Following a year with unprecedented clinical demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, a number of career roles in health care are experiencing immense growth and present a strong career outlook moving forward. Health care career professionals in these positions play an important role in the care of patients across the country, who rely on them…
What are you
most interested in?
What do you want to become?
How to Become a Physician Assistant
Alternate Career Titles:
Physician Assistant Job Description: Physician Assistants perform a variety of healthcare duties including assessing, diagnosing and treating patients
Physician Assistant Salary (Annual): $112,260
Career Salary Range: $72,720 to $157,120
How Long To Become a Physician Assistant: 6 years
Physician Assistant Requirements: Master of Physician Assistant Degree
Become a Physician Assistant
The work of a Physician Assistant is very diverse and therefore these healthcare professionals take on a wide range of responsibilities. Included in these responsibilities, Physician Assistants (PAs) examine patients, determine diagnoses, order tests and provide treatments including prescriptions as needed. More generally, PAs assist their supervising Family Physicians in maintaining the overall efficiency of a practice or facility.
Physician Assistants must record health histories and engage in educating patients, parents or groups of people on best health practices or on specific conditions. There are also times when these professionals are asked to perform research on various healthcare-related topics such as advances in treatments or new medications.
“Being employed as a Physician Assistant is a very rewarding career that has allowed me to grow professionally and personally,” Daryle Blackstock, a Senior Physician Assistant practicing in New York City, said. “The career allows me to tap into my caring and compassionate side, and grants me the opportunity to do good in this world by helping those in need.”
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Education & Training
To become a Physician Assistant, professionals are required to obtain a Master’s Degree from an accredited educational program. Typically, these programs take 2 years of full-time study to complete, and involve classes on anatomy and physiology, clinical medicine, pathology, ethics, physical diagnosis and more. These programs also require supervised clinical training in rotation of healthcare specialties (i.e. pediatrics, family medicine, emergency care, etc.). Upon completing one of these programs, a PA must then become licensed by passing the Physician Assistant National Examination administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants before they are able to practice. Additionally, PAs must complete 100 hours of continued education every 2 years to maintain their certification, and take a re-certification exam every 10 years.
“PA school was one of the most challenging academic experiences thus far,” Blackstock said. “The sheer amount of information that had to be processed on a deeper level was initially overwhelming. My weekly schedule consisted of 5 days of classes followed by 5 nights of studying.”
Blackstock added that, in general, those days of classes and studying lasted from 6 am to 11 pm. He added that on Fridays, he would leave the library early, around 8 pm, to try and strike some school-life balance. Then, Saturdays generally consisted of studying from 10 am to 8 pm, and Sunday he would study from 3 pm to 8 pm.
“The course load was physically, emotionally and socially exhausting, but well worth the sacrifice,” Blackstock said. “Studies included: clinical sciences, the art of medicine, social determinants of health, how to speak to patients in an easily understandable manner and how to be an effective community Health Educator.”
Prior to gaining acceptance into a Physician Assistant Master’s Degree program, many of these learners first obtained their Bachelor’s Degree in a science-related field, and have some clinical experience. To gain this clinical experience, learners often complete volunteer work at hospitals and clinics or through other organizations.
To advance in a career as a Physician Assistant, these professionals may consider making a switch from their specific area of care. For example, there may be greater opportunities or salaries at a hospital working as a PA in surgery than in a Family Physician’s office.
Additionally, Physician Assistants can choose to pursue additional education to better equip them for an area of specialty care. Ultimately, with increased experience and skill, PAs often pave their way to more opportunities, greater responsibilities and heightened salaries. For example, a Physician Assistant employed by a healthcare organization may someday be promoted to executive leader of that facility.
“I would suggest a PA who wishes to advance go on to receive a Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Sciences, Master’s Degree in another discipline (MPH, MPA, MBA, etc.) or a Doctoral Degree (DHSc, PhD, DHP, etc.),” Blackstock advised.
Experience & Skills
“Meeting the minimum requirement of 2,000 hours of healthcare experience, which can be obtained in the fields of EMT, Radiology Technician, Nurse, Respiratory Tech. and more, is critical to becoming a successful PA,” Blackstock explained.
While clinical experience is imperative in the role of a Physician Assistant, there are many different skills that add to a professional’s ability to succeed in this position. First, PAs must have strong and developed interpersonal and communication skills because, not only must they be able to effectively communicate with Physicians and other healthcare staff members, but they need to be able to understand the needs of their patients.
Equally as important, Physician Assistants must possess problem-solving skills, as determining diagnoses and treatments is a large focus within this profession. Additionally, not every treatment will work or have similar effects on all patients, thus a PA must be able to determine alternative methods and treatments when needed.
“Taking an excellent history and physical is the cornerstone of any Physician Assistant. I would say this was paramount to any other skill the PA possesses,” Blackstock added.
“Physician Assistants typically are Type A personalities,” Blackstock noted. “They should be gritty, compassionate, resilient and highly organized professionals.”
