Physician Assistants (PAs) are an increasingly common and increasingly important component of medical care. A PA holds a master's degree from an accredited PA program. He or she can work independently to diagnose and treat patients and is permitted to prescribe medication. Although many PAs work in primary care, they can also specialize and practice in nearly any field of medicine. A PA must work in collaboration with a supervising physician, but the supervisor does not have to be physically present.
Physician Assistant programs require 2-3 years of post-graduate study. There are some residency-like programs to provide additional training after the PA degree is obtained, but most PAs begin practice directly. This field is growing rapidly, so job opportunities are good; although the training required is intensive, admission to PA programs is almost as competitive as for medical schools.
Physician assistant programs require completion of a B.S. or B.A. degree. There is no specific major requirement to enter the program, so long as the prerequisite course requirements are met. A BS in Biology or a BS or BA in Biochemistry is recommended unless you have a strong interest in another area.
Physician assistant programs are not as consistent as medical schools in the courses they require. You should identify schools that interest you early on and be sure your academic plan will meet their entrance requirements. Typical requirements include:
Most Physician Assistant programs require the GRE as an entrance exam. Some will accept the MCAT, and some require the MCAT. The average GPA for accepted students is 3.5-3.6; typically students with a GPA below 3.2 will not be considered.
Some programs require a secondary application and interview process similar to medical schools. Most (but not all) PA programs use a centralized application, the CASPA.
Physician assistant programs look for experience in the medical field to demonstrate that you can work comfortably in a clinic or hospital environment and with people who are ill. Two kinds of experience are commonly recommended:
Our Pre-Health Organization (PHO) can be helpful in finding these kinds of opportunities.
PA programs vary in their experience requirements. Because PAs spend less time in their programs than medical students, many PA programs expect incoming students to have extensive paid medical experience beyond the kinds of volunteer experience above; 1000 hours of direct patient contact is a commonly suggested figure.
Research experience is less critical for a physician assistant program than for medical school, but this in-depth experience can nonetheless increase your skill and understanding and strengthen your application. See the Biology research page for more information on working with NCC faculty mentors, applying for an off-campus summer research program or finding a research internship.
Service and Leadership
Extracurricular activities that are important to physician assistant admissions committees include significant volunteer service and demonstrated leadership potential. NCC's Ministry and Service programs can connect you with local service opportunities or take you around the country.
Volunteer work does not have to be in a medical setting, but volunteering at a clinic in an underserved community is certainly one good way to demonstrate your dedication. Leadership activities might include being a student lab assistant or preceptor, serving as an officer in a student organization, tutoring or leadership roles in employment.
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Pre-health advisor Marguerite Degenhardt