So, you’re thinking about a career as a physician assistant.

Well, that’s awesome!

You are in good company. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the physician assistant workforce is currently made up of 106,200 people in the United States.

And don’t worry, there is plenty of room for you to find a steady job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 39,600 new physician assistant jobs are expected in the next few years.

Let us cover the initial steps on this exciting career path together so you can get a better understanding of what you’re getting into.

We are talking here about your career for possibly the next 10 years, at the very least, and even the rest of your life. That is exciting and nerve-racking at the same time.

Let’s get to it then.

How do you become a physician assistant?

Physician assistants typically need a master’s degree from an accredited educational program. Earning that degree usually takes at least 2 years of full-time postgraduate study. All states require physician assistants to be licensed. Physician assistant graduate school applicants typically have experience caring directly for patients.

For more information, read How to Become a Physician Assistant.

What type of schooling does a physician assistant need?

Most applicants to physician assistant education programs already have a bachelor’s degree and some patient care work experience. Although admissions requirements vary from program to program, most programs require 2 to 4 years of undergraduate coursework with a focus in science. Many applicants already have experience as registered nurses or as EMTs or paramedics before they apply to a physician assistant program.

Physician assistant education programs usually take at least 2 years of full-time study. More than 200 education programs were accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA) in 2017. Almost all of these accredited programs offer a master’s degree.

Physician assistant education includes classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects such as pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical medicine, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, and medical ethics. The programs also include supervised clinical training in several areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and pediatrics.

Sometimes students serve in one or more clinical rotations in these areas under the supervision of a physician who is looking to hire a physician assistant. In this way, clinical rotations may lead to permanent employment.

Applicants to physician assistant graduate programs typically need patient care work experience for admission or to be competitive in entering the programs. Work as an EMT or paramedic, registered nurse, nursing assistant, or similar care position typically fulfills patient care experience requirements for admission to academic programs. Some applicants gain healthcare experience through volunteer opportunities at hospitals or clinics, or working with special-needs or at-risk groups, such as orphaned youth or homeless populations. For specific requirements, contact the program in which you are interested.

What are the types of certifications and requirements needed to become a physician assistant?

All states and the District of Columbia require physician assistants to be licensed. To become licensed, candidates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). A physician assistant who passes the exam may use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).”

To keep their certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every 2 years. The recertification exam is required every 10 years.

In addition, state licensure laws require physician assistants to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. Although the physician does not need to be onsite at all times, collaboration between physicians and physician assistants is required for practice.

How long does it take to become a physician assistant?

To become a physician assistant, you must earn a bachelor’s degree, which takes roughly four years, and complete a physician assistant training program, which takes two years.

Once you have obtained the physician assistant certification, you must complete 100 hours of continuing education every 2 years.

How much does it cost to become a physician assistant?

According to, the median tuition costs for physician assistant training programs in the U.S. are as follows:

  • In-state public tuition – $7,408
  • Out-of-state private tuition – $32,520

The exam fee for PANCE is $475.

What is the PANCE?

The Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination is a certifying examination taken by physician assistants (PAs) in the U.S. The exam is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). It is a computer-based exam and consists of practical medical and surgical questions.

The PANCE must be taken before a PA can be licensed for the first time upon graduation from an accredited program.

How many questions are on the PANCE?

The PANCE consists of 300 multiple-choice questions, administered in five 60-question blocks.

What are the Categories on the PANCE?

According to the NCCPA’s content blueprint, beginning from January 2019, the PANCE can be categorized into two dimensions:

  1. Knowledge of the diseases and disorders physician assistants encounter
  2. Knowledge and skills related to tasks physician assistants perform when treating patients.

Medical content categories:

  • Cardiovascular system – 13%
  • Dermatologic system – 5%
  • Endocrine system – 7%
  • Eyes, ears, nose, and throat – 7%
  • Gastrointestinal system/nutrition – 9%
  • Genitourinary system (male and female) – 5%
  • Hematologic system – 5%
  • Infectious diseases – 6%
  • Musculoskeletal system – 8%
  • Neurologic system – 7%
  • Psychiatry/behavioral science – 6%
  • Pulmonary system – 10%
  • Renal system – 5%
  • Reproductive system – 7%

Task categories:

  • History taking and performing physical examination – 17%
  • Using diagnostic and laboratory studies – 12%
  • Formulating most likely diagnosis – 18%
  • Managing patients
    • Health maintenance, patient education, preventive measures – 10%
    • Clinical intervention – 14%
    • Pharmaceutical therapeutics – 14%
  • Applying basic scientific concepts – 10%
  • Professional practice – 5%

Medical content comprises 95% of the exam. All medical content questions are also coded to one of the task areas, with the exception of the professional practice task category. Questions related to professional practice issues comprise 5% of the exam. In addition, up to 20% of the exam may be related to general surgical topics. The specific percentage allocations may vary slightly on exams.

How long does the PANCE typically last?

Each 60-question block in the PANCE lasts for 60 minutes. There is a total of 45 minutes allotted for breaks between blocks, as well as a 15-minute tutorial prior to the examination. That brings the total duration of the exam to 360 minutes.

What is the passing grade needed for the PANCE?

Each question in the PANCE can yield either a 1 (correct) or a 0 (wrong) — you get 1 point for each correct answer and nothing for wrong or unanswered questions. The test-makers have a complex system of weighting the questions based on difficulty to produce a scaled score from the raw score. Your scaled score will be somewhere between 200 and 800, and NCCPA will tell you whether your score is high enough to pass. The details, if any, will be available to you when you see your exam results.

How many times can you take the PANCE?

PA graduates have up to six attempts in six years to pass the exam and may take the exam once in any 90 day period or 3 times in a given year.