Many people have misconceptions about why physician assistant (PA) programs were developed and what the requirements are.
Physician assistants are not "entry-level" doctors, "junior" doctors, or an "express route" to becoming a medical professional.
Physician assistant programs were developed to help people who already have a wealth of practical health-care experience to upgrade their skills and credentials. The first population was medics returning from military service, but the list soon expanded to include paramedics, EMTs, certified nursing assistants, and more.
The average person admitted to PA school has roughly 4000 hours of clinical experience, usually paid (that's two years full time!). Of course, since that's the average, some get in with less, but you really need at least the equivalent of a year full-time to be a competitive applicant. The typical number of hours for someone accepted in to medical school is more like 200.
The PA track takes advantage of this experience by not requiring residencies in order to practice, and by a shorter time in professional school. (On the other hand, a PA's entire caree has some similarities to a medical residency, since they will work under the supervision of a physician.)
PA programs are more competitive than medical school: in a given year, approximately 30% of people who apply to PA school get in to at least one, as opposed to 40% of people applying to allopathic medical schools.
There are good reasons that some people prefer becoming a PA to becoming a doctor. PAs spend nearly all their time working directly with patients, which is not the case for many doctors. Their hours tend to be more reasonable, as well.
In short, here are some good reasons to consider becoming a PA:
- You already work in health care, and would like to upgrade your skills, responsibilities, and compensation
- You highly value direct interaction with patients
- You want to work in direct clinical care, but don't want the all-consuming lifestyle of a doctor
And here are some reasons why people pursue becoming a PA that are based on misconceptions:
- They think getting in to PA school is easier than getting in to med school (your G.P.A. can be a touch lower, but the overall success rate is considerably lower)
- They think the PA track is much shorter, but don't account for the need to build up experience prior to applying to PA school
- They think PA is more financially sensible (the reduced number of years in school is appealing in the short run, but in the long run doctors make so much more that it more than makes up for the difference)
- They think being a doctor is "not for people like them" (if you think this, ask yourself what you mean by it; if you don't have a good answer, then perhaps you're limiting youself unnecessarily)
Experience, Experience, Experience
One way or another, you need to get a lot of direct patient-care experience in order to have a good shot at PA school. If you don't have any, but your heart is set on becoming a PA, then start doing some volunteer work as an undergraduate. Plan on becoming an EMT, CNA, or other health care worker after you graduate; these positions typically require an additional (relatively brief) certification program.
Try to accumulate at least 2000 hours of experience prior to applying for PA school.
You Also Need a Bachelor's Degree
To become a physician assistant, you must first complete a bachelor's degree. This is a separate step, requiring that you choose a major and complete general education requirements. This is different from the system in many other countries, in which health care professionals are on a professional track from the moment they graduate high school. The U.S. system values applicants who have gained a broad education, and who have successfully committed themselves to in-depth study of some particular topic, whether biology or history or exercise science. The point is to show your ability to learn and excel, rather than to complete a narrow preparation for a specific profession.
You must also complete specific prerequisite courses.
After you receive your bachelor's, you will go on to a Physician Assistant master's degree program.
The Application Process
The application process to a physician assistant program begins more than a year before you plan to enter.
At some point before applying, you need to take the GRE. This test is similar to the SAT, in that it tests basic mathematical, verbal, and writing skills. It does not test the science topics you learn in the prerequisite courses, so you can take it before all of your prerequisites are complete.
Most, but not all, PA schools participate in CASPA, a centralized admissions system. To apply to CASPA schools, you first complete an application for CASPA. PA schools admit students on a rolling basis, so it's best to apply early in the cycle, perhaps in mid-summer. For non-CASPA schools, you need to apply directly to each school you are interested in.
After you apply to CASPA and specify the schools you are interested in, you will sometimes be invited to complete "supplementary" applications for those schools. These supplementaries request more information, in part to make sure you are serious about that particular school.
Once your supplementaries are in, you will (hopefully!) be invited to some schools for interviews. Interviews typically take place in the fall or winter prior to when you'll start attending PA school.
After interviews, you finally get to find out who accepted you--hopefully you'll have the happy dilemma of choosing between acceptances!
