The path to a physician assistant career includes plenty of education. Graduating from an accredited physician assistant degree program at the master’s level is important, but first you will need to complete your undergraduate studies, preferably in a science major. Some PAs advance their education even further by going for a doctoral degree. All in all, you’ll spend at least six years pursuing the degrees you need for this profession, unless you find an accelerated format program.
A Science-Based Undergraduate Degree
To work in the field of physician assisting, you need a strong science background. Undergraduate students would benefit from choosing a major that helps them to build a robust foundation in the sciences. In particular, students should make sure that their undergraduate curriculum includes studies in the courses that most commonly make up the prerequisites for a graduate PA program. These topics include chemistry, biology, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, according to the American Academy of PAs.
You can meet these prerequisites while pursuing many different majors. Many students choose to major in one of the natural sciences, which allows them to develop a deep understanding of the scientific concepts underpinning the practice of medicine and medical research. If you major in biology, chemistry, or a similar subject, you can expect to take a lot of laboratory courses and upper-division science classes. For 2018, the most common undergraduate major for graduate PA students was biology, according to the Physician Assistant Education Association. More than 42 percent of students reported majoring in this field, including programs in microbiology, zoology, anatomy and physiology. Chemistry is also in the top five most popular undergraduate majors for aspiring PAs.
You could also choose a bachelor’s degree program in a science-heavy health major, like a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), The Houston Chronicle reported. Besides covering the science coursework you need to know, a BSN program allows you to start gaining clinical experience during the course of your education while preparing you for a healthcare career with a good salary. You will usually need at least some amount of healthcare experience to get into a master’s PA program, and experience as a registered nurse fits the bill, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Some colleges and universities offer a specialized pre-PA program, often as a concentration within a bachelor’s in biology program. A pre-PA program may include some specialized coursework in healthcare issues, ethics in healthcare, medical terminology and even some amount of hands-on laboratory experience.
Other popular majors for prospective physician assistant students are health sciences, exercise science, athletic training and psychology.
A Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies
For an entry-level physician assistant role, you will typically need a master’s degree, according to the BLS. These programs usually go by a title like Master of Science (M.S.) in Physician Assistant Studies. The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) has awarded accreditation to 260 PA master’s programs as of 2020.
Master’s degree programs in physician assistant studies usually take 26 months, according to the American Academy of PAs. Some programs follow an accelerated format that allows students to complete this volume of coursework in just two intensive years of study and clinical experience, but otherwise, you will likely spend three years earning your graduate degree.
Classroom learning in advanced topics in science and the foundations of medical practice make up the first year of your PA preparation. In your second year of a PA master’s degree program, you’ll acquire a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical experience while you complete rotations in many different specialties of medicine.
The first year of PA school is called the “didactic year,” and the second year is called the “clinical year.” Both years are challenging and intense, even though they emphasize different types of learning – classroom and laboratory learning in the didactic year and hands-on learning in the clinical year.
Opting for a Doctorate Degree
You don’t have to go past the master’s degree level to work as a PA, but some physician assistants choose to. Some doctoral options for physician assistants are clinically focused, like the Doctor of Physician Assistant Studies (D.P.A.S.). This degree is best for PAs who want to develop more advanced clinical skills in their medical specialty. If you hope to rise to a leadership role, you might be interested in a Doctor of Medical Science (D.M.Sc.) program. You could also choose a traditionally research-focused Ph.D. program in physician assistant studies. Whether you should pursue a doctorate, and which degree makes sense for you, depends on what your career goals are.
Other possible degree options at the doctoral level include the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Public Health (Dr.P.H.), Doctor of Behavioral Health (D.B.H.), Doctor of Health Science (D.H.Sc.) and Doctor of Health Education (D.H.Ed.) degrees, according to the Physician Assistant Education Association.