Undergraduate and graduate programs in physician assistance are selective and often admit only the best-qualified candidates. At the associate's level, students should have a high school diploma and prior healthcare experience to be considered for admission. Bachelor's program applicants also need a high school diploma with a background in biology, chemistry, physics and upper level mathematics. Up to 300 hours of healthcare experience, including two full days following practicing physician assistants, may be necessary as well. Applicants to master's programs must have bachelor's degrees, preferably in health sciences, with work experience and high grade point averages.
The length of these programs varies according to program level. All undergraduate and graduate physician assistant programs include didactic coursework in anatomy, pharmacology and microbiology, among other subjects. Online and traditional in-class courses for these topics may be offered. Extensive clinical rotations are a critical component of the curriculum as well.
Associate of Science Degree in Physician Assistant Studies
Though limited in availability and acceptance, there are some accredited associate's degree programs that lead to the physician's assistant credential. These degree programs contain full physician assistant curricula and should not be confused with the pre-health degree programs that are offered by many community and technical colleges.
Accredited physician assistant programs at the associate's level are just as rigorous as medical sciences programs at four-year institutions. A typical course load may include the following:
- Human Anatomy
- Physical diagnosis
Bachelor of Science in Physician Assistant Studies
The American Academy of Physician Assistants recommends that a physician assistant program should last approximately 26 months. The bachelor's degree program integrates multiple semesters of rounded scientific and humanities education with the clinical rotation and medical training requirements of an accredited physician assistant degree program.
Generally, the first 12 months of a physician assistant bachelor's degree program covers core medical sciences in preparation for clinical rotations. Some of these courses may include the following:
- Human anatomy and physiology
- Clinical procedures
Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies
The vast majority of accredited physician assistant degree programs are offered at the graduate level. The master's degree usually begins with a year of pre-clinical courses and ends with a series of clinical rotations in the areas of internal medicine, orthopedics, pediatrics, psychiatry and more.
Similar to bachelor's and associate's degree programs, the master's curriculum allows students to develop core knowledge in medical sciences before beginning clinical rotations. These courses vary, but often include the following:
- Human anatomy
- Clinical procedures
Salary Information and Employment Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physician assistant job openings are expected to grow by 30% between 2014 and 2024. In May 2015, the BLS listed the median annual salary for physician assistants at $98,180.
All states require that candidates pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. This credential gives holders the right to use the Physician Assistant-Certified (P.A.-C) denotation in their title. To maintain this certification, physician assistants are required to complete 100 hours of continuing education in every two year period and they must re-take the exam every six years. As part of the continuing education, many physician assistants delve into specialty fields such as pediatrics, neonatology, emergency medicine or rural care.
For the most part, individuals wanting to become a certified physician assistant need to earn a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies; however, there are a few selective associate's and bachelor's degree programs that can prepare you for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam.