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Physician Assistant Careers: How to Become a Physician Assistant

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated August 5, 2021

Guide Overview

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?How to Become a Physician AssistantHow Much Does a Physician Assistant Make?Physician Assistant Job MarketWhat Different Physician Assistants Fields Are There?Related Careers in Medicine

Guide Overview

A Guide on Career Paths, Job Prospects & More

Physician assistants perform many of the same duties as doctors, but receive their credentials with less than half the amount of schooling. If you’re looking to break into the healthcare industry, a physician assistant is the perfect position to consider. Physician assistants work in many different specializations across the healthcare industry, from emergency care to pediatrics to surgery. So, how exactly does one become a physician assistant, and what’s the outlook once you’re licensed? Read on to find out!

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

Physician assistants assist doctors in patient care. Duties of a physician assistant include conducting patient examinations, assisting doctors in advanced medical procedures, diagnosing illnesses, developing treatment plans and providing medical advice to patients. In many states, physician assistants can also prescribe medicine under a doctor’s jurisdiction. Physician assistants also may assist in surgery, although they are not licensed to be the main surgeon in charge of the procedure.

Working as a physician assistant often does not entail a regular, 9-to-5 schedule. Some physician assistants may work weekends, night shifts or holidays. One in four physician assistants worked more than 40 hours per week in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Being a physician assistant can be physically demanding, as physician assistants are often on their feet, visiting and evaluating patients. Particularly physician assistants who work in operating rooms, which requires standing for long periods of time, must have physical stamina.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

While becoming a physician assistant is no walk in the park, it takes significantly less time than becoming a licensed medical doctor. The earning potential is high for physician assistants, and the job market is growing.

Degrees required to become a physician assistant:

To become a physician assistant, you are looking at six years of education at the least. The first four years are towards a bachelor’s degree. Common majors for prospective physician assistants include biology, chemistry, psychology and nutrition. Most physician assistant programs have similar prerequisites in terms of pre-med classes as MD programs do, so be sure to check whether you’re on track to complete required classes towards the PA program you’re interested in.

On top of a bachelor’s degree, being a physician’s assistant requires a master’s degree. Physician assistant academic programs generally last for two or three years. These programs typically include both classroom work and clinical rotations.

Physician assistant career path ladder:

Some people prepare for physician assistant degree programs by first working as a medical assistant, paramedic, EMT, registered nurse, surgical tech or other health-related professions. After receiving a degree, physicians must take a test called the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). This exam allows you to use the title Physician Assistant-Certified or PA-C. All that’s left after passing the exam is applying for a license, which has different requirements based on the state you live in.

Physician assistants are always in demand. Hospitals and private clinics are always looking for physician assistants, who can perform many of the same functions that doctors can. Physician assistants often specialize in certain areas, such as dermatology, surgery, pediatrics, cardiology, oncology and more.

Physician assistants who wish to become medical doctors will generally need to go back to school to complete an MD program and residency alongside those who are just starting out. However, some schools are beginning to offer accelerated MD programs for those with prior medical experience, such as the Penn State College of Medicine.

How Much Does a Physician Assistant Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for physician assistants in 2017 was $104,860. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $66,590, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $146,260. The level of pay can also be dependent on the specialization that a physician assistant focuses on.

Physician Assistant Job Market

There are 106,200 physician assistants employed in the United States. According to the BLS, physician assistant careers are expected to grow immensely over the next decade: from 2016 to 2026, the BLS projects that employment for physician assistants will grow by 37.3%, much faster than the average for other occupations.

What Different Physician Assistants Fields Are There?

Physician assistant careers can take many different shapes. Physician assistants can specialize in a variety of fields including:

  • General practice
  • Emergency medicine
  • Dermatology
  • Pediatrics
  • Hospital medicine
  • General surgery
  • Obstetrics
  • Oncology

Some people may prefer the daily routine of administering pediatric care, while some people prefer the hustle and bustle of emergency medicine. There are also many different employment environments available to physician assistants, from small, quiet clinics to large, lively hospitals.

The majority of physician assistants work in hospitals — around 56%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — while 23% work in state, local and private hospitals. A smaller number of physician assistants also work in outpatient care centers, employment services and state, local and private educational services.

If there’s one thing that won’t change, it is that people will always require medical care. Especially as the Baby Boomer generation ages in the United States, the medical field is full of career opportunities. If you’re interested in becoming a physician assistant, these opportunities below may also intrigue you.


Average Salary: $63,680

Degrees Required: Associate’s degree


Average Salary: $117,287

Degrees Required: Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree


Average Salary: $27,541

Degrees Required: Associate’s degree

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