Physician Assistant

The position of Physician Assistant was created in the 1960s to address a shortage of primary care physicians. As of December 31, 2014, there were 101,977 certified physician assistants practicing in the US (2014 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants, An Annual Report of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants), and it is the fastest growing sector of the health professions. There are 191 accredited PA programs, but more programs are planned and will be up and running soon.

A Physician Assistant (PA) practices medicine under the direction of a physician. However, it is possible for a PA to have his or her own practice and in rural areas a PA is often the primary health care provider. While the physician is medically, legally, and administratively responsible for the patient, the PA can examine patients, analyze laboratory results, order treatment and direct follow-up care.

According to the American Association of Physician Assistants, many PAs are in primary care (32%), but 26.6% are in surgical subspecialties, 11% in emergency medicine, 10% in internal medicine, and 18.8% in other specialties.

One of the major advantages of being a Physician Assistant is that the training is generally about 27 months, as compared to four years plus a residency for the MD, and there is no internship or residency. PA training has one year of classroom work, followed by 2,000 hours of clinical training.

Further, “Over time, programs have trended towards the graduate level, and by 2020 all PA programs must confer a graduate degree to be accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).” (2014 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants, An Annual Report of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.)

PA programs are often as competitive as medical school, and have the additional requirement of 1,000 or more hours of hands-on clinical experience before admission. A recent report by the Physician Assistant Education Association reports that the mean overall GPA for matriculating students was 3.58. The science GPA was 3.5.

What should I major in?

Fifty percent of students who matriculate to PA school major in natural sciences-biology, chemistry or physics, 20% in health sciences, and 14.5% in applied sciences such as nursing. 15% majored in other areas such as languages and humanities.

Required courses

Course requirements vary from program to program, but the following courses are required by most:

  • Chemistry – varies with the program. Almost all require a minimum of two semesters of chemistry, which can be general chemistry I and II, or one semester of general chemistry and one semester of organic. Some schools have a requirement for a third course, either an organic or biochemistry course. The Wake Forest PA program is one of those that requires a course in biochemistry.
  • Human anatomy or comparative/vertebrate anatomy with lab
  • Human physiology with lab (Bio 114 is a prerequisite)
  • Microbiology with lab
  • Two additional upper-level biology courses (Bio 213 and 214)
  • Psychology (developmental psychology is often recommended)

Required by SOME programs

  • Medical terminology (not offered at WF but can be taken online)
  • Biochemistry
  • Statistics (required by most good programs. Can be taken in math, psychology, HES, sociology or biology departments)

Also recommended*:

  • Genetics
  • Cell biology
  • Molecular biology

* These are covered by Bio 213 and 214

Additional Requirements:

In addition to required coursework, applicants to PA programs must have relevant hands-on clinical experience. The amount of clinical experience required varies, but generally is in the range of 1,000-2,000 hours. It is very difficult to acquire this experience while in college, so most candidates for PA programs have worked in the medical field for at least one year before being admitted to a program.

Shadowing a physician or PA is not considered hands-on clinical experience, nor is administrative work.  Many students acquire the necessary experience by working either as an EMT (emergency medical technician), CNA (clinical nurse assistant), medical scribe, or medical assistant. One can train as a CNA in only 200 hours (5 weeks) at a community colleges, and through the Red Cross. Basic EMT training is only 110 hours, and also is offered by most community colleges.  An EMT course is offered through the Health and Exercise Science Department at Wake Forest University.

Graduate Record Exam (GRE): The General test is required. Be sure to have your GRE scores sent directly to CASPA (as explained below. Each programs has its own CASPA code.)

Completion of courses: Check with each school to see how many courses you can have in progress or not yet started by the application deadline; it varies by school. Some require that all prerequisite courses and patient care hours be completed before application.

Application Process

For information on applying to physician assistant programs, visit

Many programs participate in CASPA, an online application service developed by the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA). CASPA allows a student to apply to a number of programs through a single application form. The CASPA application needs to be filed at least four weeks before the program application deadline, to allow time for processing. Be sure to check the application deadline for each program that you are applying for, since application dates vary by program. Some programs may request an additional, supplemental, application. START HERE: everything you need to know about filling in the CASPA application, step by step!

Apply early! Most schools have rolling admissions. Application open in late April or early May. The application is time consuming. Your letters will not be requested until you fill out the CASPA application.

Be sure to keep track of all of your volunteer hours and patient care hours. They want specifics!

CASPA, has a Facebook page. This page is designed to answer CASPA-related questions and provide application cycle information, general and specific, for all CASPA applicants. You can find it at <>.

The Physician Assistant Education Association, PAEA, also has a Facebook page,, or you
can follow it on Twitter, for the most up-to-date PAEA and PA news.

Years of post-graduate education required:

The average duration of a PA program is 27 months. This includes up to 12 months of pre-clinical classwork, followed by up to 15 months of clinical training.