Most physician assistant programs lead to a master’s degree and require applicants to already possess a bachelor’s degree prior to admission. Although program requirements vary among the 170 accredited physician assistant programs in the United States, most take two years of full-time postgraduate study to complete, as of 2015.
Programs offering degrees for physician assistants require applicants have two to four years of undergraduate coursework focused on science. Most applicants to these programs also have some experience in health care, with many coming to the programs as registered nurses, paramedics or other health care workers. Some students choose to pursue specialty certification beyond physician assistant training, with postgraduate programs available in specific areas such as psychiatry, emergency medicine and surgery.
Students completing the required programs must also pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination given by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants to receive their credentials. Passing the exam entitles the physician assistant to use the Physician Assistant-Certified, or PA-C, credential in professional circles. All 50 states and the District of Columbia require licensing of physician assistants.
After certification, physician assistants must complete additional continuing education coursework to retain their certifications. This includes 100 hours of CE credits every two years. In addition, credentialed physician assistants must take the recertification exam every 10 years.