"To find health should be the object of the doctor. Anyone can find disease."  —Andrew T. Still, MD, DO

"As a family physician, my job is listening to people's stories."
—Jon S. Hallberg, MD

Physician Assistant

Career Info

Physician Assistants (PAs) are health professionals licensed to practice medicine under physician supervision. Within the physician-PA relationship, PAs have autonomy in medical decision making and provide a broad range of services to patients. PAs take medical histories, perform physical exams, order and interpret lab tests, diagnose and treat illnesses, counsel patients, assist in surgery, and set fractures. PAs are educated as generalists in medicine and all education programs emphasize primary care; however, PA’s can enter various specialties, such as cardiology, surgery, orthopedics, and emergency medicine. In 2019, the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) found that 34.4% of PAs worked in primary care (including family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, and OB/GYN), 29.4% in various surgical specialties, 9.2% in emergency medicine, and 26.8% in other specialties. The majority (72%) of PAs work in physician offices, hospitals or outpatient facilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for PAs in 2022 was $126,010. The job outlook is outstanding, with a projected growth of 27% in the field by 2032.

More Information

Outlook: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm

O*NET: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-1071.00

Program Requirements

All PAs must graduate from an accredited physician assistant educational program and be certified by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants by completing a licensing exam. Most PA programs last between 24-27 months and grant a certificate, bachelor’s degree or master’s degree upon completion. In order to remain certified, PAs must complete continuing medical education every 2 years and they must pass a recertification examination or complete an alternate program combining learning experiences and a take-home examination every 6 years.

Currently, there are more than 180 accredited programs in the United States, with 20 new programs in the past year. Most master’s degree programs require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or an equivalent exam. Grades are important in the admissions process and many programs require at least a 3.0 GPA for consideration. However, the national average GPAs of accepted students in 2019 was 3.53 in the sciences and a 3.6 overall. Of the programs which require the GRE (53%), the average score (quantitative and verbal) of accepted students in 2019 was 310.

Also, most programs require at least 1,000 hours of direct clinical/patient care experience in a variety of situations and settings.  Applicants average about 2.55 years of healthcare experience, including, but not limited to, direct patient care. PAs are helping to meet the need of the impending physician shortage, specifically in primary care and in rural areas with the highest need.  In 2017, 16% of PAs practiced in rural, medically underserved areas. As such, it is strongly recommended that applicants gain experience in medically underserved and rural areas and have a demonstrated commitment or interest in serving in and working with medically and economically underserved populations.

Additionally, many PA programs are now requiring applicants to take the CASPer exam, which is a situational judgment test. Examinees will be asked to respond to different ethical scenarios in which the exam is assessing students' interpersonal core competencies and non-cognitive skills. Please review the following link to learn more about this exam. 

CASPer Exam

Course Requirements

Note:  Admission prerequisites vary by institution.  Most programs require a cumulative and science GPA of 3.0 or higher. Some schools will not accept AP credit for prerequisites.  Check the requirements carefully!

See below for an example of admission course prerequisites that may be required at CA programs. Please research professional programs for the specific admission requirements. If you need guidance on how to search for schools, please see the Peer Advisors during drop-in hours. 

General Biology with lab: Bio 161, 162, & upper-level Bio course (see suggested courses below)

Microbiology with lab: Mcro 221 (4 units) or 224 (5 units)  
  • Note:
    • Bio, Mcro, Msci, and Bchm majors should enroll in Mcro 224. 
    • Microbiology requirements may vary between schools. Check individual school requirements closely. 
    • *For programs requiring 1-2 years of Biology and Microbiology, contact schools to determine additional Biology coursework to enroll in. 
General Chemistry with lab: Chem 127, 128, & 129 or 312
  • Note:
    • Engineering & Physical Science majors should enroll in Chem 124, 125, & 126 or 312
    • Chemistry requirements vary widely by program. Most require 1 full year of chemistry. Some accept organic and biochemistry to count towards this full year, and some only accept general chemistry. Check individual school requirements carefully.

Human Anatomy and Physiology: Bio 231, 232 (for all majors except Bio) or Bio 361, 406-409, & 426

  • Warning: Some PA programs may not accept Cal Poly's upper-division anatomy and physiology series (Bio 361, 406-409, & 426) as meeting their prerequisite requirements. Please review individual program requirements closely and reach out to programs directly with any concerns.

Psychology: Psy 201 or 202

Behavioral Sciences (Anthropology/Sociology): Ant 201 or Soc 110 (D3)

Statistics: Stat 217 or 218 or 312

English/Writing: 3 quarters reading/composition


Suggested and/or Required Coursework

Mathematics: Pre-Calculus (Math 118) and/or Calculus (Math 141 or 161)

Genetics: Bio 302, 303 or 351

Biology: Some programs may require more upper division biology courses. Check program requirements carefully. This can include Genetics, listed above, and/or additional 300 or 400 BIO level courses.

Beginning Spanish Language: Span 101, 102, 103

Humanities Courses (art, music, ethics, philosophy)

Medical Terminology: Kine 297

Recommended Coursework

Medical Ethics
Medical Spanish
Basic or Advanced Nutrition
Organic or Biochemistry

Last updated: 01/12/2022.

Examples of Direct Patient Care

Athletic Training (AT)
Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)
Medical Back Office Assistant
Certified Nursing Assistant
Respiratory Therapist
Health Education Specialist
Patient Care Attendant
Medical Technologist
Military Medical Corpsman
Radiology Technician
Surgical Technician
Pharmacy Tech

Physical Therapist or PT Aide
Occupational Therapist
Optometric assistant
Medical Interpreter

Dental hygienist/assisting
Nursing (RN, LVN)
Psychiatric Tech
Medical Scribe (may be acceptable for some programs)

Professional Association Links

For more information, visit the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) website at www.paeaonline.org and/or the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) website at www.aapa.org

Cal Poly Nursing/PA Club

To get involved with the Cal Poly Nursing/PA club, please sign up via this google doc, visit their website, and visit the club's Instagram page: @cpnursingpa.

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