How To Become A Physician Assistant

How To Become A Physician Assistant

With the increasing need for healthcare providers, aspiring medical providers have many career paths to consider. From nursing to medical school to physician assistant (PA) programs, each career path offers unique professional opportunities and challenges.


Physician assistant
Nicolette Natale


October 19, 2023

If you started on the pre-medicine track, you might wonder if switching gears to a physician assistant program is a better choice. Fewer years of schooling, more flexibility, and excellent job prospects are a few perks of this career path. Moreover, with the absence of the daunting residency training that physicians must complete, this choice may seem appealing to those looking to get to a place in their career where they can treat patients more quickly. But do physician assistants have autonomy, and is it as flexible of a career choice as many claim? 

This article will explore the answers to these questions and discuss the differences between PA school and medical school, their educational requirements, their scope of practice, job prospects, and other essential factors to help you make an informed decision about your future career path.

What Is A Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is an integral part of the healthcare team who works under the supervision of one or a group of physicians. PAs are licensed healthcare providers and must pass a state licensing examination to practice. 

They receive similar training to physicians, learning to examine patients to diagnose and treat medical conditions appropriately. They can practice in any setting within the medical field, from primary care to plastic surgery. Some work in a hospital setting, while others work in outpatient settings. 

PAs’ educational goals primarily focus on patient-centered care. They play a vital role in improving access to healthcare especially in underserved or rural areas facing a shortage of physicians. 

How To Become A Physician Assistant

If you are considering becoming a PA, it is crucial to understand the exact educational journey and the steps required to obtain your license to practice. There are several key steps to becoming a PA, which include:

#1 Prerequisites and experience

  • Bachelor’s degree: Before applying to PA school, you must obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree. Many PA students major in a field related to medicine, such as biology, psychology, chemistry, or health sciences. 
  • Prerequisite courses: PA programs have almost identical prerequisite course requirements to medical school. They usually include foundational science classes such as biology, chemistry, physics, and anatomy. It is best to check with each program before applying, as it can vary from school to school. 
  • Patient care experience: What is unique about PA schools is their extensive focus on prior patient care experience. Many PA programs require applicants to have direct patient care hours, often totaling over 2000 hours for admission. Direct patient care experiences may include being a medical assistant, EMT, or nursing assistant. Medical school admissions do not require direct patient care hours, although having direct experience working with patients can be beneficial during admissions. 

#2 Application process

Applying to PA school is highly competitive.

According to a 2020 Physician Assistant Education Association report, the average median science GPA of accepted students was 3.53, and an overall GPA of 3.6. These average GPAs align closely with those of successful medical school applicants. 

Prospective PA students use a centralized application service called Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) to apply to programs. Students will use this online platform to enter their prior experiences, coursework, letters of recommendation, and more. 

A significant distinguishing factor between medical school admissions and PA programs is that PA programs do not require students to complete the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a notoriously difficult exam. Some PA schools may require applicants to complete the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), but not all. Recently, some programs have started to require a PA-specific examination called the PA-CAT

#3 PA school education

PA programs typically span two to three years, depending on the program’s structure. The curriculum is quite difficult and fast-paced, covering many of the same courses as medical school over a shorter period. 

The didactic phase will be the first half of a PA program’s education. This portion of the PA’s education includes lectures, small group discussions, and laboratory sessions to learn the foundational science required for clinical practice. Courses covered include anatomy, biochemistry, genetics, human physiology, immunology, pharmacology, and physical diagnosis. The way the curriculum is broken down will vary from program to program.

The second half of a PA’s education will include clinical rotations. During this period, students will gain hands-on experience during clinical rotations in various medical specialties, such as family medicine, surgery, OB-GYN, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and internal medicine. Students will work alongside other healthcare professionals, understanding  their specific roles in the healthcare team.

#4 Certification and licensure

Upon graduation from a PA program, students must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) to practice and obtain a state medical license. In contrast to physicians who need to complete multiple steps to their licensing exam throughout their education, PAs only need to complete one. PAs have an obligation to pursue continuing education and recertify to maintain their license. 

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Medical doctors must complete residency training in a specific medical field before practicing autonomously. Residency training can range from 3-6 years, depending on specialty. PAs, on the other hand, can begin practicing in any field of medicine they choose without completing residency training.

What Does A Physician Assistant Do?

PAs have a diverse scope of practice, allowing them to operate in various clinical settings. Everyday responsibilities of a PA include:

  • Conducting patient examinations and taking medical histories
  • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Diagnosing illnesses and injuries
  • Developing and implementing treatment plans
  • Prescribing medications
  • Performing procedures and minor surgeries
  • Providing patient education and counseling
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals

Although PAs work under the supervision of physicians, they usually have extensive autonomy in day-to-day practice, meaning they see patients on their own, make clinical decisions, and perform procedures without being overseen. The level of independence can vary based on state regulations, specific practice settings, and the supervising physician’s preferences.

