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Physician Assistant Career Guide

Physician assistants serve a critical role in the health-care industry. They practice alongside doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel in hospitals, clinics, and physicians’ offices. Physician assistants — also known as PAs — examine, diagnose, and treat patients. In some cases, they serve as primary-care providers when a licensed physician is not available. 

Sample job description

We are hiring a physician’s assistant who will be responsible for performing basic medical procedures, diagnosing illnesses and injuries, ordering tests, prescribing medications, and providing patients with information on how they can improve their overall health. The ideal candidate will have a minimum of 2-3 years experience in a similar position, strong written and verbal communication skills, be able to work independently and as a team member, and must hold a bachelor’s degree.

Typical duties and responsibilities

  • Talk with patients and review their medical history
  • Examine, diagnose and treat patients
  • Order tests and interpret results, such as blood panels and X-rays
  • Prescribe medicine
  • Counsel patients and their families about diagnosis and treatment
  • Monitor patients’ progress and adjust treatment as needed
  • Perform community outreach and education

Education and experience

Physician assistants must have a high school diploma or the equivalent, along with a bachelor’s degree. They also need to earn a master’s degree from an accredited program, which typically takes at least two years. These programs include rigorous science classes and supervised clinical work. All states require PAs to be licensed, pass an exam, and earn certification. 

Required skills and qualifications

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Strong interpersonal skills for dealing with patients, doctors, and staff
  • Discretion and the ability to handle confidential information
  • Ability to multitask and prioritize workload
  • Compassion and a calm, caring demeanor
  • Strong problem-solving skills
  • Keen attention to detail

Preferred qualifications

  • Passionate about working in the medical field and helping patients achieve optimal health
  • Good communication skills since they will provide detailed information on patients’ health to the medical staff
  • Organized 
  • Have good time management skills

Average salary and compensation

The average salary for a physician assistant is $104,250 in the United States. Position salary will vary based on experience, education, company size, industry, and market.

LocationSalary LowSalary High
Phoenix, Arizona$103,700$140,250
Los Angeles, California$116,950$158,250
Denver, Colorado$97,450$131,900
Washington, DC$118,750$160,650
Miami, Florida$97,050$131,300
Orlando, Florida$89,500$121,100
Tampa, Florida$90,400$122,300
Atlanta, Georgia$94,800$128,300
Chicago, Illinois$109,000$147,450
Boston, Massachusetts$117,850$159,450
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota$93,950$127,100
New York City, New York$124,050$167,850
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania$101,000$136,650
Dallas, Texas$98,350$133,100
Houston, Texas$97,450$131,900
Seattle, Washington$113,400$153,450
National Average$88,600$119,900

Typical work environment

This is a full-time position that usually requires working at least 8 hours per day. However, the physician assistant may have to work more depending on the needs of their assigned clinic/hospital/practice. The physician assistant may need to occasionally lift or move patients who are disabled or have limited mobility. They must also be able to stand for long periods of time. They will be working in hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, and more. 

Typical hours

Physician assistants work a variety of schedules because some health-care facilities are open early in the morning, late at night, or 24 hours a day. As a result, physician assistants might need to work evenings, weekends, or holidays. PAs frequently log more than 40 hours a week and often are on call, meaning they must be available to work on short notice.

Available certifications

There are many certifications that can set you apart from the crowd when applying as a physician assistant. Some of the most common ones are:

  • Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination® (PANCE). If you graduate from a PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) or its predecessors, you can take this exam for certification. The multiple-choice exam assesses basic medical and surgical knowledge. You will need to submit an application and payment in advance and can choose from over 200 testing sites.
  • Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery (CVTS). Earn a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) in Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery (CVTS) to show your advanced expertise in your specialty.

Career path

The first step to becoming a physician assistant is to earn a high school diploma or its equivalent, followed by a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis on science, ideally along with some patient-care experience. Physician assistants then go on to earn a master’s degree from a program accredited by ARC-PA. These programs include classes such as anatomy, physiology, and ethics plus hands-on, supervised clinical training. PAs often work as paramedics or nursing assistants to fulfill the requirements for experience in inpatient care. They also must pass an exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants to earn their license. States require this certification, along with an agreement with a supervising physician.

US, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job outlook

SOC Code: 29-1071

2020 Employment129,400
Projected Employment in 2030169,500
Projected 2020-2030 Percentage Shift 31% increase
Projected 2020-2030 Numeric Shift40,100 increase

Demand for health care will continue to grow as the population ages, and physician assistants will be in exceptionally high demand compared with other professions. PAs are allowed to provide many of the same services as physicians but with less training.

Team-based health-care models are becoming more common, and insurance companies are expanding their coverage of physician assistant services.

According to the American Academy of PAs, volunteering can be a key path to career growth for this occupation.