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 2014, the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) found that 32% of PAs worked in primary care (including family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, and OB/GYN), 27% in various surgical specialties, 11% in emergency medicine, and 19% in other specialties. The majority (72%) of PAs work in physician offices, hospitals or outpatient facilities. Others work on college or university campuses (such as Cal Poly), correctional facilities, nursing homes or community health centers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for PA's in 2018 was $108,610. The job outlook is outstanding, with a projected growth of 37% in the field by 2026.
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 2017 was 3.51 in the sciences and a 3.56 overall. Of the programs which require the GRE (53%), the average score (quantitative and verbal) of accepted students in 2017 was 306.
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, 15% of PAs practice 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.
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!
General Biology with lab: Bio 161, 162, & upper-level BIO course (see note below)
Bio, Mcro, Msci, and Bchm majors should enroll in Mcro 224.
For programs requiring 1-2 years of Biology and Microbiology, contact schools to determine additional Biology coursework to enroll in.
Microbiology requirements may vary between schools. Check individual school requirements closely.
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: In recent application cycles, some PA programs have not accepted 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
English/Writing: 3 quarters reading/composition
Suggested and/or Required Coursework
Mathematics: Pre-Calculus (Math 118) and/or Calculus (Math 141 or 161)
Physics: Phys 121, 122, 123 or Phys 141, 132, 133
Genetics: Bio 302, 303 or 351
Beginning Spanish Language: Span 101, 102, 103
Humanities Courses (art, music, ethics, philosophy)
Medical Terminology: Kine 297
Basic or Advanced Nutrition
Organic or Biochemistry
Examples of Direct Patient Care
Athletic Training (AT)
Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)
Medical Back Office Assistant
Certified Nursing Assistant
Health Education Specialist
Patient Care Attendant
Military Medical Corpsman
Physical Therapist or PT Aide
Nursing (RN, LVN)
Medical Scribe (may be acceptable for some programs)
Schools/Programs in California
Provisional Accreditation (Granted by ARC-PA):
Marshall B. Ketchum University
California State University Monterey Bay
Charles R. Drew University of Medicine & Science
University of La Verne
Southern California University of Health Sciences
University of the Pacific
Dominican University of California
Professional Association Links
For more information, visit the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) website at: www.paeaonline.org or www.pafocus.org and the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) at www.aapa.org. To get involved with the Cal Poly Nursing/PA club, please sign up via this google doc or visit the club's Instagram page: @cpnursingpa.