The role of physician assistant (PA), also known as “physician associate,” is among the most coveted and highest-ranking positions inside and outside of healthcare. U.S. News and World Report rank it as the second-best job in healthcare and the third-best job across all industries.1 The demand for PAs is skyrocketing. Employment for PAs is predicted to grow by 28% between 2021 and 2031, creating more than 38,400 job opportunities for PAs in the process.2
PA school is nearly as rigorous as medical school, and the responsibilities of this role are broad and serious. However, this career path can bring great rewards, from excellent job availability to a handsome salary.
If you’re intrigued but find yourself asking, How long does it take to become a physician assistant?, you’ve come to the right place. While the timeline from beginning your undergraduate education to entering clinical practice can range anywhere from seven to eight years, your exact timeline will depend on individual factors and decisions you make along the way. Read on to learn more.
What Prerequisites Do You Need to Become a PA?
A bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is a necessary precursor to your eventual master’s degree in physician assistant studies—a requirement for becoming a licensed physician assistant.
You will need to take some basic science and healthcare courses, such as Organic Chemistry, Biology, Genetics, Statistics, and Anatomy. The American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) also lists the following prerequisites for students wanting to enter a physician assistant program:
- English Composition/Writing
- General Psychology
- Medical Terminology
If you’re a prospective PA student, be aware that different PA programs may have different prerequisites (although most share several in common).
Another factor to be aware of: Those who enroll in physician assistant programs typically have some level of clinical experience in healthcare before applying to PA schools. Your fellow students may be EMTs, medical assistants, surgical techs, and more.
This is because applying to PA school requires, in most cases, a minimum of 1,000 hours of healthcare experience (HCE) or patient care experience (PCE).3 However, not all PA schools share this requirement, reasoning that students will gain all the experience and skills they need in the program. Check the admission requirements of the PA programs you’re most interested in.
How Long Does It Take to Get an MS in Physician Assistant Studies?
A Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) program takes an average of 24-27 months, or a little more than two years. During this time, you’ll be immersed in classroom instruction, labs, and clinical settings, where you’ll obtain hands-on experience.
Classroom instruction will cover several fields of medicine. Because a PA is trained as a “generalist,” meaning they are prepared to treat all patient populations, your classes may include the following (as well as advanced studies of the prerequisites outlined above, among others):
Completion of an MS in Physician Assistant Studies program also requires 2,000 supervised hours in clinical rotations.4 To prepare a PA for the range of medical settings they may find themselves in, rotations involve gaining experience in several specialties, such as acute care, family medicine, women’s health, and geriatrics.
Following completion of your master’s degree in physician assistant studies, you’ll be required to pass the PANCE, or the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, before receiving professional licensure. Administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), this exam includes 300 multiple-choice questions, which must be completed within four hours.5
With this information, let’s return to the inquiry, How long is PA school? Taking into account earning your bachelor’s degree, potentially gaining healthcare experience, earning your master’s degree, and studying for and passing the PANCE, you can see why you’ll spend roughly seven to eight years working toward becoming a physician assistant, on average.
Is PA School Worth It?
While the answer to this question is entirely subjective, the following benefits of becoming a PA are much more objective:
- Impact – As a PA, you’ll be contributing to improved healthcare access. PAs are especially valuable in underserved communities where people are in urgent need of medical care.
- Versatility and advancement – PAs are clinically trained to work with patients across a wide variety of medical settings—from dermatology to oncology, palliative care to pediatrics, and everything in between. You may also choose to advance your training with additional education in a specialty area, such as radiology or psychiatry. Specialized PAs tend to earn a higher salary: While primary care physician assistants make a median of $105,000 a year, physician assistants in emergency medicine are compensated a median of $124,100 a year. A PA’s salary is also dependent on their years of experience.6
- Job availability – Job availability is predicted to increase for PAs, who are already in high demand. The American Academy of Physician Associates reports that upon completion of their degrees, clinical rotation hours, and certifications, 75% of PAs receive multiple job offers after graduation.7
- Competitive salary – The annual median salary for a PA is $121,530, which is more than half the average U.S. salary across industries.8 It’s also worth noting that salaries may be higher in certain areas of the country. Becoming a PA can award you a life of prosperity—and meaning.
USAHS is excited to announce its new Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, with applications opening in April 2023. Learn more about the PA program structure, accreditation status, and what sets the USAHS MSPAS Program apart today.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) is developing a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) program. We will begin accepting applications in April 2023 for our first cohort, which will start in January 2024. The program will be held in person on our campus in Austin, Texas, and will consist of a four-trimester didactic phase and a three-trimester clinical phase. Students will complete seven core rotations in a variety of outpatient settings and hospitals, plus two elective rotations of their choice.
USAHS’ MSPAS program has applied for Accreditation-Provisional from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). USAHS’ MSPAS anticipates matriculating its first MSPAS class in January 2024, pending achieving Accreditation-Provisional status at the September 2023 ARC-PA meeting. Accreditation-Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding Accreditation-Provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.
In the event that the program is not granted Accreditation-Provisional status by the ARC-PA, students accepted into USAHS’ MSPAS program will receive a full refund of their deposit, and the program will not matriculate in January 2024.