|Recommended Degree Level||Master's|
|Number of Jobs, 2012||83,640|
|Annual Job Growth Rate||4.2%|
|Job Openings per Year (est.)||4,060|
- Those who wish to become physician assistants must enroll in a bachelor's or master's degree program that can take between two and four years to complete.
- Most programs are offered through community colleges, four-year colleges and specialized medical colleges.
What you study:
Aspiring physician assistants must demonstrate familiarity with a wide range of medical and science subjects, including:
- Diagnostic techniques
- Medical ethics
- Basic surgical techniques
- Basic emergency medicine
A brief overview of a Physician Assistant career. Created for the US Department of Labor.
A Day in the Life
Like the majority of physician assistants, you work in a medical practice that's staffed by several MDs. Although you thought about finding work at your local hospital after graduating from your PA program, you weren't able to work at night or on the weekends. However, you've thought about going to work at the hospital once your kids are older. With so many new physician assistant jobs appearing each year, you're confident that there will be a spot open for you.
For now, you work in a full-time position at a doctor's office. If there is a major appointment backlog, you might be asked to work into the evenings or come in on Saturday mornings. This doesn't happen every week. Most of the time, you work a regular Monday-through-Friday schedule.
Today, you arrive at the office at 7:30 a.m. The family doctor who directly supervises your work is already attending to the first patient of the day. You greet the office's receptionist and enter the employee bathroom to wash up and change into your scrubs.
Once this is done, you sit down at your desk and check the day's patient schedule. You'll be seeing several patients this morning and nearly a dozen this afternoon. This is a typical workload: Despite rapid job growth in the medical profession, demand for the services of doctors and physician assistants continues to increase.
Since your training and licensing permits you to give shots, draw blood, prescribe basic medication and perform other medical tasks, you typically don't see the same patients as the doctor with whom you work. She usually sees the more "complicated" patients who have complex medical conditions or require special attention. You handle many of the more "routine" patients.
Your first patient of the day is a nine-year-old boy who's getting his annual checkup. First, you lead him into a special room and draw some blood for routine diagnostic tests. Next, you give him a shot of a tuberculosis antibody. This will determine whether he has the early stages of the disease. Finally, you lead him back into the examination room and check his reflexes, blood pressure and cardiovascular responses. Once you've determined that nothing is amiss, you hand him off to a nurse for a check of his hearing and vision.
Much of the morning passes in this manner. You give a one-year booster shot to an adorable baby girl, change the dressing on a teenager's arm cast, and speak with an older man who has been having diabetes-related health problems in recent months. Since the man's case is a bit more complicated, you write him a prescription for a new type of insulin medication and refer him to the doctor at your practice. Since your doctor is legally required to sign off on the scripts that you write, the man will need to see her anyway.
After lunch, you have a long conversation with a parent whose child has gained a significant amount of weight recently. You counsel her on the appropriate amount of exercise that her child should be getting and talk about various healthy eating options. She listens politely and seems to understand your point of view. By the time she leaves, you're confident that she'll effect a positive change in her child's life.
During the afternoon, another one of the practice's doctors comes by to help clear its appointment backlog. This creates a temporary lull that enables you to sneak away to your office and process some of the insurance claims that your patients have left. While this is routine work that is often practiced by your office's bookkeeper, you sometimes shoulder the burden on busy days.
Time flies when you're doing paperwork. Before you know it, it's time for you to go home. You wash up, change out of your scrubs, and bid "good night" to everyone who's still at the office. As you drive home, you smile as you think about the day's successes.
Certifications and Licensing
In order to practice as a licensed physician assistant, those who wish to enter this field must obtain a PA license in their state of residence. Although each state issues its own license, the physician assistant test is standardized across all jurisdictions. Known as the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, it is typically taken immediately before or after graduation from an accredited PA program.
Since the medical field changes rapidly, PAs must maintain their certification by taking a new exam every six years. Although this re-certification exam is not as rigorous as the original PANCE, it requires significant amounts of study and possible enrollment in a continuing-education course. PAs who wish to further their medical careers often apply to medical school after obtaining several years of experience in the field.
Full-time versus part-time:
The vast majority of physician assistants work full-time at doctor's offices, clinics and hospitals. Those who work in hospital and urgent-care environments may work irregular hours, including overnight and weekend shifts. Those who work in physician's offices typically see patients for regular appointments and maintain normal business schedules. However, it is not uncommon for PAs to work more than 40 hours per week. As such, these professionals must often make compromises with their families and employers.
Given the hands-on nature of physician assistants' work, almost no PAs are able to work from home. However, some part-time PAs may be able to stay at home for most of the time and work on an on-call or as-needed basis. This can be useful for workers who have young families or other responsibilities.
The following websites contain useful information for aspiring physician assistants.
- American Academy of Physician Assistants -- The AAPA's proprietary website provides basic career information for aspiring physician assistants, including salary ranges, job-growth outlook, typical job duties and other pertinent data. It also contains a job-search function and links to master's programs, licensing courses and research papers.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- The U.S. Department of Labor maintains an updated fact sheet about physician assistant careers. This report contains detailed information about educational requirements, salary ranges, job-growth potential and workplace expectations. It represents a great starting point for aspiring PAs.
- American Association of Family Practice Physician Assistants -- Although this organization caters to physician assistants who work in the field of family medicine, many of its resources apply to the general population of active and aspiring PAs. The organization offers resources for continuing education, training and licensing. It also maintains a dedicated job-search function. It is important to note that there are multiple physician assistant associations that cater to practitioners in specific sub-fields.
- Physician Assistant Education Association -- The PAEA specifically focuses on the educational needs of aspiring PAs. With tremendous job growth expected over the coming decade, this organization provides detailed primers on new and existing physician assistant programs at many different American universities. Although it caters to the needs of educators as well as students, its program-finder interface is particularly robust. As such, the PAEA is an excellent resource for master's-level students.
- American Medical Association -- The American Medical Association maintains a detailed report on the various aspects of physician assistant careers. It includes information about the field's history and job outlook as well as basic salary ranges, job-duty descriptions and educational requirements. Most importantly, it provides aspiring PAs with clear guidance for obtaining the appropriate licenses and finding permanent positions in the field.