Pre-Professional Degrees: Physician Assistant Programs

Degree Differences, Pros and Cons and Expert Advice

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the demand for physician assistants to grow by 37% between 2016 and 2026, which is more than five times the average growth for all jobs. Furthermore, the annual median salary for this profession holds strong at $108,610.

Learners who want to pursue promising careers as physician assistants can start with pre-professional degrees, which prepare them with skills they need to succeed in physician assistant (PA) programs. These undergraduate degrees also help candidates get into competitive physician assistant programs, and some pre-professional plans include guaranteed admission into graduate schools.

What Are Pre-Professional Degrees, and Why Should I Consider a PA Program?

Several professionals need to obtain graduate degrees to earn their licenses, including lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, doctors, and physician assistants. While students who want to enter such professions do not necessarily need pre-professional degrees, they benefit students in several ways.

  • What types of Pre-Professional Programs Exist?

    Schools provide pre-professional degrees for almost every type of professional degree, including pre-law, pre-medicine, and pre-pharmacy. There are also direct-entry pre-professional degrees which guarantee admission into corresponding professional programs. Some aspiring physician assistants enroll in specific pre-physician assistant programs, while others earn pre-med degrees.

  • How Can I Pursue a Pre-Professional Degree?

    Students can pursue pre-professional degrees through two- and four-year schools. For example, some community colleges offer pre-nursing programs. Candidates should look at degrees one step under the professional degrees they want. For example, physician assistants need master’s degrees, so the corresponding pre-professional degrees are bachelor’s degrees.

  • What Are the Benefits of Pursuing a PA Program?

    A relevant pre-professional degree can help demonstrate a candidate’s dedication to the field and increase the chances of getting into a graduate program.

What’s the Difference? PA vs. MD, NP, RN and More

Healthcare professionals need specific training and degrees, as well as individual licenses to practice. Different careers and positions entail different tasks in the care of patients. As such, learners should understand the different roles these professionals fill and the degrees that lead to those professions.

Certified nurse assistants carry out basic care tasks for patients in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. Students can complete CNA courses through hospitals or vocational schools. These professionals do not need degrees to practice. Readers can learn more about CNA tasks and requirements here.
Certified registered nurse anesthetists provide anesthesia to patients in hospitals and surgery centers. They enjoy full prescription privileges. CRNA candidates must hold specialized nursing degrees at either the master’s or doctoral level. Click here to learn more about this well-paying position.
Medical assistants perform basic healthcare tasks such as taking vitals and recording medical histories. They typically work in physician offices for primary care doctors. Many employers require medical assistants to hold associate degrees, but some allow on-the-job training. Learn more about this position here.
Medical doctors oversee the care of patients in hospitals, private practices, surgical centers, in-patient facilities, emergency centers, and urgent care facilities. Doctors must hold professional degrees in medicine. They typically specialize in an area of medicine such as pediatrics, oncology, or surgery. They can own their own practices or work for larger organizations.
Nurse practitioners carry out many of the same functions as doctors. They prescribe medicine and oversee the care of patients in all kinds of healthcare organizations. They often start as RNs and then earn graduate degrees in advanced practice nursing. Learn more about nurse practitioners here.
Physician assistants complete many of the same tasks as medical doctors and nurse practitioners. They complete physical exams, interpret lab results, write prescriptions, and oversee patient care. However, they must practice under the supervision and license of medical doctors. Many physician assistants work in private physician offices, but they can work in many healthcare settings.
Registered nurses make up the largest group of healthcare professionals in the country. They work in all kinds of healthcare facilities and provide bedside care. Their tasks include administering medicine, taking vitals, and educating patients. They can hold associate or bachelor’s degrees. Learn more about this career path here.

The medical field offers a variety of exciting and fulfilling careers. The following resource gives readers interactive ways to explore these opportunities and learn about career plans.


Accredited Physician Assistant Schools and Programs by State

Learners should only attend schools with regional accreditation and programs with credentials from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). These physician assistant programs provide the highest quality of instruction and ensure learners qualify for licensure and certification. See the interactive map of accredited programs in the link below:


Pros & Cons from a Licensed PA

Portrait of Sarah Patton

Sarah Patton

Sarah Patton has been a physician assistant for 15 years practicing in dermatology after graduation from George Washington University’s PA program. For the majority of her career as a PA, she has worked in skin cancer. Sarah provides care in a private practice in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. In addition to clinical work, she is a didactic faculty at the University of Washington’s MEDEX PA program and conference blogger for SDPA. Sarah enjoys writing and lecturing on the subject of cutaneous oncology.

