How to Become a Physician Assistant (PA): Education & Requirements

Becoming a physician assistant honors your goal to help people and work in the healthcare field. It may seem a daunting prospect at the beginning, but the rewards are many—both in terms of having a multifaceted and fulfilling career as well as your potential for earning. Here’s a guide to the common steps involved in becoming a physician assistant, including education details, requirements, roles and responsibilities involved and the financial potential of the position.

6 Common Steps to Become a Physician Assistant (PA)

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree.

    According to the American Academy of PAs (AAPA), most PA programs require that applicants  have a bachelor’s degree before entering a PA program, in addition to about three years of healthcare experience. At a minimum, the agency says a candidate typically needs to complete at least two years of college coursework in basic and behavioral sciences before applying to a PA program. Many programs require a high GPA (typically 3.0 or higher) and prerequisites such as chemistry/organic chemistry, biology/microbiology, physiology, psychology and statistics.

  2. Gain healthcare experience.

    Each physician assistant program has different requirements regarding healthcare experience. However, the AAPA indicates that PA program applicants typically have three years of healthcare experience before applying.

  3. Apply to the PA program(s) of your choice.

    Considerations here include location, curriculum, cost, available financial aid and accreditation. Every state requires that its physician assistants attend a program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) in order to grant licensure.

  4. Graduate from PA school.

    Generally, physician assistant education programs may take about three years for coursework and clinical experience, but each PA program may be different. Be sure to check with your preferred university for coursework and clinical experience sequences.

  5. Earn your certification.

    Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) and earn National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) certification. The exam is five hours long and contains 300 multiple-choice questions; content areas tested include 95% medical and 5% other tasks, such as taking patient histories, formulating diagnoses and administering pharmaceutical therapeutics.

  6. Become licensed in your state.

    This requires that you have graduated from an ARC-PA accredited school and passed the PANCE. No states have an exception to this rule, according to the ARC-PA FAQs for non-U.S. healthcare professionals. Each state may have additional requirements, so you should research the requirements in the state(s) in which you intend to seek licensure.

Should I Become a Physician Assistant?

Is becoming a physician assistant the right choice for you? The answer to that lies within. Physician assistants are generally people who love learning, as earning the degree is demanding and the job requires continued education. 

PAs are typically compassionate people who thrive when helping others, which is important when you are involved in patient care daily. It’s helpful if you are good at working in collaborative settings, as you may be a member of each patient’s medical team.


The median salary of a physician assistant was $115,390 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Demand for PAs is high: Employment of physician assistants is expected to grow 31% between 2020-2030, a change the BLS categorizes as “much faster than average” when compared with all jobs. Salary tends to vary by location, and the BLS reports that the five top-paying states for physician assistants are:

StatePA Salary

Education Requirements  

To become a physician assistant, you’ll need to have a bachelor’s degree and successfully complete several science prerequisites, a specified number of hours working in direct patient care, a master’s degree from a program accredited by the ARC-PA, a state license and a passing score on the national certifying exam. To learn more about tips for admission to PA programs, the AAPA offers a one-hour application success webinar. Prospective students should research the requirements of their program(s) of interest before applying.

Roles and Responsibilities 

Physician assistants are found in hospitals, doctors’ offices, outpatient clinics, urgent care clinics, retail clinics inside stores and drugstores and in telehealth settings. Their duties may include:

  • Taking patient intake evaluations
  • Diagnosing conditions and illnesses
  • Ordering and interpreting lab tests or X-rays
  • Prescribing medications
  • Educating patients on preventive care and wellness
  • Making rounds and assisting in surgery in a hospital setting

Getting Licensed as a Physician Assistant 

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) offers the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential, awarded after an applicant successfully passes the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination. After becoming NCCPA certified, a PA-C can apply for licensure in the state in which they intend to work as a physician assistant. This may be subject to additional requirements. Prospective students should research the requirements in the state(s) in which they intend to practice. Information on the below PA-C credential was retrieved from PANCE Registration and PANRE Eligibility as of October 2021.

