Physician Assistant (Surgery): How to Become a Surgery Assistant

Learn how to become a surgical physician assistant. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in surgical physician assisting.

Should I Become a Surgical Physician Assistant?

Surgical physician assistants (PAs) extend the services of surgeons by providing patient care before and after surgery. They may also assist surgeons in the operating room. Other services that surgical PAs may provide include physical exams, closing incisions, interpreting diagnostic tests and counseling patients about treatment.

Surgery assistants work full-time jobs that often include night and weekend shifts as well as overtime. Surgery assistants spend a lot of time on their feet, sometimes standing for hours on end in operating rooms. The career is high stress, and can be physically and emotionally demanding. However, helping people with injuries or illnesses can be rewarding.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree
Degree Field Physician assistant
Experience 4.5 years of experience is usually required to be a competitive candidate for a PA program
Licensure Licensure is required by all states
Key Skills Problem-solving and communication skills, attention to detail, compassion, emotional stability
Salary $97,280 per year (2014 average salary for all physician assistants)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants, O*NET OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A requirement for entering a PA program is a bachelor's degree. PA programs do not require any particular undergraduate major, but they do have specific course prerequisites. Prospective PAs should plan to complete coursework in calculus, physics, chemistry, biology and psychology. It is also important to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher, since this is a requirement of many PA programs.

Success Tip:

  • Take courses to prepare for a job in healthcare. Applicants to PA programs need to have work experience in healthcare. Undergraduate students can plan for this by taking any prerequisites necessary to get a job as a registered nurse, paramedic, diagnostic imaging technician or whatever role they hope to fill to gain experience.

Step 2: Gain Experience Working in Healthcare

The American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants states that successful applicants to PA programs have an average of 4.5 years of healthcare experience ( Many programs do not have a specific number of years of experience that are required. However, admissions are often competitive, so applicants will need to demonstrate that they are well-prepared for the field. Depending on a student's undergraduate major, he or she could pursue a job in nursing, medical assisting or any other healthcare-related position.

Step 3: Attend a Physician Assistant Program

The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) accredits PA programs. It is important that students attend an accredited PA program in order to ensure that they are able to get certified and licensed. Most PA programs award a master's degree after two years of study. The first year of a PA program consists of didactic coursework, and the second year is spent completing clinical rotations in various areas of medicine. Some areas that a student may gain experience in are internal medicine, emergency medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology.

Step 4: Earn Certification

To become certified by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), graduates of PA programs must take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). In addition to the PANCE, which is a general certification exam for all types of PAs, surgery assistants can also take certification exams that specifically apply to their specialty. Both the National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) and the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) offer specialized certification to surgery assistants who pass an exam and meet education and experience requirements.

Step 5: Apply for Licensure

After an individual has passed the NCCPA exam, he or she becomes certified and is eligible to apply for state licensure. In addition to submitting a passing score on the PANCE, licensure candidates need to provide evidence of completing an approved PA program with the required number of supervised clinical hours.

Step 6: Complete an Optional Surgical Residency

PAs specializing in surgery may want to complete a surgery residency to further advance in the field. Full-time residencies are offered at several universities and teaching hospitals that usually last for 12 months. During the residency, PAs gain intensive training through completing labs, seminars, lectures and clinical work. PAs could be paid a stipend while they are in the program.

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