Once in PA school, it is very likely you'll end up being a PA. Most people accepted to PA school graduate, pass the PANCE, and become practicing PAs.
The first year of PA school is usually "didactic," meaning that you'll take courses. The next year is "clinical," involving working with physical therapists and patients directly. Recently, some PA schools are moving to a three-year program.
At the end of PA school, you graduate as a physician assistant. In order to practice, you also need to pass a test called the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).
A small minority of PAs go on to complete a residency and/or a fellowship, particularly if they'd like to work in certain specialties. Residencies and fellowhips typically last a year, during which you are paid.
Regardless of your major, there are certain courses you must complete in order to gain admission to PA schools. These requirements vary dramatically from school to school, with some emphasizing more chemistry, some more biology, and some more psychology and social science. For that reason, it is crucial to look at the requirements for individual PA schools you are considering well before you complete your bachelor's degree.
Below is a list of some of the more commonly required prerequisite courses. For more detailed information, contact the pre-health advisor.
Required by Most Physician Assistant Programs
|Course Name||Lehman Code||Prerequisites|
|Gen. Chem. 1||CHE 166 + 167||MAT 171 or MAT 172 corequisite|
|Gen. Chem. 2||CHE 168 + 169||Gen. Chem. 1|
|A & P 1||BIO 181|
|A & P 2||BIO 182||A & P 1|
|Microbiology||BIO 331||Genetics and Organic Chem. 1|
Required by Many Physician Assistant Programs
|Course Name||Lehman Code||Prerequisites|
|Organic Chem. 1||CHE 232 + 233||Gen. Chem. 2|
|Gen. Bio. 1||BIO 166|
|Gen. Bio. 2||BIO 167|
|Statistics||Multiple courses fulfill|
Required by Some Physician Assistant Programs
|Course Name||Lehman Code||Prerequisites|
|Gen. Psych.||PSY 166|
|Biochemistry||BIO 400 or CHE 444||Organic Chem. 2|
|Genetics||BIO 238||BIO 166 + BIO 167|
Below is an example of a timeline for a hypothetical student, Maria. Maria has just graduated high school at the beginning of the timeline. She is planning to work for two years between graduation and PA school and decides to major in psychology. She entered without a strong math background. Your timeline will be somewhat different, because you're not Maria. (Or if your name is Maria, you're not this Maria.) You'll almost certainly take some different courses than Maria did. Be sure to consult with your pre-health advisor to decide what's right for you, and with PA programs you’re planning to apply to, to make sure you’re meeting their requirements. Still, Maria's timeline should give you a sense of how it can all work out.
|Semester||Coursework||Consult Pre-Health Advisor Regarding...||Application||Other|
|Freshman Fall||MAT 104, BIO 166, PSY 166, ENG 111, LEH 100||Get to know each other|
|Freshman Spring||MAT 172, ENG 121, CHE 166+167, BIO 167||Choice of major, volunteering||Plan summer volunteering|
|Sophomore Fall||CHE 168+169, PSY course, Gen. Ed.||Progress||Volunteer|
|Sophomore Spring||CHE 232+233, PSY course, BIO 238, Gen. ed.||
Gap or no gap?
Revise course plan based on specific PA school requiremnents
|Make preliminary decisions on which PA schools to apply to||
|Junior Fall||BIO 331, PSY courses, Gen. ed.||Progress||Volunteer/work|
|Junior Spring||BIO 181, PSY courses, LEH||Consider certifications||Volunteer/work|
|Senior Fall||BIO 182, LEH, PSY courses||Post-graduate planning||
Plan for post-graduation work
|Senior Spring||PSY courses||GRE||
|Summer after graduation||GRE, certifications|
|Year after graduation||Personal statement, letters of recommendation||Arrange for letters of recommendation; mock interviews||Work in health care field|
|Second summer after graduation||Application to CASPA||Work in health care field|
|Second fall after graduation||Supplementary applications for CASPA schools and applications to non-CASPA schools||Work in health care field|
|Second winter after graduation||Interview preparation||Interviews||Work in health care field|
|Second spring after graduation||Inform pre-health advisor of acceptance||Accept admission to PA school of her choice||Work in health care field|
|Two years after graduation||Begin PA school!|