  • Type of certification: Physician Assistant Certified credential (PA-C)
  • Eligibility requirements: Applicants must be no more than 180 days from completing their accredited PA program, as deemed by each individual program.
  • Certification process: Submit an application and payment in advance to take the PANCE examination. You will receive an email to acknowledge your exam registration, and then you can schedule your exam date and choose a testing center. The earliest time you may take the test is seven days after program completion; you have 180 days in which to take the exam after registration. An applicant may take the test once in any 90-day period or three times in a calendar year.
  • Fees: $550, and then a certification maintenance fee of $180 must be paid to the NCCPA every two years.
  • Renewal: Certification must be renewed every 10 years with the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE).
  • Fees: $350

Just as professionals with PA degrees can replace and support the roles of other medical professionals, so can a few other advanced nursing and healthcare degrees. If you’d like to explore other healthcare careers, the following information may help: 

  • Nurse practitioners: A nurse practitioner also earns a master’s degree at minimum and has advanced clinical training. They practice in many medical settings, just as physician assistants do, and they also act as primary care providers for many patients upon completion of an on-campus or online nurse practitioner (NP) program.
  • Registered nurses: Registered nurses are directly involved in patient care, in hospitals, doctors’ offices, clinics and other settings. They can practice with an associate degree in nursing as long as they pass the NCLEX-RN exam, which gives them the RN credential, though many hospitals now prefer RNs with bachelor’s degrees. Registered nurses can specialize in such areas as cardiovascular, critical care/ICU, gastroenterology, neonatal, medical–surgical and public health.
  • Nurse midwives: certified nurse midwife is an advanced practice nurse who primarily cares for women during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and the postpartum period. Most online midwifery programs take about three years of full-time study.
  • Clinical nurse specialistsClinical nurse specialists are advanced nurses who have become experts in a specific area of care or a specific demographic of patients. They also may be involved in supervision or administration of other nurses.
  • Family nurse practitioners: While family nurse practitioners generally work under the supervision of a physician, they may act as primary care providers to their patients. Once you’re enrolled into an online FNP program, it takes about two to three years to complete.
  • Women’s health practitioners: A women’s health practitioner specializes in well-woman care from adolescence through menopause, with an emphasis on obstetrics and gynecology. It takes students two or three years to complete an online women’s health nurse practitioner program
  • Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners: Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners perform many of the functions of a psychiatrist; they see patients, make diagnoses and prescribe medicine.
  • Medical doctors: Doctors diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses. Physicians’ and surgeons’ education and training requirements typically include a bachelor’s degree; a degree from medical school (which may take four years to complete); and, depending on their specialty, three to seven years in internship and residency programs, according to the BLS.
  • Nutritionists: Nutritionists advise people on healthy eating and how to lead a healthy lifestyle to achieve their goals. Dietitians and nutritionists typically need a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, foods and nutrition, clinical nutrition, public health nutrition or a related area, according to the BLS. 


What is a physician assistant (PA)?

Physician assistants are medical and healthcare professionals who have thousands of hours of medical training. They work alongside (and under the supervision of) physicians and may act as a patient’s primary care provider.

What does a physician assistant do?

According to the American Academy of PAs, physician assistants can perform most of the functions of a physician: They examine patients, order tests, diagnose illnesses, create and manage treatment plans and prescribe medicine. They may also work in wellness and drugstore clinics and other places patients visit to consult about regular daily health concerns. However, keep in mind that PAs are not doctors and cannot perform all of the functions of a doctor.

How long is PA school?

Depending on your situation, a PA program may take about three years and is made up of classroom instruction and many hours of clinical rotations. A physician assistant degree is a master’s-level degree; students must have a bachelor’s degree and have completed prerequisite science courses. PA students may enter programs with health care job experience as sports trainers, medical assistants or paramedics. 

Is PA school harder than medical school?

PA schools and medical schools each require that students have a four-year bachelor degree. PA schools typically take three years after this; medical school, on the other hand, requires four years, plus three to seven years of training as a resident. If you’ve always wanted to be a doctor, medical school is your best choice, since PAs are not doctors. If you primarily want to be in a role where you treat patients under a physician’s supervision, PA school may provide the opportunities you need and not take as long or cost as much. 

Physician assistant vs. medical doctor: What’s the difference?

physician assistant collaborates with a physician, who consults on cases and signs off on treatment plans. Medical doctors, on the other hand, may choose to have a solo practice. Physician assistants work more on a collaborative basis, as part of a healthcare team, while doctors may be the head of those teams. Both may act as primary care providers.

Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner: What’s the difference?

This is a trickier question, as PAs and NPs have many similarities at first glance, and both require master’s-level degrees. The best way to understand the difference is to understand their origins and differences in nursing and medical care models. Physician assistants are often more focused on the medical model and philosophy, which starts with symptoms or disease and focuses on pathology, diagnoses, pharmacology and treatment; nurse practitioners use the nursing model and philosophy and focus more holistically on the entire person as a whole, which includes the patient’s mental, emotional and physical needs.

Last updated October 2021.