Working under the direct supervision of physicians, physician assistants, or PAs, are highly trained and capable medical practitioners in their own right:  they are licensed to see, diagnose, counsel, and even sometimes treat patients in the absence of a physician.

Like medical assistants, physician assistants work in every type of healthcare discipline and facility.  If there is a specializing physician, there is a specializing PA.  Some PAs are surgical assistants, and they perform a significant role in the operating room, and in post-operative care.

An increasing number of working physician assistants are turning to accredited online programs that advance their skills and qualify them for top positions.

Physician Assisting Career Opportunities


Physician assistants compose one of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 74,800 physician assistants in 2008. That figure is expected to increase by over 29,000 by 2018; an occupational growth rate of 39%.

Projected Growth

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

According to the Educational Occupation Network (O*NET), there are expected to be an additional 13,800 job openings over the same time period due to retirement and vacated positions.  That’s a grand total of 42,800 available high-paying physician assistant positions over 10 years.

Physician Assistant Earnings

Not only are physician assistants one of the fastest-growing occupational groups, they are one of the best paid.

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for physician assistants in 2008 was $81,230.  The middle 50% of the field earned between $68,210 and $97,070.  The bottom 10% earned less than $51,360 and the top 10% earned more than $110,240.

Annual Earnings Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Physician Assisting Educational Benefits

All states in the US require physician assistants to complete a formal training program, and pass a national licensing exam.   Physician assistant programs usually take at least two years to complete, depending on the corresponding degree awarded.  Generally, the higher the degree level, the more qualified the physician assistant for job opportunities and top wages.

The Occupational Information Network, a government career-planning resource, reports that only 8% of physician assistants have no formal post-secondary education.  23% have completed some college, including diploma and associate’s-level programs, and the remainder – 69% – have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Educational Achievement Source: Occupational Information Network

Physician assistant training is more rigorous than medical assisting, and can sometimes be difficult to even qualify for.  Most programs require the candidate to have at least two years of post-secondary education already; some require that a degree was earned (completion of a 2-year associate’s degree may be acceptable, 3 years towards an unfinished bachelor’s degree may not).  In addition to educational requirements, many PA training programs require the candidate have previous healthcare experience.  This makes a career as a PA very attractive to medical assistants and other medical support personnel who often easily meet the training requirements.

Physician assistant programs include coursework in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, pharmacology, medical ethics, and clinical diagnosis and medicine.  Some physician assistant programs require or support experiential rotations, allowing the PA-in-training to work with a practicing physician.

Physician Assistant Programs Online

Degrees Possible: Master’s Degrees

YOU CANNOT QUALIFY TO BE A PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT ONLINE. However, there are a few but growing number master's-level physician assisting programs offered online through accredited allied health schools and colleges, designed for working physician assistants. These degrees can qualify working professionals for top positions and higher pay.

The best of these programs will provide a rigorous, high-level education comparable to an advanced physician assisting degree offered at a local school or college, but in a more flexible format better suited to working students.  Unlike other online-only programs, an online physician assisting program may require a rotation or internship with a local physician’s office.

As with any serious educational decision, do your research when picking a physician assisting program, online or otherwise:  is the school accredited?  Will credits transfer?  What is the school’s job placement rate?  What are people saying about this school in general and this program specifically?  You’ll find the answers to many of these questions within the University Bound Network of Web sites, but don’t be afraid to ask your admissions counselor pointed questions.

Physician Assisting Skills and Abilities

Physician assistants must know how to perform a wide variety of clinical procedures.  Because of the urgency of some of their tasks, they should be reliable, clear-headed and cool under pressure.

The duties of physician assistants are different depending on the specialization and size of the office in which they work.  Because of different healthcare regulatory laws, the clinical duties of physician assistants also vary from state to state.  Whatever the unique requirements of their position, however, all PAs care directly for patients.  This is desirable to many individuals who want a rewarding and involved career in healthcare, but not all of the duties of PAs are always pleasant.  A gentle bedside manner – and a strong stomach – is important to a successful career as a PA.

Physician Assisting Advancement and Qualification

With completion of graduate work in physician assisting or related healthcare fields, physician assistants are qualified for a wide range of advanced and well-paid clinical and supervisory positions.  Physician assistants are also uniquely qualified by their extensive experience for admittance to medical school.

Completion of a physician assistant program qualifies the graduate for entry-level positions as a PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT.

Additional Information

The American Academy of Physician Assistants (APAA) maintains a Web site at