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A Comprehensive Guide to Becoming a Physician Assistant: What You Need to Know and How to Get Started

Overview of the Physician Assistant Role

Physician assistant is a critical and in-demand role in the healthcare industry. Physician assistants are licensed professionals who are integral to the health care teams in institutions like hospitals and clinics. They provide preventative, diagnostic, and therapeutic services to patients in a variety of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, community health centers, and other medical facilities. The main goal of the profession is to expand access to healthcare by offering patient-centered medical services to supplement the efforts of doctors and nurses in healthcare institutions.

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Education Requirements

Like most medical professions, the road to becoming a physician assistant is long and requires a significant amount of specialized education. The physician assistant degree is a Master’s level program that covers general medical practice with clinical rotations in a variety of healthcare settings, similar to the education for a physician. While some schools offer an extended physician assistant program that includes both undergraduate and graduate coursework, most PA programs require students to earn a Bachelor’s degree before applying.

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Licensing Requirements

Before you can legally practice medicine, you need to be licensed by each state where you plan to work. All states require PAs to have passed the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination). The majority also require graduation from a physician assistant degree program, though some will accept select military training in lieu of this requirement. While the requirements for physician assistant licensing are similar across the US, no two states have the exact same standards or application process.

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Salary Guide

The average pay for a physician assistant varies depending on their experience level, their specialty, the state where they work, and the type of healthcare facility where they’re employed. The median wage for a PA was $121,530 per year in the U.S. in 2021 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the lowest 10% earning an average annual salary of $77,940, and the highest 10% earning $164,620 each year on average.

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Job Outlook

Physician assistant is one of the newest roles in the U.S. healthcare industry, but it’s also one of the fastest-growing jobs, not just in the healthcare sector but in the country. As of 2021, there were more than 158,000 PAs treating patients across the United States. Roughly a third of currently practicing PAs report their employers are actively recruiting these professions. The ongoing shortage of healthcare workers is a major driver of this growth, and has created ample job opportunities for physician assistants.

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Professional Organizations

There are four national professional organizations in the United States: the ARC-PA, AAPA, NCCPA, and PAEA. There are also several smaller groups focused on specific regions or specializations within the physician assistant profession. These groups are resources for knowledge, support, professional development, and career opportunities, as well as the ones who set the standards for physician assistant education and certification programs.

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One of the biggest advantages of the physician assistant role for both professionals and institutions is its versatility. The general medicine education PAs receive prepares them to excel in nearly any specialty area of the medical field. While PAs don’t need additional education to work in a specialty area, there are voluntary certifications available through the NCCPA that can demonstrate your competency.

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Continuing Education and Professional Development

For healthcare professionals, learning doesn’t stop once you’re in the workplace. Continuing education ensures that physician assistants stay up-to-date with their knowledge, skills, and the latest patient care best practices. It’s not just a smart idea for PAs to take advantage of these courses and activities, either–it’s a requirement for maintaining certification.

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Interview Tips

Landing your first physician assistant role is an exciting milestone. Before you reach it, though, you have to have a successful interview, and that can be an intimidating process. Interviewing for a PA job is a bit different from interviews in an academic context, so while that can be helpful experience to draw from, you’ll want to adjust the way you prepare. The good news is, the better prepared you are for PA interviews, the fewer of them you’ll need to do before you land your ideal job.

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