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Physician Assistant (PA) Career Guide

What is a physician assistant?

A physician assistant is a healthcare professional qualified and licensed to offer a wide range of medical services under the supervision of a physician. These services usually comprise of routine tasks that a doctor would typically perform. The main purpose of their role is to free up doctors’ time, allowing them to focus on complex medical cases. Their value is seen in their ability to extend health services to areas where doctors may not be readily available, such as rural or remote areas.

Duties and responsibilities

A physician assistant’s role may encompass various tasks depending on the medical setting, the supervising physician’s specialty, and state laws. However, common responsibilities include examining, diagnosing, and treating patients. This might involve conducting physical exams, taking medical histories, prescribing medication, and serving as the patient’s primary healthcare provider. PAs may also order and interpret tests, perform procedures, and assist in surgery. They are responsible for updating medical records and may be involved in health education and patient counseling. Ultimately, their duties and responsibilities aim to support the supervising physician and improve patient care.

Work environment

The work environment for a physician assistant can vary greatly depending on their specialty and the organization they work for. Some common workplaces include hospitals, doctor’s offices, outpatient clinics, and educational settings. In these environments, it’s typically the norm to work as part of a team of healthcare professionals, providing patient care and support.

Given the nature of the work, the environment can be fast-paced and occasionally stressful, particularly in urgent care or emergency settings. In some instances, they may be required to wear protective gear or follow strict health and safety protocols to ensure the well-being of patients and their own protection.

Typical work hours

Physician assistants typically work full time, often putting in long hours. Their work schedule may include weekends, nights, and early morning shifts, depending on the needs of the organization they work for. It’s not uncommon for their schedule to vary week by week or even day by day.

Many assistants who work in hospitals or other 24-hour facilities may be on call, which means they must be ready to respond to an emergency situation or take care of patient needs at any time. This aspect of the job can make for irregular work hours and the potential for long periods of work without a break.

How to become a physician assistant

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a physician assistant. To launch a successful career in this role, one must complete a series of educational, licensure, and experiential steps.

Step 1: Complete an undergraduate degree

To become a physician assistant, one must first complete an undergraduate degree. Most PA programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree, often in a health-related field such as biology, chemistry, or health science. The majority of programs prefer applicants with a strong background in the sciences.

Step 2: Gain healthcare experience

After completing an undergraduate degree, it is helpful to gain healthcare experience. This can be achieved through roles such as medical scribe, emergency medical technician (EMT), paramedic, or nurse. This experience serves two purposes: it provides a foundation of medical knowledge and demonstrates a commitment to the healthcare field.

Step 3: Obtain a master’s degree in physician assistant studies

Once a bachelor’s degree and healthcare experience have been obtained, the next step is to complete a master’s degree in physician assistant studies. This is usually a two to three-year program, with the first year often focusing on classroom and laboratory work in topics such as biochemistry, pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical pharmacology, clinical medicine, physical diagnosis, and medical ethics. The second year usually involves clinical rotations in family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, prenatal care and gynecology, geriatric care, emergency medicine, and pediatric medicine.

Step 4: Become certified

After graduating from a master’s program, it’s time to earn a Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential by passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). This test contains questions on general medical and surgical knowledge. The PA-C credential is valid for ten years and must be maintained through continuous professional development and by passing a recertification exam.

Step 5: Obtain state licensure

To practice as a PA, one must be licensed in the state where they plan to work. Each state has its own requirements, but most require an application, a fee, and proof of certification from the NCCPA. Some states also require certain medical education courses to be completed every year to maintain licensure.

Step 6: Consider a postgraduate residency

Lastly, some assistants choose to complete a postgraduate residency program. These programs usually last about two years and provide advanced training in specialty areas such as surgery, emergency medicine, or dermatology. Although they’re not required for practice, they can offer opportunities for specialization and career advancement.

How much do physician assistants make?

Physician assistant salaries vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Notably, advanced specializations, years of experience, and the capacity to perform complex surgical procedures can significantly influence their compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Outpatient Care Centers – $138,560
  • Hospitals – $131,760
  • Employment Services – $128,220
  • Government – $127,940
  • Education – $119,870

Highest paying states

  • Connecticut – $129,610
  • Washington – $125,980
  • Alaska – $122,260
  • Hawaii – $121,120
  • California – $117,230

Browse physician assistant salary data by market

Types of physician assistants

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for physician assistants. This section aims to provide an in-depth look into the various specialties within the profession.

Primary care physician assistant

Professionals in this area typically provide basic health services commonly associated with a general practice doctor. These services might include assessing symptoms, administering physical exams, diagnosing illness, and developing treatment plans. The primary care physician assistant often establishes long-term professional relationships with patients, managing and monitoring their overall health.

