Need to Get to Become a Physician Assistant?

Does a PA Hold a Specific Degree?

Is Getting Into a PA Program More or Less Competitive Than a Med School?