Becoming a physician assistant is an ideal career for individuals with a genuine interest and aptitude for medicine who feel the desire to serve.


  1. You can practice medicine with direct patient care. PAs practice in all fields of medicine working directly with patients. This means interviewing, examining, diagnosing, and prescribing medications and treatments for patients.
  2. A relatively short amount of schooling is required (once you are admitted to PA school). The majority of PA programs take 2-3 years to complete.
  3. You serve as an integral part of team-based medicine. Ideally, as a PA, you work as a team member with physicians, other mid-level providers, medical assistants, and nurses to deliver care to patients.
  4. The field has an excellent job outlook. The PA profession is typically listed within the top 5 in-demand professions with growth expected to continue.
  5. You can practice nearly anywhere in the U.S. and in some places outside the U.S. (increasing with time). PAs practice medicine in all 50 states in the U.S. and in Washington D.C. Additionally, PAs practice in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Countries starting to use PAs include Canada, the U.K., Netherlands, South Africa, and New Zealand.
  6. Job flexibility abounds — you can switch fields of medicine. PAs take a certifying exam upon completion of their schooling that covers all fields of medicine. It is common for PAs to switch fields throughout their career, for example, by working in urgent care, family practice, and surgery.
  7. The pay tends to be good. According to the AAPA’s salary survey, the median annual salary for a PA is $105,000.
  8. You have autonomy in many positions. After they train within their job, most PAs see patients on their own.
  9. As the profession has grown, so has the medical establishment’s acceptance, patient’s awareness, and acceptance of care provided by PAs. When I began working as a PA, I would have to explain to patients and friends what I do for a profession. Now, most people know what a PA is and what services we provide. Additionally, many physicians learn and practice with PAs during their schooling, so they understand and appreciate the role of PAs on their medical team.


  1. School can be a strain on families and relationships. The majority of the first year is spent in the classroom, roughly 50 hours per week. Additionally, it is required to self-study on top of this.
  2. Getting into school is difficult. Most students apply more than once before they are accepted into PA programs. The majority of programs require at least one year of hands-on medical experience (e.g., CNA, EMTs, MA work) and basic science prerequisites (e.g., anatomy, physiology, chemistry). Several schools require a minimum overall GPA of 3.0.
  3. The cost of school is increasing. According to the PA Life, the average cost of resident tuition and fees to graduate from an accredited physician assistant program in 2018 is $79,941, an increase of 11% from 2017. The average cost of non-resident tuition for a 2-year physician assistant program is $90,659, a 1% increase from 2017.
  4. You have no ability to work while in school. Most PA programs require that students do not work outside of schooling as there is no time.
  5. Second-year clinicals can be unpredictable with hours and placements. Once you are in clinical rotations, you are following your preceptor, which can result in long, unpredictable days, especially in areas such as surgery. Additionally, you may be placed in a rotation that requires you to travel out of state.
  6. A first job can be hard to land as many employers want experienced PAs. Many positions want experienced PAs and won’t grant interviews to new graduates.
  7. Burnout is a problem (as in all medical careers). PAs are not immune to burnout. This is a problem in all fields and all careers of medicine.
  8. The landscape of medicine is changing — more paperwork, less time with patients, less reimbursement. As reimbursements from health insurance companies decrease, providers are providing the same amount of patient care with increased regulatory demands (EMRs) and less pay.

Most PAs who choose this career would do it again. I always recommend that anyone who is considering the position understands the limits — this is not a substitution for medical school.

FAQ: Continuing Medical Education (CME) for Physician Assistants

Even after professionals earn their physician assistant degrees, they should continue learning. Certifications and continuing medical education (CME) requirements ensure that physician assistants remain current on best practices and emerging medical research. Professionals can earn these credentials through professional organizations and specialized CME companies.

  • Is Continuing Medical Education Required for All PAs?

