How to become a physician assistant … and succeed at it

Linda Le Phan

A physician assistant, or physician associate or PA for short, is one of the most dynamic jobs in healthcare that gets you close to the “action”, working right alongside a doctor and yes, practicing the art of medicine…without having to go to medical school.

What does the job really entail you ask?

Physician assistants may work in offices, hospitals, or clinics and are licensed to diagnose and treat illness and disease and to prescribe medication for patients. The job also may include performing physical exams, assisting in surgeries, making rounds in hospitals, and performing other tasks during medical procedures. The main difference between being a PA and being a licensed medical doctor (MD) is that PA’s can assist in surgeries but are not licensed to perform surgeries, and while a doctor can work autonomously (or on their own) a physician assistant always works in conjunction with a doctor. That’s not to say that doctors will watch a PA’s every move, but physician assistants act as important medical support for doctors.

“I am a physician assistant and have been at my current position for 20 years. The physicians I work for are caring, supportive and have the best interest of our patients in mind. We are able to provide high quality care with compassion to all our patients.” – anonymous employer review at Presence Health

What do physician assistants make?

Physician assistants don’t make as generous a salary as doctors do, but they are still fairly compensated. The median pay for a PA in 2017 was 104,860 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $66,590, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $146,260.

Now that you have an idea of what a physician assistant does and what they make, here’s how to become a physician assistant and go on to be successful at it:

How to become a physician assistant

Before we go through each step in detail, here are all of the steps you would need to take if you want to become a physician assistant:
1. Complete prerequisites
2. Get healthcare experience (HCE) and patient care experience (PCE)
2. Attend and graduate from an accredited PA program
4. Pass the PANCE exam
5. Maintain your certification


1. Complete prerequisites

Prerequisites are educational requirements you need to have completed to enter into a program, and in this case you’ll be aiming for a PA school program. You’ll typically need to complete at least two years of college coursework in basic and behavioral sciences before applying to a PA program, which is very similar to premedical studies. The majority of PA programs have these subjects as prerequisites: Chemistry, Physiology, Anatomy, Microbiology, and Biology.

“I work as a physician assistant with a wonderful group of docs and well supported.” – anonymous employer review at Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute


2. Get healthcare experience (HCE) and patient care experience (PCE)

Those interested in attending PA school will find that there are requirements for working experience hours in order to enter a program and those hours of work may be either in healthcare and / or patient care. Each PA program’s requirements may vary, but what’s useful to know are some example roles that can help you obtain this type of experience:

  • Medical assistant
  • Emergency medical technician (EMT)
  • Paramedic
  • Medic or medical corpsman
  • Peace Corps volunteer
  • Lab assistant/phlebotomist
  • Registered nurse
  • Emergency room technician
  • Surgical tech
  • Certified nursing assistant (CNA)

3. Attend and graduate from an accredited PA program

Most PA programs are about 26 months (3 academic years) and award master’s degrees. They include classroom instruction and clinical rotations. Once you’ve graduated from an accredited PA program, you’re eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE).

4. Pass the PANCE exam

The PANCE exam, or Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, is a computer-based, timed test comprised of 300 multiple-choice questions assessing medical and surgical knowledge and is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). They’re administered in five blocks of 60 questions with 60 minutes to complete each block, and 45 total minutes of break time in between. You can only take the PANCE once in a 90-day window, and you have up to six attempts in six years to pass the exam.

5. Maintain your certification

After getting certified and passing the PANCE, you will still need to maintain your certification if you intend to continue practicing as a physician assistant. You’d do this by taking the PANRE recertification exam before the end of every certification maintenance cycle, which is six years.

“I am a physician assistant. I treat patients with workplace injuries…I like the people that I work with and the work that I am doing.” – anonymous employer review at Concentra Urgent Care


Success tips for being a physician assistant

Being a physician assistant is a challenging job, but it can be very rewarding professionally and personally especially if you make good decisions and take these steps:

1. Keep your own health in check

Being in the healthcare field can be very emotionally and physically draining because of the long hours, the advanced thinking and knowledge that’s constantly required of healthcare professionals, the high levels of person-to-person interaction, and of course, the common overall feeling of urgency and stress that comes with caring for ailing patients. You can help your own day-to-day and long-term success as a physician assistant by keeping in tune with your own health and stress levels, and knowing when you might need to take a mental health day yourself.

2. Appreciate your important role in the healthcare process

There are a lot of healthcare providers that give support to patients when they come to a hospital, doctor’s office or clinic – from the person at the front desk, to the nurse, nurse practitioner, medical assistant, or any other number of specialists that make sure patients are given proper care during their visit. Your role as a physician assistant is a huge piece in their visit, one that brings them very close to a solution to whatever pain or discomfort they are feeling – appreciate and remember that feeling!

3. Always keep learning

Sure, you are in a way already required to keep learning due to the need to keep your certification up to date. But beyond that, you should make a point to keep an open mind to new ideas from all of your coworkers and from each and every patient and patient family member that you encounter as a physician assistant. There’s always room to grow one’s interpersonal skills, communication skills and practical medical skills, and keeping that in the back of your mind at all times sets you up for great, positive things in your life and career.


Does becoming a physician assistant sound appealing to you? Or maybe some other role in healthcare? Check out our other articles about working in healthcare for helpful tips and career advice, and also feel free to search through thousands of healthcare companies that you could work for on!


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