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Physician assistant programs are a good fit for people who have a passion for caring for others, but do not want the additional responsibilities or training required of a physician or surgeon.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physicians assistants, or PAs, can examine, diagnose and treat patients, but under the direction of doctors. While they don't need to complete as many years of education as physicians or surgeons, physician assistants must still meet state-mandated training requirements. This is where physician assistant degree programs come in.

Physician Assistant Programs: What to Expect

As with most health care careers, proper training is essential for physician assistants. The BLS reports that all states require these professionals to possess at least a master's degree from an accredited physician assistant degree program. Many applicants already have bachelor's degrees in a health program or science-intensive field, plus health related work experience.

According to The College Board, physician assistant majors typically learn how to recognize and treat everything from minor colds to chronic or life-threatening diseases. Studies include basic medical and clinical instruction, but often allow students to specialize in a particular area of medicine, such as pediatrics, psychiatry or surgery. While courses vary from program to program, studies generally touch on the following disciplines:

  • Anatomy
  • Clinical medicine
  • Physical diagnosis
  • Pharmacology
  • Microbiology
  • Physiology

Another goal of physician assistant programs is to prepare students for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. All states require physician assistant majors to obtain a license before entering the field, according to the BLS. Taking and passing the PANCE is the first step.

Potential Careers for Physician Assistant Majors

Contrary to what one might expect, not all physician assistant program grads become physician assistants: there are a number of related careers suitable for one with this type of training. Here are a few of them, along with associated training and employment trends:

  • Physician assistant - These professionals treat patients under the direction of a physician. They can diagnose injuries and illnesses, establish a care plan and prescribe medication. The BLS projects employment of physician assistants to rise 38 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022, much faster than the national average for all occupations. Prospects should be best for candidates willing to work in rural or underserved areas, or in primary care settings.
  • Nurse practitioner - Like physician assistants, nurse practitioners provide basic patient care under the direction of a physician. The BLS notes that the scope of allowable duties varies by state, but generally includes diagnosing and treating medical problems, administering medications and conducting research. Nurse practitioners must hold at least a master's degree from an accredited program and meet additional licensing requirements. The BLS predicts that demand for nurse practitioners will be strong over the next decade, growing by 31 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022. Prospects should be best in rural, underserved and inner city settings.
  • Physician or surgeon - Physicians assistants who want to expand their professional responsibilities -- and earning potential -- can invest in the additional training required to become a physician or surgeon. Doctors and surgeons must earn doctoral or professional degrees, which means at least four years of medical school beyond the bachelor's degree level, plus internships and residencies. Those who have completed bachelor's or master's level physician assistant programs may be strong candidates for medical school. The BLS projects demand for doctors to grow about 18 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022.

In addition to these, The College Board notes several other potential careers for physician assistant majors, although most require candidates to pursue additional education. These include registered nurse, advanced-practice nurse and recreational therapist.

Future physician assistants can learn more about their options by contacting prospective schools directly, or by visiting websites like the BLS and The College Board online.

"Major: Physician Assistance," The College Board, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/majors/health-professions-related-clinical-sciences-allied-health-diagnosis-intervention-treatment-physician-assistance
"Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm
"Physicians and Surgeons," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physicians-and-surgeons.htm
"Physicians Assistants," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm

Pursue your Physicians Assistant major today…