Physician assistants (PAs) have a versatile role in the healthcare field. They perform many of the same services as physicians, such as diagnosing patients and creating treatment plans, and they work in all areas of medicine — from primary care and psychiatry to emergency services and more.
But becoming a PA typically requires less education and training than what is required to become a doctor, making it faster for PAs to get trained and hit the ground running in their career.
And considering the U.S. is on track for a serious physician shortage over the next decade, physician assistants have a unique opportunity and ability to fill this anticipated gap in services. Here’s what you need to know about how to become a physician assistant.
Average physician assistant salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a physician assistant in 2019 was $112,260. But salaries for physician assistants vary by location.
BLS data shows that Connecticut, Washington and New Jersey rank as the highest paying states for PAs, with average salaries ranging from $129,440 to $137,060. Louisiana and Kentucky’s average salary, however, falls within the mid-$80,000 range.
PA salaries also vary by specialty. The 2019 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants detailed the top-earning specialties for PA positions as follows:
Critical Care Medicine
Surgery — Subspecialty
Surgery — General
As with most professions, areas that tend to have a higher cost of living or experience a shortage of necessary workers usually pay more.
How to become a physician assistant
Don’t let the word “assistant” fool you into assuming that the PA profession is limited to a supportive role or that it doesn’t require extensive education and clinical training.
Physician assistant positions typically require a master’s degree from an accredited PA school and hands-on patient care experience.
Here are the basic steps to become a PA:
- Complete your bachelor’s degree program. Coursework in basic and behavioral sciences is needed, and most PA programs require prerequisites in chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology and biology.
- Gain medical experience. PA program applicant pools are often competitive, making experience in a healthcare setting — either by working or volunteering — even more important. For example, a PA program applicant may have experience as a registered nurse, EMT or paramedic.
- Apply to an accredited PA program. Look through this list of ARC-PA accredited physician assistant programs by state.
- Complete a master’s-level program. Most physician assistant programs are approximately two to three academic years and include classroom and clinical training.
- Pass the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam (PANCE) licensing test.
- Complete your state’s licensing requirement. You must be licensed in your state before you can start seeing patients. Each state’s requirements vary.
Once you become a PA, you’ll need to maintain your certification by completing 100 hours of continuing education every two years. You’ll also need to take a recertification exam every 10 years.
Expected costs to become a physician assistant
Because PAs require an advanced degree, you can expect your physician assistant education to cost at least six figures.
For example, the University of Southern California’s 33-month physician assistant program costs $187,160. And that total doesn’t include undergraduate debt.
Although you might qualify for grants and scholarships, most students need to take out student loans to finance the remainder of their education.
The Physician Assistant Education Association’s End of Program Survey found that the majority (85.2%) of surveyed PAs took out student loans to pay for their graduate education. And more than half (54%) of those graduate-level loans were over six figures.
But by choosing an affordable physician assistant program, you can immediately reduce your overall student loan debt.
Career considerations for PAs
Here are some additional benefits to becoming a physician assistant:
- The job growth outlook for physician assistants is great. The American Association of Medical Colleges predicts there will be a significant shortage of up to 122,000 doctors by 2032. Taking this and other factors into account, the BLS projects the PA profession to grow 31% from 2018 to 2028.
- It’s relatively easy to switch specialties. According to American Academy Physician Assistants, roughly half of all PAs change specialties at some point in their careers. PAs study and must regularly recertify in general medicine and surgical education, making it possible to change specialties without necessarily needing a new certification.
But you should also consider potential disadvantages of the profession, like long on-call hours and the emotional and physical stress that healthcare providers must shoulder.
You may also have to deal with the general public’s misunderstanding of what a physician assistant is, which can become frustrating and disheartening at times. Because you won’t have an MD credential following your name, some patients may question your level of training or abilities.
As PAs continue to answer the demand for high-quality healthcare services, this misconception will hopefully become less of a barrier during patient interactions.
How to repay PA student loan debt
Even though there is a high cost associated with becoming a physician assistant, there’s also typically a high salary. And there are numerous ways to repay your student loans over time.
You may qualify for physician assistant loan forgiveness through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program or the National Health Service Corps loan repayment program. Various state programs also provide loan forgiveness for medical professionals.
If you have federal loans, you can choose from a number of repayment programs, including income-driven repayment plans. These plans can help lower your monthly payment and provide you with access to loan forgiveness after 20-25 years of qualifying payments.
And there’s always the option to refinance your physician assistant student loans to a lower interest rate if you plan to pay them off in full.
Even though student loan repayment may be further down the road, Student Loan Planner can help you plan for your PA journey now. Schedule a pre-debt consultation to receive a customized plan that will help you avoid the many mistakes physician assistant loan borrowers often make.