How to Choose the Best Physician Assistant Program

This article discusses the Physician assistant degree, and why you should consider earning this highly regarded degree. This article also covers different specialties you can focus on in this degree program, accreditation and your career options after graduation.

What is a Physician Assistant Degree?

A position as a physician assistant (PA) may be right for those students with the communication skills necessary to explain complex medical issues in simple terms and to communicate with doctors and other healthcare workers effectively. Students interested in working as PAs must be compassionate and eager to deal with patients who are sick, injured, and in extreme pain or distress. Individuals must be emotionally stable enough to work under pressure in stressful situations, and have excellent problem-solving skills to evaluate a patient’s condition and administer the appropriate treatment.

A physician assistant degree shows that a particular individual has the training and skills necessary to practice medicine on healthcare teams with physicians and other clinicians. Physician assistants examine, diagnose, and treat patients. PAs prescribe and practice medicine in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. territories and in the armed services.

Physician assistant students receive classroom instruction in:

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

Physician assistant students must complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, with an emphasis on primary care in doctor offices, ambulatory clinics, acute and long-term care facilities.

Rotations might include:

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

Why Earn a Degree?

While working as a PA can be physically and mentally demanding, physician assistants earn excellent money, work in comfortable indoor environments, and gain a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping people. There were approximately 94,440 physician assistants in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The bureau expects employment for PAs to grow 30 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than other occupations. The population of the United States is growing and aging at a phenomenal rate, creating an increased demand for healthcare providers. This aging population will cause an increase in several chronic diseases, such as diabetes, which require management from trained healthcare professionals. Furthermore, federal healthcare insurance reform has allowed an increasing number of people to access healthcare. Physician assistants help doctors and other clinicians meet this demand.

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The demand for physicians will greatly outpace supply as more doctors retire or enter specialty areas of medicine, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, leading to a shortfall of between 61,700 and 94,700 doctors by 2025. Physician assistants perform many of the same services as physicians and are more cost-effective, so they will likely play a larger role in providing routine care.

BLS reports the median wage for PAs in May of 2015 was $98,180. The top 10 percent of physician assistants earned $139,540 at that time. The top 10 percent of PAs working in outpatient care centers earned the most, at $106,010. The top PAs employed by hospitals earned $101,500.

About 57 percent of PAs work in doctor offices; another 22 percent work in state, local, and private hospitals. The rest work in outpatient care centers, government facilities, and state, local, and private schools.

Most physician assistants work full time; about one in five worked part-time in 2014. PAs working in doctor offices usually work regular business hours, while those employed by hospitals may work evening and weekend hours. Physician assistants may also be on call, which means they must be ready to work at a moment’s notice.

Physician assistants can find work in every state. New York, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida have the highest level of employment of physician assistants.

Choosing Your Degree Path

Working as a physician assistant usually requires a master’s degree from an accredited PA program, which usually takes two or more years of full-time post-graduate study. All states require a license to practice as a physician assistant.

Most applicants to work as physician assistant education programs already have a bachelor’s degree and some experience in healthcare. Many applicants work as registered nurses, EMTs or paramedics before applying to a physician assistant program.

PA programs include classroom and laboratory instruction in pathology, human anatomy and physiology, clinical medicine, physical diagnosis, pharmacology, and medical ethics. Programs also include supervised clinical training in internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, and emergency medicine. Clinical rotations under the supervision of a physician can sometimes lead to permanent employment.

Graduates earn the Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) degree. After graduation from an accredited PA program, students are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). To maintain certification, PAs must recertify every two years and earn at least 100 continuing medical education credits (CMEs) within that two-year period.

Online Degree Options

The University of North Dakota offers an online MPAS degree to those wishing to enter the healthcare industry as a physician assistant. Students must be licensed or certified healthcare professionals with at least three years experience, or have a science-based educational background and at least 500 hours of direct patient care.

The university offers two tracks, depending on the student’s previous education and experience. Coursework for both tracks includes human anatomy and physiology, comprehensive pharmacology, microbiology, medical terminology, and statistics. Coursework for those with a science-based educational background and 500 hours of direct patient care also includes psychology and organic chemistry/biology. Recommended coursework for both tracks includes technical writing and genetics.

The program accepts 35 students each year, with classes beginning in May. The program is 24 months in length. The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc (ARC-PA) has accredited the University of North Dakota Physician Assistant Program.


Accreditation ensures that the practices of an educational program are acceptable, meaning the program meets the highest standards of education.

ARC-PA accredits about 200 different physician assistant education programs; almost all of the accredited programs offer a master’s degree.


Enrolling in a physician assistant program is an excellent way to start a financially and personally rewarding career. Physician assistants earn top wages and enjoy the respect of peers in their community.