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Physician Assistant

The Breakdown

The title “physician assistant” belies the important, serious and dynamic nature of this career path. PAs are licensed healthcare professionals who practice medicine under the supervision of a physician. An often integral part of a medical team, they provide diagnostic, therapeutic and preventative services. While a PA’s duties might vary depending on the practice, physician assistants can conduct physical exams, take medical histories, order and interpret lab tests and x-rays, diagnose an illness, assist in surgery and (in most states) prescribe medications. In short, they are given a lot of responsibility.

While there are a select number of colleges that confer a bachelor’s degree to PAs, the vast majority of students who enter this field pursue a master’s. Indeed, most applicants to PA programs are already equipped with a college diploma and have a modicum of experience in health related jobs. There is no recommended major for those who want to attend a graduate program. Of course, studying a hard science such as biology or chemistry will certainly prepare you for further study. Regardless of what you ultimately decide, you will need to make sure you fulfill all of the pre-requisites mandated by your prospective schools.

Most master’s programs range between two and three years. Typically, the first year is devoted to classroom study. Like med students, you will take courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology and pathology (to name a few). Beginning in the second year, you will embark on the clinical portion of the program. During this time, you will rotate between different areas working in family medicine, emergency medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, surgery and geriatrics. You’ll want to work hard during these rotations as they can lead to future employment. Finally, though licensing does vary by state, all physician assistants must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination before obtaining certification.

If you decide to take this route, you’ll find a demanding and rewarding career. As a physician assistant, you’ll need to be a quick thinker and able to make decisions in difficult and emergency situations. Additionally, since you will be interacting with patients continually, you will want to hone your communication skills and bedside manner. Indeed, a desire to help people is what motivates many students to become a PA

Nuts and Bolts

If you choose to enroll in a physician assistant program you will take classes such as: Human Gross Anatomy, Pathobiology, Clinical Medicine, Diagnostic Imaging, Ethics and Health Care, Principles of Clinical Pharmacology, Behavioral Aspects of Medicine, Patient Assessment, Microbiology and Medical Terminology.

Decisions, Decisions

Students thinking about pursuing a career as a physician assistant might consider majoring in these subjects while in undergrad: biology, chemistry, biochemistry, nursing, physical therapy, health sciences, neuroscience, nutrition, psychology, human development, pharmacology, gerontology, genetics or child development.

What's Next

Similar to doctors, PAs work in a number of locations, from hospitals and clinics to the armed forces, nursing homes and government agencies. However, historically, physician assistants have often found positions in underserved communities providing care to those who would otherwise not have access to quality health services. Additionally, just like doctors, PAs can focus on everything from primary care to any medical or surgical specialty. As a physician assistant, you will be required to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education courses every two years and take a recertification exam every six years. Importantly, it is a fast-growing career and employment opportunities should abound for the foreseeable future.


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Don Munce