How to Become a Physician Assistant
If you’ve decided you want to be a physician assistant, it’s important to have an overview of common steps in becoming a PA.
Steps to becoming a physician assistant may include:
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field (for example, pre-med or biology).
- Take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).
- Apply for master’s level, ARC-PA accredited physician assistant programs.
- Acquire real-world healthcare experience (if required by your chosen master’s program).
- Earn your Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies degree.
- Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE).
- Become licensed in your state (requirements vary).
Obtaining Your Bachelor’s Degree
Planning for a physician assistant career begins at the undergraduate level. Some schools offer direct entry, dual degree BS/MS pre-physician assistant programs. This means you will enter undergraduate with the intention of becoming a PA, and your coursework will be centered on this goal. These programs are often accelerated and can be completed in five years (three years of undergraduate work plus two years for your master’s degree).
While these dual degree programs are helpful for a lot of students, they are not the only way to become a physician assistant. Many students complete an undergraduate program in a relevant field of science such as pre-med, biology, or chemistry. Pre-med is the best choice in most cases, since its coursework will prepare you for the rigorous curriculum of physician assistant master’s programs. Some master’s programs also have required undergraduate courses, so be aware of that when choosing your undergraduate program.
The Graduate Record Examination and Medical School Admissions Exams
Many programs require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) within five years of applying. Alternatively, other programs may accept the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Some programs do not require either of these tests.
If you want to apply for a master’s program, be sure to review all admissions requirements so you can plan accordingly. The GRE and MCAT are both comprehensive exams and require advance preparation.
Applying for Master’s Level Physician Assistant Programs
After you complete your undergraduate degree, you will need to earn a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. It’s important to plan and apply early, since these programs are often very competitive. Here are some things you should consider when choosing a master’s level physician assistant program:
- Look for programs that are ARC-PA accredited
- Review the program curriculum
- Consider whether you want an online or traditional program
- Look for GRE or MCAT and/or healthcare experience requirements
- Compare minimum GPA requirements to your undergraduate GPA
- Review required undergraduate coursework
With every program you consider, be sure to carefully review all admissions requirements before you apply. You will increase your chances of acceptance by meeting or exceeding all requirements.
Real-World Healthcare Experience
Some master’s programs also include healthcare experience in their admissions requirements. Typically, they will mandate 500 hours or more. Most of these programs accept healthcare experience from a number of different roles such as lab technician, medical assistant, or EMT.
As you start applying for master’s programs, pay attention to any healthcare experience requirements. This may require you to put your application on hold until you acquire the mandated hours, but it will be worth it if you feel the program is the best choice for you.
Earning a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies
Once you’ve committed to a physician assistant program, you will start working toward your Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. This degree typically takes two to three years to complete. You will complete both traditional coursework and clinical rotations. Rotations will involve working at a variety of approved medical sites and earning real-world experience.
Learn about Online PA Programs
You’ll graduate with a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, but you won’t be able to practice as a PA yet. You still need to become licensed in your state. In many cases, that involves passing the PANCE. Make sure you check with the state in which you intend to practice when it comes to post-graduate licensure requirements.
The Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE)
The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) administers the PANCE. This is a comprehensive exam that tests your practical medical knowledge. The NCCPA lists two broad content areas for the exam as of 2018:
- Organ systems and diseases/disorders that affect these systems
- The knowledge and skills needed for these diseases and disorders
You must complete an ARC-PA accredited master’s program before registering for the PANCE. According to the NCCPA, applications are not accepted until 90 days before your expected graduation date, and you are not allowed to take the test until at least seven days after graduation.
Once your PANCE application is accepted, you have 180 days to schedule an exam at a nearby testing center. You can only take the test once in a 90-day period (in other words, three times per year). There is a $500 application fee for the exam.
If you fail the PANCE, keep in mind that you are only allowed six attempts in six years after your graduation date. Once you’ve either used up all six attempts or six years have passed, you will need to complete an ARC-PA accredited master’s program again to be eligible to take the PANCE.
Getting Licensed as a Physician Assistant
Licensing requirements vary by state, so be sure to check your own state’s requirements to see what you must do to be able to practice as a PA. In general, you will need to apply for licensure with your medical board, board of medicine, board of medical licensure, or whatever title applies to your state. This process can involve a number of steps such as:
- Submitting an application
- Paying a fee
- Obtaining a criminal background check
- Providing proof of graduation from an accredited program
- Providing proof of NCCPA certification (if applicable)
Renewing Your License
Physician assistants need to renew their license with their state periodically. Every state has different renewal requirements. Some mandate continuing medical education credits every two years. You may also need to pass the Physician Assistant National Re-certifying Exam (PANRE). NCCPA used to require the PANRE every six years, but it started transitioning to a 10-year cycle in 2014.
Practicing PAs need to review their state’s renewal process every year and plan ahead. Once your license expires, it will be considered delinquent and may be automatically cancelled after a certain period. If you practice with an expired license, you could face disciplinary action in most states.
Do You Want to Become a Physician Assistant?
If you’re looking for a fulfilling career in the medical field, physician assistant might be right for you. PAs can usually complete their education in less time than a medical doctor, which makes this career choice attractive to many students.
Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects strong growth in physician assistant jobs. If you feel you want to become a physician assistant, the first step is to plan your education.