Surgical physician assistant

In surgery, these professionals are skilled assistants in the operating room. They work alongside surgeons, performing tasks such as closing incisions, maintaining the surgical field, or even conducting certain parts of the procedure under the surgeon’s supervision. Before and after surgeries, they assist with patient preparation and post-operative care, respectively.

Emergency medicine physician assistant

This role gravitates toward high-stress, fast-paced environments like emergency departments or urgent care centers. Quick decision-making and swift medical action are required to treat trauma cases, acute illnesses, or other urgent conditions. In addition to treating acute conditions, these professionals also facilitate the process of patient transfer to specialized hospital departments for further care.

Pediatric physician assistant

Among the roles dedicated to young patients, this specialization entails providing age-specific health care to infants, children, and adolescents. From performing regular check-ups and diagnosing common childhood illnesses to informing about children’s health issues and providing preventative health care advice, these professionals play a vital role in the early stages of human life.

Orthopedic physician assistant

Working under the direction of orthopedic surgeons, these specialists focus on conditions related to the skeletal system. They help diagnose and treat various orthopedic conditions, assist in surgery, and offer post-operative care such as injury rehabilitation. This specialty often involves care for patients with broken bones, arthritis, osteoporosis, and sports injuries.

Top skills for physician assistants

This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a physician assistant, including knowledge of medicine, strong analytical thinking, and the ability to work under pressure.

Strong medical knowledge

One of the paramount traits of a successful PA is a solid grounding in medical knowledge. Fundamental understanding of anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology and familiarity with various medical procedures and treatments form a significant part of their work.

Good analytical thinking

Assistants employ their analytical thinking to diagnose and treat illnesses. They need to be able to draw meaningful conclusions from various medical reports, symptom descriptions, and examination outcomes. Their judgment influences the course of treatment and can vastly affect patients’ well-being.

Ability to work under pressure

Healthcare environments often require individuals to work in stressful situations or under tight deadlines. It’s common for these professionals to multitask and handle various patients, all while providing high-quality care. Their capacity to stay calm under pressure is essential for this role.

Excellent communication skills

Communicating clearly and emphatically is key in the medical field. The ability to explain complex medical information in an understandable way to patients and their families and cooperate effectively with other medical professionals defines good practicing PAs.

Compassion and empathy

In day-to-day interactions with patients, demonstrating a caring and empathetic approach plays a vital role in effective treatment. This position involves establishing trust, understanding patients’ concerns, and providing emotional support when needed. This skill vastly enhances patient engagement and trust.

Physician assistant career path

As a PA, the prospect of career progression ahead is filled with numerous opportunities for growth, advancement, and greater responsibility. Your career path in this field largely depends on your interests, experience, and desire to learn.


One path of progression allows a physician assistant to specialize within a particular area of medicine. Some PAs focus on specialties such as pediatrics, cardiology, emergency medicine, or surgical care. By specializing, you have the opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge and skills in a specific medical area, increasing your scope of practice and possibly your salary, too.

Leadership roles

These professionals have the opportunity to fill leadership roles by becoming the head of a department or taking on administrative duties. By doing so, you can contribute to policy-making decisions, oversee other team members, and manage the workflow of the department or facility. This path requires technical and soft skills such as communication, decision-making, and problem-solving.

Education and research

An alternative career path can lead to roles in academia or research. For example, those passionate about teaching might become faculty members at a medical college, shaping the next generation of PAs. This path typically requires a higher level of education, such as a doctorate. Likewise, a role in research allows PAs to contribute to medical advancements in their field.

Career shift

Lastly, another avenue of career progression is to pursue further education to make a shift in the career entirely, such as becoming a physician or a nurse practitioner. This transition requires additional years of study and training but could lead one to a higher level of medical practice and potentially higher income.

The role of physician assistants continues to evolve in response to changes in healthcare practices. Particularly in primary care, PAs are playing a heightened role as the demand for healthcare services increases. One significant trend is the shift toward team-based care. This approach allows these professionals to work closely with physicians and other healthcare providers, enhancing patient outcomes and increasing the efficiency of service delivery.

Alongside shifts in care delivery, adaptations in education are also noteworthy. They are increasingly focusing on sub-specialty education to equip themselves for the evolving medical field. This involves gaining expertise in specialized areas of medicine like cardiology, orthopedics, or psychiatry. Such focus helps them bring specialized knowledge to healthcare teams.

On the legislative front, policies allowing PAs to practice more autonomously have gained traction recently. In some states, recent laws have expanded their scope of practice, enabling them to provide care independently of physicians in certain settings.

Employment projections for physician assistants

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected job growth for physician assistants is 28% through 2031. This rate is significantly faster than the average for all occupations. The increased demand is largely due to an aging population that requires more healthcare services.

