Ambition to Be a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants discuss test results with patients.
i Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images

When your ambition is to work in the field of medicine, the roles of doctors and nurses may immediately come to mind. An alternative, however, is to train as a physician assistant, who can perform many doctor-related tasks under supervision. You must pursue a master's degree to become a PA and be prepared to work the same full-time hours as doctors, which can include evenings, nights, weekends and holidays.


    A physician assistant performs physical exams, orders diagnostic tests and takes medical histories to assess the physical conditions of patients. States determine the scope of work that is allowed, but generally PAs can prescribe medicine; provide certain treatments, such as sewing up wounds; and answer questions posed by patients and their families. She must work under the supervision of a practicing physician, and her duties can vary by specialty. For example, a surgical PA can take care of patients before and after operations, while one focused on pediatrics can provide immunizations against common childhood diseases.


    Applicants to a PA educational program typically have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, although requirements for professional training vary by location. For example, experience as a registered nurse or paramedic can be an acceptable prerequisite. PA programs normally take two years of full-time study to complete and lead to a master’s degree. They are available at medical schools, academic health centers and four-year institutions. Classroom and laboratory subjects include anatomy and physiology, diagnosis, ethics and pathology. Clinical training covers internal medicine, pediatrics and emergency health care. All states mandate licensing for the profession, which requires passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.


    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics sees jobs for physician assistants growing by 30 percent from 2010 to 2020, which is more than double the average predicted for all other jobs. Behind this increase is a large baby-boom population that will require more medical services as they become more elderly. The use of PAs is also seen as more cost-effective than the use of doctors, so PAs are often assigned as primary-care providers, when possible. The best opportunities will be in rural and low-income areas, which traditionally have had difficulty attracting and keeping qualified medical professionals.


    As with many fields, medicine is traditionally perceived to be dominated by men. However, according to CNN Money, about 70 percent of physician assistants were women, as of 2013. In addition, CNN cites a 2012 Yale study that hints that women PAs make more than their doctor counterparts, when the cost of an education and the gender wage disparity among doctors are taken into account. Being a PA may be more attractive to women than being a doctor because it offers greater scheduling flexibility and family/work balance.

the nest