Benefits of Choosing A Career As A PA

For many considering a career in medicine, becoming a PA offers several distinct benefits, including:

  • Shorter education and training: PA programs are shorter than medical school. PAs complete two to three years of education, while medical doctors complete four years of education, followed by residency training. Individuals looking to enter the workforce quickly may prefer this path. Also, a shorter education means fewer tuition fees and potential student loans to pay back.
  • Flexibility and mobility: One of the significant advantages of being a PA is flexibility and mobility within the profession. PAs can work in any medical specialty and setting, including primary care, emergency medicine, surgery, pediatrics, and more, throughout their training. Unlike medical doctors, PAs do not undergo specialized residency training in a particular field. This means they can switch from primary care to dermatology to neurology, all within their career, if a particular area doesn’t feel right for them. This unique flexibility allows PAs to adapt their jobs to their evolving interests and personal goals.
  • Work-life balance: While healthcare professions are known for their demanding nature, being a PA often offers a better work-life balance than other medical roles. PAs typically have more control over their schedules and may have more predictable working hours than physicians, allowing for a better balance between professional and personal life.
  • High salary compensation: For a relatively short education, flexible working environment, and excellent work-life balance, PAs make quite a high salary. So, how much does a physician assistant make? According to the US News Report, PAs made a median salary of $121,530 in 2021, with the highest-paid 25% earning $131,740 while the lowest-paid 25% reported earnings around $99,880.

What Is The Difference Between A Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant?

If you are considering becoming a PA, you have likely heard of nurse practitioners and wondered: what is the difference? 

Both nurse practitioners (NP) and PAs are considered mid-level providers, meaning they are medical professionals with less training than a doctor but more than nurses or medical assistants. 

These professions have very similar levels of autonomy. PAs are required to practice under a physician, and many NPs are currently required to be under the guidance of a physician. The autonomy level for NPs is changing in the United States, as 27 states permit nurse practitioners to practice independently, and this number is growing. 

NPs must have completed a bachelor’s degree in nursing and must have a certain number of patient care hours as a nurse before applying to become a nurse practitioners. This is similar to the patient care hours PA programs require.

Nurse practitioner programs usually take two years to complete, as opposed to the PA programs’ two to three years. NPs also have specialty fields, whereas PAs enjoy more flexibility and can change specialties throughout their career.

Which Field is Right for Me?

Choosing between PA school and medical school is a deeply personal decision that depends on your individual goals, interests, and aspirations in healthcare. Some key factors to consider when deciding which path is right for you:


If you have a clear vision of the medical specialty you want to pursue and desire to acquire extensive knowledge and expertise in that field, medical school may be the right choice.

Medical school will allow for specialized training through residency and fellowship programs, where you will become an expert in your chosen field. On the other hand, if you prefer a more flexible and adaptable career path, with the ability to work in various medical specialties, becoming a PA may align better with your goals.

Level of autonomy and responsibility

Considering your comfort level with autonomy and responsibility in patient care is important.

Medical doctors have a higher level of autonomy and are responsible for making critical decisions about patient care, while physician assistants collaborate with supervising physicians and have a more limited scope of practice. You should reflect on your preferred level of independence and decision-making authority to determine which role aligns better with your professional goals.

Time commitment and lifestyle

Take into account the time commitment and lifestyle associated with each path.

Medical school is a much more arduous path with less flexibility and more demanding working hours. PA programs are shorter, and PAs often work more flexible hours down the road. This is important when considering personal goals like time for family, children, and hobbies.

Financial considerations: How much does a physician assistant make?

Financial implications are an important factor to consider when choosing between PA school and medical school.

Medical school is generally more expensive than PA school, and the cost of education can result in significant debt. But, medical doctors have a much higher earning potential than PAs do. Evaluate your financial situation and long-term goals to determine which choice is best for you.


Overall, the decision between PA school and medical school is a very unique and personal choice that should be based on careful consideration of your goals, interests, and aspirations in the medical field. Both professions offer unique benefits that require significant time, education, and dedication. Take time to reflect on your career goals, personal preferences, and lifestyle considerations. You can make an informed decision that sets you on a fulfilling and rewarding path in the healthcare field.

Whether you become a PA or a medical doctor, both careers are essential in providing high-quality healthcare to patients and improving patient outcomes. The medical field thrives on collaborative teamwork, and together, PAs and physicians can make a lasting contribution to the overall well-being of their patients and communities.

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