Become a PA

Ready to become a PA (physician associate/physician assistant)? Learn more about all that PAs can do and follow these essential steps to get started.

Step 1: Get prerequisites and health care experience

To become a PA, you must graduate from an ARC-PA accredited entry-level PA program. Most entry-level PA programs require applicants to have an undergraduate degree. However, some PA programs offer a pre-professional phase that is open to recent high school graduates and students with some college credit. Programs with a pre-professional phase range from 4-6 years in length and require students to complete undergraduate course work before they enter the professional phase of their training. Pre-PAs who are interested in programs with a pre-professional phase should consult with individual institutions about the availability of this opportunity and program requirements.

Most entry-level PA programs have the following prerequisites:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • English Composition/Writing
  • Genetics
  • Medical Terminology
  • Psychology (general)
  • Statistics

Many PA programs also require prior healthcare experience with hands-on patient care.

Though it’s not an exhaustive list, you can get healthcare experience by being a:

  • Medical assistant
  • Emergency medical technician
  • Paramedic
  • Medic or medical corpsman
  • Lab assistant/phlebotomist
  • Registered nurse
  • Emergency room technician
  • Surgical tech
  • Certified nursing assistant

Most students have about three years of healthcare experience before entering a program.

A complete list of PA programs and their requirements (healthcare experience hours, standardized exams, prerequisite coursework, GPA, etc.) is available via the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA).

Pre-PAs are invited to check out AAPA’s PA School Application Checklist and Timeline for more advice on applying to PA school.

Step 2: Attend an accredited PA program

Most programs are approximately 27 months (3 academic years) and award master’s degrees. PA programs include both classroom instruction and clinical rotations.

As a PA student, you’ll receive classroom instruction in:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Physical diagnosis
  • Pathophysiology
  • Microbiology
  • Clinical laboratory science
  • Behavioral science
  • Medical ethics

You’ll also complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, with an emphasis on primary care in ambulatory clinics, medical practices, and acute or long-term care facilities.

Your rotations could include:

  • Family medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • General surgery
  • Emergency medicine
  • Psychiatry

Visit the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) and Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) websites to learn more about accredited PA programs.

Step 3: Become certified

Once you’ve graduated from an accredited PA program, you’re eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

If you pass the PANCE and maintain your certification, you may use the title Physician Assistant-Certified or PA-C.

Step 4: Obtain a state license

Before you can practice, you need to get licensed in the state(s) in which you want to practice.

All states require that PAs graduate from an accredited PA program and pass the PANCE.

Step 5: Maintain your certification

To maintain national certification, you need to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) credits every two years and take a recertification exam (the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam, or PANRE) every 10 years.

Become a Pre-PA Member

Join AAPA as a pre-PA member and get exclusive discounts on helpful tools! Plus, we’ve got resources to help you stay ahead of the curve on deadlines, interviews, applications, and more.

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