    CME requirements vary based on professionals’ location and whether or not they pursue certification. Most states require physician assistants to earn CME credits every few years. Additionally, physician assistants who want to maintain certifications must earn these credits regardless of their state requirements. Professionals can apply credits from the same classes toward state and certification requirements.

  • Does Each State Have the Same CME Requirements for PAs?

    No, each state sets its own CME requirements for healthcare professionals, including physician assistants. Furthermore, states sometimes update their CME requirements, so professionals must keep up with industry news. Net CE, a leading provider of online continuing education, outlines the current requirements in each jurisdiction.

  • What Are the Different Categories for CME and How Many Are Required?

    The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) certifies licensed physician assistants in every state. To remain certified, candidates must earn 100 hours of CME every two years. The NCCPA divides all continuing education courses into category one and category two credits. Half of a candidate’s CME credits each renewal cycle must come from category one continuing education programs. The rest can come from any combination of both categories.

    Category one CME includes courses from approved professional organizations, certification programs, performance improvement initiatives, and self-assessments. Approved professional associations include the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the European Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education, and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Many employers back performance improvement initiatives that qualify for category one CME. The NCCPA awards 1.5 credits for every one credit of self-assessment CME candidates obtain. Every other type of continuing education falls into category two.

  • Where Can I Go to Earn CME Credits?

    Candidates can turn to professional organizations, employers, universities, and continuing education companies for CME credits. Professional organizations often offer CME through certification programs, which gives professionals additional value. University programs also offer extra value with certificates. Companies that exclusively provide continuing education often offer convenient options, such as online learning.

  • How Many CME Credits Does a PA Need?

    The number of CME hours physician assistants need depends on their goals. For example, applicants for NCCPA renewal need 100 hours every two years. However, some states require less for licensure renewal. Professionals should check with the organization that issues the credential they’re seeking to learn more about CME requirements.

  • When Can I Start Accumulating Hours?

    Physician assistants may start accumulating CME hours the moment the renewal cycle begins. For example, if a license expires on June 1 at 11:59 p.m., professionals can start accruing CME hours on June 2 at midnight. However, they must have met the previous year’s renewal requirements first.

  • How Often Must I Report CME Hours to the State?

    Some states require physician assistants to report detailed accounts of their CME credits when they apply for their license renewals. Others ask candidates to state their CME hours on their applications without detailed logs. These jurisdictions then choose some physician assistants at random for audits, which requires them to submit more details.

Support Resources for Students Considering a PA Program

Professional organizations, accrediting bodies, industry forums, and test preparation sites can all help students on their path to physician assistant licensure. Below are some of the most helpful resources for pre-physical assistant learners.

Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant
This organization reviews and accredits physician assistant programs to ensure academic rigor. Students find an updated list of accredited physician assistant schools on the site.

American Academy of PAs
This professional organization offers online continuing education, an exclusive job board, career advancement tools, online networking forums, and subscriptions to industry journals. Members and professionals can join.

American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants
This organization welcomes surgical physicians and students in the specialty. Members can access student scholarships, continuing medical education, job openings, exclusive networking events, and resume reviews.

Association of American Medical Colleges – MCAT
Some physician assistant programs require or allow applicants to submit MCAT scores. This resource can help students prepare for this exam and get higher scores.

GRE General Test
Many physician assistant programs require applicants to submit GRE scores and weigh these results heavily in their admissions decisions. Students can start preparing for the test with the official GRE website.

National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants
This organization credentials qualified physician assistant candidates. Students can use this resource to learn more about the certification process, credentials for specializations, and continuing medical education requirements.

PA Platform
This website outlines every step students must take to become physician assistants. Students can also listen to the site’s podcasts, which cover topics such as physician assistant education and balancing family life as a professional.

Physician Assistant Education Association
The PAEA advocates on behalf of physician assistant programs and their educators. Students can learn about becoming an educator and pore over recent research about these programs.

Physician Assistant Forum
This online community reaches physician assistant students and professionals. Users network with others in similar situations, learn from professionals who have been in comparable positions, and find community support.

Physician Assistant Life
This resource helps learners understand how to become a physician assistant. The site includes free practice exams, help with entrance essays, mock physician assistant school interviews, and resume assistance.

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