About Physician Assistants

Physician assistants provide diagnostic, preventive and therapeutic care as designated by a licensed physician. PAs are trained as generalists but can also work in specialty areas. They perform physical exams, diagnose and treat illness, order and interpret lab tests, prescribe medication, perform in-office procedures, suture wounds, assist in surgery, provide patient education and counseling, and make rounds in hospitals. Nearly 40% of PAs practice in hospital settings. An equal number work in group and solo-physician offices. The rest are found in rural and community health centers, nursing homes, surgical facilities, school and college-based health centers, industry, and correctional facilities. Originally PA programs were created to train former military corpsmen to practice medicine and provide care for people with limited access to health care. In recent years, the field has included students directly from undergraduate studies as well as practitioners from a variety of healthcare fields.

Preparation and Applying
  • Observe a PA to make sure this is the right field and that you truly understand what a PA does.
  • Course requirements can vary substantially between programs. Research programs of interest to you to make sure you meet their requirements.
  • A grade of at least C (even higher at some schools) is often needed at many programs in required courses. 
  • Some programs require the GRE (https://www.ets.org/gre). A few schools require the new PA-CAT exam (https://www.pa-cat.com/)
  • The initial application to most PA programs is through an online application service called the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (https://caspa.liaisoncas.com/applicant-ux/#/login)
  • The competitive applicant will have:
    • Strong academic performance including a grade point average of 3.5 or better
    • Scores above the national average on the GRE/PA-CAT
    • Leadership, teamwork, and communication skills
    • Significant shadowing/observation experience and hands-on patient care hours
    • Strong positive letters of recommendation (mostly from science faculty and physicians or PAs)
  • Early application is important as most programs are relatively small. The application opens in April. Applications should be submitted in May for schools with January starts and in June or early July for August/September start dates.
  • Many students find they need to work for a year before applying to gain enough clinical hours to be competitive at many PA programs.
Education and Licensure
  • To attend one of the accredited PA master’s programs, you need to complete a bachelor’s degree in any major along with appropriate prerequisite courses.
  • Considerable health care experience (generally hands-on patient care) is needed to be admitted to most programs. Some programs require as many as 2,000 hours. Schools have different opinions on the experiences they value.
  • After completing science courses (didactic training), PA students complete clinical rotations in a number of specialties including family medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, internal medicine, general surgery, psychiatry, and obstetrics/gynecology.
  • Training is competency-based. Once clinical training is finished, students must pass the national PA certification exam to become a PA-C and then be licensed in their state.

Additional Resources