Physician assistant career tips

Understand the breadth of your practice

The scope of practice varies widely across different regions and healthcare settings in this role. This means a lot about the job is dependent on context. Understanding these variations will set the groundwork for your success. This knowledge helps anticipate what skills and knowledge will be valued most where you work. It also allows you to navigate your professional path and achieve your desired career outcomes.

Build a professional network

Networking extends beyond the walls of your workplace. Connecting with other healthcare workers both within and outside your region is important. Becoming part of a professional network can offer opportunities for mentorship, professional development, and learning about job opportunities. Below is a list of professional associations you can join:

  • American Association of Physician Assistants (AAPA)
  • Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA)
  • National Association of Rural Health Clinics (NARHC)

Emphasize patient wellness and preventive care

In your role, don’t simply focus on the disease or ailment; take a holistic, patient-centered approach. Emphasize wellness education and preventive measures, which improve patient outcomes and strengthen your bond with patients. People will appreciate your efforts to go beyond diagnosis and treatment, and your focus on wellness and preventative care can help to set you apart in your field.

Engage in continuous learning

Staying on top of the latest updates in the medical field is a given in this profession. Continuous learning, though, goes beyond simply reading medical journals. It involves participating in professional development opportunities and learning from other healthcare professionals. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Join seminars and conferences related to your practice
  • If possible, take part in research studies
  • Consider pursuing a certificate of added qualifications (CAQ) in your area of specialty

Where the physician assistant jobs are

Top employers

  • Mayo Clinic
  • Cleveland Clinic
  • Johns Hopkins Hospital
  • Stanford Health Care
  • Massachusetts General Hospital

Top states

  • California
  • Florida
  • Massachusetts
  • Texas
  • New York

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Health eCareers
  • PA Job Source
  • DocCafe


What skills are required to become a physician assistant?

PAs should have strong communication skills as they frequently interact with patients, families, and other healthcare professionals. They should also be detail-oriented and have a solid knowledge of medical treatment procedures and medications. Strong critical thinking skills and decision-making abilities are also necessary, given the high-stakes nature of medical care.

What type of training does a physician assistant need?

Most have a master’s degree from an accredited educational program. Before entering these programs, most students have a bachelor’s degree and some healthcare-related work experience. PA programs typically take at least two years to complete and include both classroom instruction and clinical rotations.

What are the working conditions for a physician assistant?

PAs work in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices. They may also work in rural or other medically underserved areas. Their work can be physically and emotionally demanding. They often stand for long periods and may have to perform challenging procedures. Their schedule may also involve working nights, weekends, and holidays, especially those working in hospitals.

What tasks does a physician assistant typically perform on a daily basis?

Daily, a PA might conduct physical exams, diagnose illnesses, develop and carry out treatment plans, assist in surgeries, perform procedures, and counsel patients on preventative healthcare. They also often communicate with other healthcare professionals, refer patients to specialists when necessary, and complete paperwork, such as patient histories and billing information.

What is the difference between a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner?

The main difference between a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner lies in their educational background and training. PAs typically attend a medical model program, which includes learning about various aspects of medicine in a format similar to medical school. On the other hand, nurse practitioners follow a nursing model program, often focusing on preventive care and disease prevention. In terms of scope of practice, both nurse practitioners and PAs can diagnose diseases, prescribe medication, and treat patients, but the specific responsibilities can vary by state.

What are common specialties for physician assistants?

They can work in many areas of medicine, including family medicine, emergency medicine, surgery, and psychiatry. Specializing usually requires additional training and experience. Some PAs may choose to continue their education by entering a postgraduate residency program in a specific area of medicine, such as general surgery or emergency medicine.

How important is communication in the role of a physician assistant?

Communication is critical in this role. They not only need to communicate effectively with patients to explain diagnoses, treatment plans, and preventative health measures but also with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses, to ensure coordinated and effective patient care. Good communication helps build trust with patients and provides a clear understanding of their health issues and treatment options.

What are the typical responsibilities of a physician assistant in a surgical setting?

In a surgical setting, a PA may take patient histories, perform physical exams to evaluate patients for surgery, and provide pre-operative and post-operative care. They may also assist during the surgery itself by providing retraction, suturing, and wound care. They might also educate patients and their families about the surgical process and recovery in some settings.

How does a physician assistant interact with other members of the healthcare team?

A PA is an integral part of the healthcare team and regularly interacts with other members, including physicians, nurses, and administrative staff. They often work under the supervision of a physician but, in some cases, may work more independently. The interaction involves collaborating on patient care, discussing cases, and contributing to the treatment plan. Effective interaction can significantly impact patient outcomes and the efficiency of care.