How to Become a Physician Assistant

Are you looking for a career with substance and meaning? One that allows you to interact with and care for patients of all ages and across all medical specialties? Physician Assistants (PAs) provide medical and surgical services in private practices, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other healthcare settings.

With fast growth predicted in the field, career opportunities are plentiful meaning a PA Studies program graduate can expect to be gainfully employed soon after completion of their studies.

So how do you become a PA? Review our six steps to becoming a physician assistant and begin your journey in this rewarding healthcare profession.

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Step 1: Earn an undergraduate degree

Most physician assistant programs require applicants to have successfully completed a bachelor’s degree prior to admissions.

What courses should I take to prepare for a physician assistant studies program?

Courses in biology, anatomy, physiology, general chemistry and other health-related science courses are recommended.

What type of degree should I get?

Preferably applicants should complete a baccalaureate degree in science or a health-related field.

Do I need work or volunteer experience?

In order to be considered for an interview for PCOM’s PA Studies program, applicants must have a minimum of 200 hours of direct patient experience. Volunteer or paid work in a clinical setting in which you provide or witness care first hand may be acceptable depending upon the nature of the role. Health care shadowing experience is highly recommended.

What else do I need to do to prepare for PA school?

Admissions decisions are made based on multiple factors including academic ability, problem-solving ability, decision-making skills, maturity, commitment to the profession and more.

Step 2: Choose a PA program

Location, reputation, cost and curriculum are just some of the factors to consider when choosing the physician assistant program that is right for you. Other key questions to consider include:

Is the program accredited?

Accredited programs must meet established qualifications and educational standards. Programs are reviewed periodically to ensure these criteria continue to be met. As a prospective student, accreditation status helps identify programs that meet nationally accepted standards.

The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) has granted Accreditation-Continued status to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine Physician Assistant Program sponsored by Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Accreditation-Continued is an accreditation status granted when a currently accredited program is in compliance with ARC-PA Standards.

Accreditation remains in effect until the program closes or withdraws from the accreditation process or until accreditation is withdrawn for failure to comply with the Standards. The approximate date for the next validation review of the program by the ARC-PA will be March 2028. The review date is contingent upon continued compliance with the Accreditation Standards and ARC-PA policy.

How long does it take to complete the program?

Most physician assistant programs take approximately two years to complete.

PCOM offers a 26-month program leading to a Master of Science (MS) in Health Sciences Physician Assistant Studies degree.

Does the program provide hands-on training?

Clinical preceptorships provide students with the opportunity to gain real world experience in a variety of medical disciplines. At PCOM, students will complete 12 months of clinical preceptorships prior to graduation in areas including family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, gynecology, general surgery, pediatrics and behavioral medicine.

Does the program have experienced faculty?

According to Laura Levy, DHSc, PA-C, director of PCOM’s PA Studies program, faculty are a particular strength of PCOM’s program.
“The faculty continually seek student feedback and take the time to consider student suggestions to improve the program,” she said. “Having faculty members that are all PAs, we realize that the student’s time is valuable and want to make every learning experience meaningful.”

Will the program provide adequate preparation for licensing?

Physician assistants must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) after graduation in order to practice clinically. The PANCE pass rate is an indication of how well a program prepares for licensing. PCOM students have had a 100 percent PANCE pass rate for the past three years (2016-2018).

Step 3: Apply to PA school

Many physician assistant programs use CASPA (Central Application Service for Physician Assistants) for the application process. CASPA allows prospective students to apply to multiple programs with a single application.

Will I need letters of recommendation?

Most programs will require letters of recommendations. These recommendations should be from individuals who can provide relevant information about your academic or professional abilities. Identifying three to five individuals including instructors or supervisors (especially a medical provider) who would be willing to write a recommendation is ideal.

PCOM requires applicants to submit three letters of recommendation directly to CASPA. One recommendation must be from a physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner in order to be considered for admission.

How do I prepare for the PA program admissions interview?

Admission to PA programs can be a very competitive process. The admissions interview provides applicants with the opportunity to explain their interest in the field and in the particular program for which he or she is applying.

Prepare for the interview just as you would for a job interview:

  • Research the program and be prepared to explain why you are interested in that particular program.
  • Have answers prepared for commonly asked questions about your background, your interest in becoming a PA, what a PA does and any related experience you have.
  • Make sure you understand where you are supposed to be and when. Arrive early and make sure you bring any requested materials with you to the interview.
  • Dress professionally.
Are there other application considerations?

Application considerations vary by program but may include standardized test scores, professional experience, background checks and more. Review the application requirements for your desired program carefully.

At PCOM, standardized test scores are not required with the exception of English language testing for applicants whose native language is not English. Applicants must have a minimum of 200 hours of direct patient contact experience in volunteerism or employment in the healthcare industry in order to be considered for an interview and must complete a criminal background check prior to matriculation. Visit PCOM’s PA Studies program application requirements page for additional information.

Step 4: Complete a PA degree program

During PA school, you will experience a combination of classroom and clinical learning to help you prepare for a career as a physician assistant.

At PCOM, students must successfully complete five consecutive terms (14 continuous months) of classroom instruction before advancing to four consecutive terms (12 continuous months) of clinical preceptorships in multiple medical disciplines. Following completion of preceptorships, students must have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better to graduate.

During the program, students will acquire the knowledge, interpersonal, clinical and technical skills, professional behaviors, and clinical reasoning and problem-solving abilities required for PA practice. PCOM has identified 18 program-defined expectations for students to meet prior to graduation.

PA school can be challenging, but offers great rewards for those who persevere. Laura Levy, DHSc, PA-C, director of PCOM’s PA Studies program advises students to trust the process.

“It may not always be clear to students why we are asking of them what we are asking, but there is intention to everything, “ she explained. “It is also important to be flexible. Students may have to adapt to different teaching styles, different geographic locations, people of different cultures and values, but every experience and each challenge provides an opportunity to learn something new about themselves and serves to make them a better provider.”

Step 5: Pass the licensing exam

In order to practice as a PA, you must graduate from an accredited program and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). This multiple choice exam assesses the candidate’s medical and surgical knowledge. Upon passing the exam, PAs are issued their certification and can use the PA-C (physician assistant-certified) designation. Visit the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) website for additional details.

PCOM students have exceeded the national first time taker pass rate for the past five years and attained a 100 percent first time taker pass rate for the past three years (2016 to 2018).

Step 6: Begin your career as a physician assistant

PAs work in private practice, hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and other settings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for PAs is good with employment projected to grow much faster than average for all occupations from 2018 to 2028.

How do I find a job as a physician assistant?

The American Academy of PAs hosts a job board for physician assistants and many other job websites post openings for PAs. PA jobs are also listed on the websites of hospitals and other healthcare providers.

What is the work environment like for a PA?

Most PAs work in physician offices and hospitals. This work can be physically demanding as PAs spend much of their time on their feet meeting with patients, assisting in surgery and completing other medical tasks. PAs may be required to work nights, weekends and holidays depending upon their place of employment and may also be on call.

What are the career advancement prospects of a PA?

Physician assistants can find advanced career opportunities as supervisors, administrators, specialists, researchers or instructors. Some may even move into related careers including physicians and nurse practitioners.

About the Physician Assistant Studies program at PCOM

PCOM's PA program provides a comprehensive academic and clinical medical education to prepare students for their professional roles as Physician Assistants. Students may enroll at either our Suwanee, Georgia location, or our main campus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. PCOM offers students a holistic view of health care—one that considers all areas of well being and provides the opportunity to study and collaborate with students from a variety of medical-related disciplines.

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