The 154 accredited physician assistant schools in the United States bring students along slightly different paths to become physician assistants. Physician assistant school programs range from 21 to 36 months long and offer varied degrees. Typically, the first twelve months of the program are spent in classroom lectures and in laboratories. The remaining program involves a series of clinical rotations, usually in different specialties, in different environments, and at different locations.
With a trend toward a master’s degree model of education, 80% of physician assistant schools award a master’s degree, 15% award a bachelor’s degree, and the remaining programs offer an associate’s degree or a certificate. Under each scenario, with rare exception, students come to the program having already completed at least a four-year degree.
The first program year is spent in the classroom and laboratory learning anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, microbiology, clinical pharmacology, clinical medicine, medical ethics, clinical laboratory, and health promotion. Subsequent training involves clinical rotations in all life stages and most specialties: pediatrics, family medicine, geriatrics, surgery, internal medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics-gynecology, orthopedics, psychiatry, and radiology. Clinical training is supervised and evaluated. Rotations may be managed under potential employers, giving students a jumpstart to evaluating potential work environments and impressing potential employers.
Physician Assistant Certificate
While most physician assistant schools offer a master’s degree and only 15% of schools offer the lesser certificate (non-degree program) or associate’s degree, a certificate is all that is required for a physician assistant career. As long as a program is accredited, graduates can sit for the PANCE and, if they pass, be licensed as physician assistants. As a rule, physician assistant schools that offer program graduates a physician assistant certificate have the same length program and comparable costs to schools offering a degree.
Some schools that offer the physician assistant certificate also offer a degree program or have arrangements with nearby schools whereby course credit can be used toward a master’s degree at the associated school.
Physician Assistant Associate’s Degrees
Physician assistant schools have been moving to a model of education that awards a master’s degree for physician assistant studies. However, a few schools still offer an associate’s degree.
Associate’s degrees are often two-year degree programs offered at local schools of higher education, generally as a first degree. An Associate’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies is quite another thing. Most physician assistant schools are roughly two-year programs, so the length of program is similar to other associate’s degrees. A physician assistant degree, however, is not a first degree. Even in these programs, students must have prior higher education experience, meet all the course prerequisites, and, usually, have a bachelor’s degree.
An Associate’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies, as long as it is from an accredited program, confers the same advantages as every other entry-level physician assistant school degree. Physician assistants interested in acquiring advanced skills, particularly in surgery, may move beyond a first program to a secondary program, which usually confers a master’s degree.
With an Associate’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies from an accredited school, students are eligible to sit for the PANCE, the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. Upon passing the exam, candidates are then eligible for state licensure.
An associate’s degree program at a local school may offer a lower cost education for the same opportunity to become certified. Should potential employers be considering candidates with an associate’s degree versus candidates with a master’s degree, the master’s might be an advantage.
Physician Assistant Bachelor’s Degrees
Only a small portion of physician assistant schools still offer a bachelor’s degree as most schools have evolved to a master’s degree program. However, those schools offering a bachelor’s degree may offer the fastest course to physician assistant certification and licensing. These programs have unique elements.
Some programs offer a bachelor’s degree on the way to a master’s degree. Schools conferring bachelor’s degrees for physician assistant students can be cost and time effective. In four total years of schooling, students can be ready to sit for the national certification exam and start practicing. With less time in school, education costs can be lower and the ability to earn a physician assistant’s income arrives sooner. One challenge is that students must know fairly early in their academic careers that they want a career as a physician assistant and lock on to that course. Students in these programs generally have less practical or field experience to reinforce or negate career choice and add beneficial experience.
Physician Assistant Master’s Degrees
Students can earn a master’s degree at 80% of physician assistant schools. The degree is not standardized, however. The variety of degrees conferred by different schools include the
- Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MS-PAS)
- Master of Health Sciences (MHS)
- Master of Medical Sciences (MMSc)
- Master of Science Physician Assistant (MSPA)
- Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS)
- Master of Clinical Medical Science (MCMS).
Most physician assistant schools use the master’s model of education due to the prerequisites for enrollment and the level of course work involved in obtaining this degree.
This traditional course of study for a physician assistant usually begins with a student obtaining a bachelor’s degree including requisite science and math course work. Students take the GRE, work in a patient care job, and apply to a graduate program. The majority of master’s physician assistant programs are 24 to 28 months in length.
This traditional route gives students the opportunity for a depth and breadth of study and experience prior to entering the program. Some physician assistant schools offer dual-degree graduate programs allowing students to complete a physician assistant degree while pursuing a Master’s in Public Health. Other schools offer an MS Physician Assistant Studies degree along with either a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) degree or a Master of Health Care Administration (MHA) degree. The possibility of obtaining dual master’s degrees, though adding work to an already heavy course and rotation burden, can be extremely valuable to students who want to specialize their careers in these fields.
Students in surgical specialty programs can specialize in surgical skills while obtaining their general physician assistant master’s degree. Specialized physician assistant master’s degrees are also available following completion of a traditional physician assistant program. Post-professional master’s degrees are often offered on a schedule that supports full-time employment.