Physician Assistant: Educational Requirements

Physician assistantship requires significant formal education. Learn about the training, job duties and licensure requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

Essential Information

Physician assistants are medical professionals who provide healthcare under the supervision and direction of doctors. Since they may perform many duties traditionally reserved for physicians, physician assistants must obtain licensure after completion of a formal training program. Additionally, they are required to participate in continuing education programs and recertify periodically.

Required Education Master's degree
Other Requirements Licensure through the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination
Projected Job Growth (2012-2022) 38%*
Median Salary (2014) $95,820*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Physician Assistant Educational Requirements

Physician Assistant Program

Prospective physician assistants must obtain formal training through an educational program approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). These programs are usually available at the master's level and often require applicants to have bachelor's degrees and some amount of experience in the healthcare profession to gain admission. Most physician assistants serve as emergency medical technicians, nurses or paramedics before pursuing admission to physician assistant programs.


Physician assistant programs generally take 26 months of full-time study to complete. During the first year, students focus on classroom instruction in medical science and clinical preparation. Courses may include pathology, pediatrics, diagnosis, surgical technique, emergency medicine, pharmacology and research methods. Afterward, the curriculum shifts to focus mostly on clinical rotations in various disciplines, such as general surgery, gynecology and behavioral medicine. During these rotations, students gain first-hand experience in patient care under the supervision of licensed physicians.


Physician assistants are required to be licensed by the state in which they practice. Along with completion of an accredited training program, the licensing process entails passage of the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). PANCE, administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), evaluates fundamental medical and surgical comprehension ( Candidates who pass the PANCE may use the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) designation.

Continuing Education

Physician assistants must maintain the PA-C designation by earning 100 continuing education credits every two years. They are also required to pass the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam every six years. PA-Cs are subject to recertification and testing fees.


Physician assistants may choose to specialize in a particular field of medicine, such as internal medicine, surgery or pediatrics. Becoming a specialist entails completion of an additional postgraduate training program and certification from the NCCPA. Candidates for specialty certification must hold PA-C certification, have two years of experience and complete a specialty certification program. They may then become certified by passing a specialty exam. Specialty certification must be renewed every six years.

Salary and Job Prospects

A much faster than average job growth of 38% was projected for physician assistants through the 2012-2022 decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These primary healthcare providers' cost-effectiveness and ability to treat a growing elderly population were expected to drive an increase of 86,700 positions over this 10-year period.

The BLS also reported that physician assistants earned median annual salaries of $95,820 as of May 2014. The top paying industries included specialty hospitals and home health care services.

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