Six Steps to Becoming a Physician Assistant

A physician assistant is an individual who practices medicine as an assistant to a doctor or to a surgeon. Physician assistants, also referred to as “PAs,” are generally high earners, making on average more than $86,000 per year. Additionally, this is a career that’s growing by leaps and bounds, like all professions within the healthcare industry.

For people who have an interest in medicine but don’t want to spend the exorbitant amount of time and money it takes to become a medical doctor, becoming a physician assistant is a great alternative. PAs still see patients, diagnose them and administer medicine, but they have to go through less schooling than a doctor. Here’s the step-by-step process to becoming a physician assistant.

Step One: Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree in a Science Field

Although you don’t have to have a bachelor’s degree in a science-related field, it will probably help when you try to get into a physician assistant program. Degrees such as biology, chemistry, biochemistry, nursing, psychology and similar degrees will provide you with the solid science background you need to work as a physician assistant.

Step Two: Gain Some Experience in a Healthcare-Related Industry

This step is optional, but many people who enter PA programs have already worked in healthcare. If you haven’t worked in healthcare before, it’s probably a good idea to spend at least a year or two working in this field before committing to a PA program. You don’t want to join a PA program when you’re not really sure if healthcare is the right field for you.

In particular, when it comes to prior experience in the healthcare industry, it’s not unusual to find physician assistants who have held jobs as registered nurses, paramedics or EMTs before deciding to advance their careers by becoming a PA.

Step Three: Enroll in a Physician Assistant Program

Your next step is to find and enroll in a program that will make you a certified physician assistant. These programs are usually master’s degrees that are two years in length. They are academically challenging programs that include a lot of the same coursework that a future doctor would take. Like doctors, physician assistants have to take both classroom courses and laboratory courses; also like doctors, they have to complete certain clinical coursework requirements. In fact, some PA programs are remarkably similar to the programs that doctors complete, even being taught at the same medical schools alongside medical students, but PA programs are shorter in length.

An alternative route to becoming a physician assistant is to become a PA as part of military training. Some servicemen and women are specifically educated as PAs in order to complete their military service.

Step Four: Earn a License

Like physicians, nurses and many other healthcare professionals, PAs have to earn a license in order to practice their trade. The exam for receiving a PA license is organized by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, or NCCPA.

Step Five: Specialize

This fifth step is also an optional one. It’s not necessary to specialize, but many PAs are drawn to one particular aspect of the medical field and choose to pursue a specialty in that area. Specializing, however, does mean additional schoolwork. Postgraduate programs for PAs include specialties in rural medicine, internal medicine, occupational medicine and more.

Step Six: Find a Job

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than half of all PAs work for doctors in doctors’ offices. Another quarter of physician assistants work in hospitals; the remaining quarter are split between working for the government, working in university settings as teachers and working in outpatient centers.

Conclusion: Being a Physician Assistant Is the Best of Both Worlds

Becoming a doctor is a lengthy and arduous process. Getting into medical school is the first hurdle future doctors have to jump; entrance into medical school is notoriously difficult and competitive. Once in medical school, these future doctors can look forward to four challenging years of extremely difficult classroom work, long hours spent in hospitals and occasional abuse or hazing from their supervising residents. When med school is finally over, future doctors still have to complete an internship and a residency in order to finish their education. The internship and residency can add another three to seven years before the doctor is free to go into private practice or choose his or her own profession. On top of all that, paying off medical school debt and paying for malpractice insurance ensure that the new doctor will have to spend many years working extra hard.

By comparison, a physician assistant enjoys many of the perks that a doctor enjoys but doesn’t have as long or as difficult an education. Like doctors, physician assistants enjoy the gratification that comes with helping others to heal and overcome their physical and emotional problems. Also like doctors, physician assistants earn a good salary and have good job security. Unlike a doctor, PA school isn’t as long or as severe, nor is the debt burden as heavy. If you have an interest in the medical field but don’t want to jump through the hoops that future doctors have to jump through, becoming a PA may be the right career choice for you.