Physician Assistant Education Requirements and Career Information

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a physician assistant. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about coursework, job duties and certification to find out if this is the career for you.

Physician assistants work with doctors to provide patient care in a variety of settings including hospitals, doctor's offices, and clinics. Training to become a physician assistant is extensive and involves both a bachelor's degree and a further two-year master's program, as well as a certification exam and continuing education.

Essential Information

A physician assistant sees patients under the supervision of a licensed physician. Physician's assistants conduct physical exams to diagnose and treat patients. They may work in general family practice or specialize in a specific area of medicine, such as obstetrics, cardiology or orthopedics. Physician assistants are employed in hospitals, private practices and public health care clinics.

Required Education Master's degree
Other Requirements Licensure required in all states
Projected Growth (2014-2024)* 30%
Median Salary (2015)* $98,180

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Education Requirements for Physician Assistants

An aspiring physician assistant (PA) must first earn a bachelor's degree in an area of science. Following this, students apply to and enter a physician's assistant program. This degree program includes a mixture of classroom training, laboratory work and practical training.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were approximately 200 accredited physician assistant programs in 2014. Most schools offer 2-year, graduate-level PA programs leading to a master's degree; however, some schools offer programs leading to a bachelor's degree or certificate. Many physician assistant programs are affiliated with a medical school or teaching hospital.

Physician assistants may choose to go on for additional training in a specialty area of medicine. Specialties include emergency medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, geriatrics, occupational medicine and surgery.

Program Coursework

Coursework in a physician assistant program includes human anatomy, pharmacology, biochemistry, physiology, pathology and ethics. Hands-on training in clinical medicine is a large part of the program. This is supervised and focuses on areas such as geriatrics, pediatrics, surgery, gynecology, internal medicine and family medicine.


Certification from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) is required for all practicing physician assistants. After graduation from an accredited educational program, physician assistants must pass an examination to earn certification. Those who gain certification may call themselves a Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C). To maintain certification, PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years. A recertification exam is also required every six years.

Career Information

Similar to physicians, physician assistants conduct patient examinations, order lab tests and take patient histories to make a medical diagnosis. They also prescribe medications and provide treatment of routine conditions. In some cases, physician assistants treat injuries and put in stitches or cast broken bones. All duties are carried out under the supervision of a physician as directed by state law.


In May, 2015, The BLS reported a median annual salary of $98,180 for physician assistants. Income varies based on experience, location, specialty and type of practice.


In May 2014, there were 94,400 physician assistant jobs in the U.S., according to the BLS. Also per the BLS, 57% of PAs worked in doctors' offices, while 22% were employed in hospitals. Job growth for physician assistants is projected to be 30% -- considerably faster than average -- between 2014 and 2024.

Physician assistants perform many of the same tasks as physicians and may specialize in a specific area of medicine or work in general practice. Lengthy educational preparation is required, but is still shorter than going to medical school followed by a residency program. This is a growing field with plenty of opportunities and high salaries. Ongoing education is required for periodic recertification.

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