Treating patients each day with varying conditions and needs, PAs must also always remain professional, and possess both compassion and empathy. Being ill or injured can cause a patient to be upset, scared or frustrated, and they expect their healthcare professionals to always treat them with a level of understanding and kindness. Strong communication skills are also imperative in this career, as they help PAs interact with patients and other healthcare professionals possibly including Nurse Practitioners, Registered Nurses, Licensed Practical Nurses, Certified Nursing Assistants and Home Health Aides.
Depending on a patient’s state, a Physician Assistant will need to be emotionally stable as well, as some instances of extreme sickness, disease for distress can be upsetting for the professional themselves. However, if a PA is visibly upset, this takes away from their professionalism, and often causes increased distress among patients. Lastly, PAs should always be organized and detail-oriented, as there is no room for error when dealing directly with the well-being of patients.
“This career is both physically and emotionally demanding,” Blackstock siad. “We are caring for more than one patient at a time and, depending on your area of practice (hospital, surgical, ICU, ED, etc), you will be on your feet performing procedures in urgent and emergent situations. There is an adrenaline rush that comes with this type of practice, but the work is definitely quite demanding.”
Much like the lifestyle of Physicians, PAs also tend to work full-time, about 25 percent working over 40 hours per week. Additionally, due to patient demands and the need for Physician Assistants in emergency healthcare settings, some of these professionals may be required to work evenings, nights, weekends and holidays, in addition to being “on call,” or prepared to come in at a moments notice.
Furthermore, this career in healthcare often entails spending long periods of time up on one’s feet, moving from patient to patient. Since PAs care for both the ill and injured as well as the patient’s families the role can be emotionally demanding.
“In this career, one thing that is important to remember is that, when you’re on duty, you’re on duty. However, when you’re off duty, you are off and should focus on other elements of your life,” Blackstock stressed.
Today is the perfect time to take the first steps toward a rewarding career in healthcare as a Physician Assistant! Why? This career is projected to grow 31 percent over the next decade – a rate much faster than the average for all occupations! Ultimately, this growth can be attributed to more facilities relying on the services of PAs, in addition to a growing and aging overall population. Also, because Physician Assistants can be trained and educated more quickly than Physicians, their roles are ever-expanding.
“The PA profession has been routinely listed as one of the top 3 careers to have in the nation,” Blackstock said. “Important factors that play a role in this standing are job availability upon graduation, starting salary and career satisfaction. After such an arduous course of study, knowing that the return on investment is extremely positive is reassuring”
Physician Assistants are able to find employment in many areas of healthcare, including those of family medicine, pediatrics, emergency care, surgery, geriatrics and psychiatric care. Currently, the largest employer of PAs are the offices of Physicians. Although employing less than half of the amount of Physician Assistants as Physician offices, local, state and private hospitals, outpatient care centers, educational services and employment services do also hire these professionals. The state with the highest employment in this occupation is New York, followed by California, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida.
“Once the educational requirements are met, the best way to go about finding employment as a Physician Assistant is to network through the American Academy of Physician Assistants, explore career boards and to visit the websites of employers directly,” Blackstock suggested.
“The earning potential as a Physician Assistant is excellent,” Blackstock said. “Physician Assistants are amongst a specialized group of non-physician clinicians of advanced practice professionals who can diagnose and treat patients within their scope of practice. This allows our physician partners to focus of more advanced details requiring their attention.”
Blackstock continued that this balance allows patients to be seen faster and provided a high quality of care. Thus, their services help to reduce spending and close the clinician-patient gap. Therefore, demand is high for the Physician Assistant professional.
The median annual wage for Physician Assistants was $157,120. While the lowest 10 percent were recorded to have made less than $72,720, the highest 10 percent earned more than $157,120. Additionally, the highest paying employment setting was employment services, followed by outpatient care centers, hospitals, the offices of Physicians and educational services. The top paying states for employment as a Physician Assistant are Nevada, Connecticut, North Dakota, Vermont and Washington.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Academy of PAs is a national organization which advocated for all Physician Assistants while providing them with the tools to improve both practice and patient care.
- Reach out to Physician Assistants
- Career shadow a PA to ensure that this is the right career for you
- Research educational programs and the requirements necessary for PA school admittance
- Apply to programs
- Pursue volunteer/paid clinical experience
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Daryle Blackstock
Practice: New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center
Location: New York City, NY
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Don’t give up, and don’t take no for an answer. Find a way to get things done from gaining shadowing experience to clinical experience. Be persistent with your applications, and don’t accept rejection. Just keep applying.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“People tend to think this career is just about the money. This is a big mistake. You will quickly forget about the money during your first shift when you have to rely on your love of treating and caring for people.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Do you love doing what you do? This answer should be an emphatic ‘yes.’”
Why did you choose to become a Physician Assistant?
“I became a Physician Assistant because I really like to help sick people. I also chose this profession because of the flexibility in practice. I can work in a variety of specialties, and I enjoy being able to leave my work at work. This strikes a great work-life-school balance.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“My success as a PA comes from dedicating myself toward being a great patient advocate, always learning, being open to feedback and keeping my patients and their loved-ones as my main priority. I am a successful leader because I am focused on making those under my charge the best PAs/providers that they can be. I look out for their well-being, career advancement and help them with maintaining a healthy work-life balance.”
Credentialing organization: Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc.