Degrees for the Physician Assistant

Which level of academic preparation is best when opting to become a physician assistant? There are choices at the associate, baccalaureate, and master’s levels, but which one is right for you, and which one is more widely accepted in professional practice?

Accredited associate’s programs are few and far between. Most programs are at the master’s level, and currently, this is the terminal degree for PAs. It is also the most highly regarded degree. However, choice of academic programs is an attractive feature of the physician assistant profession. Your choice may ultimately be determined by geography. Maybe you want to obtain your associate’s degree as a PA, but there are no accredited programs near you. Perhaps finances or time will shape your decision. Whatever your lifestyle and needs, a physician assistant program exists that’s perfectly suited for you. Once you choose a PA program you need to brace yourself for stiff competition and a rigorous course of study. PA programs are not for the uncommitted; they require discipline, dedication, and unwavering focus. You won’t be engaged in much else outside of the PA program for a good two years’ time. Most programs advise against working while in the program, so your finances need to be in order. The fewer distractions you have, the more likely you are to succeed in PA school. Family and friends will need to be supportive and understanding. You will eat, breathe, and sleep science and patient care for the next couple of years. Enduring PA school will be challenging, but it will be well worth your hard work in the end.

The Associate’s Degree

Unless hindered by finances and/or geography, one needs to think long and hard before obtaining an associate’s degree to become a physician assistant. Most PAs today are educated at the master’s level. According to education-portal.com, “Though limited in availability and wide acceptance, there are some accredited associate’s degree programs that lead to the physician’s assistant credential. These degree programs are full physician assistant curricula and should not be confused with pre-health programs offered by many community and technical colleges.” In other words, the associate’s degree student will be doing the same course work and will be required to take the same national certifying exam for Pas but in all likelihood will not receive the same level of respect or acceptance among other health care professionals. Many private physicians and hospitals will not hire a physician assistant unless he or she has at least a bachelor’s degree.

The advantages to obtaining an associate’s degree are as follows:

Degrees for the Physician Assistant

it requires only a high school diploma and healthcare related work experience prior to admission, it costs less than obtaining a four-year or master’s degree, and there are several online associate degree options that allow flexibility and convenience, especially if you’re working a full-time job. As with the programs at the baccalaureate and master’s level, admission requirements are competitive. “While the literal admission requirements often only include a high school diploma, most physician assistant programs also select students based on prior healthcare experience, completion of general education programs, letters of recommendation and high grade point averages on all previous courses” (education-portal.com, n.d.). Most associate degree programs last, on average, 26 months and course work usually includes human anatomy, microbiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, pathophysiology, and physical diagnosis. All PAs, regardless of academic level achieved, sit for the same national certification exam, and all can perform the same duties (assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of illness) and have prescription privileges.

The Bachelor’s Degree

Again, different programs require different things of their prospective students so it is important to familiarize yourself with the specific prerequisites of the school to which you are applying. Baccalaureate programs are obviously more demanding than those at the associate’s level and favor those who excelled in high school science. “High school students are expected to have strong backgrounds in biology, chemistry, physics and upper-level mathematics. Many programs also require 300 or more documented hours in a health care field, including two full days following practicing physician assistants” (education-portal.com., n.d.). According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, “Programs offering baccalaureate degrees require a minimum of two years of college credits, and virtually all require health care experience prior to admission.” Many baccalaureate programs have prospective PA students follow the pre-med curriculum and train alongside those preparing for medical school. Both PAs and medical students are trained in the “medical model,” which is defined by Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, as, “the traditional approach to the diagnosis and treatment of illness as practiced by physicians in the Western world since the time of Koch and Pasteur.

According to Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, in the medical model, “The physician focuses on the defect, or dysfunction, within the patient, using a problem-solving approach…the medical model is thus focused on the physical and biologic aspects of specific diseases and conditions.” Since PAs work closely in conjunction with doctors, it is important that they be trained similarly. One can obtain a bachelor’s degree in physician assistant studies; however, since most of the PA programs are at the master’s level, the best thing an undergraduate student can do is major in science and study hard.

GPA requirements for master’s programs are high—at least 3.5 and above, and many programs require students to score well on the GRE. Do everything you can to ensure success! Second, shadow PAs in your community and garner as many hours as possible working in healthcare. As an applicant to a PA master’s degree program, you’ll be competing for space against RNs, EMTs, and paramedics—professional health care workers with immeasurable experience. Make sure you’re involved in a PA or pre-med club at your school. Many of these clubs provide opportunities for students to visit and observe PAs and doctors in medical offices or hospitals. Spending time with these professionals only enhances your understanding of the profession. It also provides you the opportunity to start networking and preparing for life after PA school.

The Master’s Degree

Most accredited PA programs are offered at the master’s level, last a little more than two years, and incorporate two phases: the didactic (classroom instruction) and clinical rotations. For example, during the first 12 months of the PA program at Duke University, the highest rated PA program in the county according to U.S. News and World Report (2011), instruction focuses on classroom studies and includes courses such as basic medical sciences, anatomy, physical diagnosis, pharmacology, and patient assessment. The second year is spent in clinical rotations in specialty areas such as the ER, Internal Medicine,OB/GYN, pediatrics, general surgery, and behavioral medicine (papgrogram.mc.duke.edu, n.d.).

Of course, Duke’s program is currently the “best” in the country, but most PA programs are similar in admission requirements and curriculum. Competition is stiff—not only among the top rated programs—so it’s best to follow the standards set by these schools and try to achieve them. In 2010, Duke admitted only 10% of those who applied and posted the following information for prospective students on its website:

“The ranges of academic and experiential qualifications for the middle 50 per cent of accepted applicants for the fall of 2010 were as follows:

  • Overall GPA: 3.2 – 3.7
  • Natural science GPA: 2.8 – 3.3
  • Total natural science credits: 48 – 83
  • GRE General Test scores:
    • Verbal: 470 – 600
    • Quantitative: 605 – 720
    • Analytical Writing: 4.0 – 4.8
    • Months of full time patient care experience: 14 – 36”

The advantage of going for the master’s degree is that it is recognized as the level of preparation for most PAs in the United States today. Many doctors and hospitals will require that their PAs hold a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. Obtaining a master’s degree demonstrates to both the employer and the public a serious dedication to the profession and the seriousness with which the PA approaches health care. If a person can succeed in such a rigorous training program, certainly he or she can handle issues that arise in every day patient care. Having a master’s degree often means better pay as well, but pay scale differences appear to be based more on location of practice (geography), workplace environment (rural clinic vs. inner city hospital), specialty, and experience than on education level.

If you have the time, support, and money, obtaining a master’s degree as a physician assistant appears to be the best option as most accredited programs are offered at this level. If you want to be relevant, taken seriously, and have room for advancement in the field, it’s best to enter the profession at the highest level possible. According to the Stony Brook University website, “Standardization at the master’s level establishes degree equity with other professions with a similar level of responsibility in health care; a master’s degree most accurately reflects the rigor of PA curriculum and the evolution of the profession; graduate-level education provides additional avenues of career diversification for physician assistants.”

Physician Assistant Facts

The bottom line appears to be that in order to be taken seriously and viewed as an equal with their health care counterparts, those considering a career as a physician assistant should obtain their master’s degree. It’s the most challenging avenue of the three options discussed here, but it’s the basis for future career advancement and denotes the professionalism of the physician assistant.


Last Updated: 05/12/2014

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