Career Profile: Physician’s Assistant

What is a Physician’s Assistant?

A Physician assistant (PA) is a health professional licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision.  They are not doctors, but they are near enough to smell (and reap) the six-figure salaries.

What do Physician’s Assistants do?

Physician’s Assistants must be supervised by medical doctors, but the law does allow PAs to make medical decisions and provide a variety of services, including taking medical histories, performing physical exams, ordering and interpreting laboratory tests, diagnosing and treating illnesses, counseling patients, assisting in surgery, setting fractures, and prescribing medications.  In addition to treating patients, PAs’ responsibilities may also include education, research, and administrative services.

Most PAs are medical generalists who work in primary care, family or internal medicine, pediatrics or obstetrics and gynecology.  However, many PAs specialize in fields, such as cardiovascular surgery, orthopedics, and emergency medicine.

For whom do Physician’s Assistants work?

PAs report to doctors, but they work in virtually every health care setting, including hospitals, physicians’ offices, HMOs, correctional institutions, military installations, VA medical centers, nursing homes, public health agencies, community clinics, research centers, urban/rural health clinics, health care education and administration offices, and industrial medicine clinics.  PAs can even be found in concierge/private physician firms like the one in the hit cable TV show Royal Pains.

You could be Divya, the genius PA on Royal Pains
You could be Divya, the genius PA on Royal Pains

What do Physician’s Assistants earn?

A first-year PA earns an average of $70,000, while a PA with at least 2 years of experience earns an average of $80,000.  The top 10% of PAs earns more than $102,000/year, and a 2007 salary survey conducted on behalf of the American Association of Physician’s Assistants found that a small number of PAs earn more $1 million or more (Don’t go crazy with the latter stat, these PAs likely own businesses that generate the bulk of their salaries).

How do you break in?

Being a PA does not require a college degree, though you must complete some college-level courses.  And, those with a college degree will be favored in program admissions, hiring and compensation.  All PAs must complete an accredited PA program and pass a licensing exam.  PA programs typically take 24-27 months to complete–12 months of classroom time followed by 12-15 months in a supervised clinical rotation.  Most PA programs are full time, though a few colleges and universities have begun to offer part-time programs that allow career-changers to keep their day jobs during the classroom phase.  The average cost of a PA program is $25,000-$30,000/year (pricey, but cheaper than med school).

There are actually several pathways to being a PA.

Pathway 1: No College Degree

This is a relatively new path that is open to high school graduates.  Students complete core college requirements (anatomy, psychology, chemistry, physics) in a pre-professional phase and move into the professional phase for training as a PA.  Most of these programs are operated by community colleges and state universities that award both bachelor’s and master’s degrees upon completion, but some programs award a bachelor’s or associates degree.  These programs take substantially longer to complete (up to 5 years if you earn a masters degree).

Pathway 2: With College Degree

If you’ve already earned a college degree in an unrelated discipline, or you earned your degree years ago, you will have to pass a few core college-level courses (same as above) and complete an accredited masters-level PA program.  Some programs allow you to work as a PA (an internship or rotation) while you earn your masters.  Most require you to take the GRE or MCAT to enter.

Pathway 3: With Masters Degree

If you’ve already completed a master’s program, you will still be required to take a few courses to enter a PA program.  But, you may be able to test out of, or skip, some courses, thereby shortening your classroom time.  You’ll still need to complete the clinical requirements.

Job Opportunities

Demand for PA’s is growing due to the shortage of medical doctors and nurses in the U.S.  In areas where people have limited access to care, PAs can make house calls, test, diagnose and treat patients, and write prescriptions.

Search currently available PA Jobs

PA Job Link


Accredited Entry-Level PA Programs by State

Summary of State Laws Governing PAs

Physician’s Assistant Education Association

Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE)

PA Programs for High School Grads

Post-Graduate PA Programs

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