How many years does it take to become a physician assistant?
There’s a short answer, and a long answer.
PA school itself usually lasts 2-3 years. But there are several things you have to do before PA school as well.
In this post I’ll dive into the details of how long it takes to become a PA, including the overall timeline from high school through starting your first job as a physician assistant.
Let’s dive in.
What do You have to do Before PA School?
Here’s a quick overview of what you need to do before you start physician assistant school.
Undergraduate College Education
Most schools require you to get a bachelor’s degree. So you have to go to college for a few years. Typically 4, but you could accelerate it a little bit if you want to.
While you’re there, you need to take several prerequisites. This includes a bunch of science classes (like chemistry, physics, biology, anatomy & physiology, etc.), as well as some other classes, depending on the specific PA school.
There’s not a lot of consistency from one PA school to the next, so you just need to look at their requirements to make sure you cover the prereqs for whatever school you plan to apply to.
When I applied to PA school, I had to go back and take a couple classes for specific schools that required stuff I hadn’t already taken. So it’s easier if you do this up front.
You Need Some Healthcare Experience
Most schools also require you to have some type of healthcare or clinical experience. Here’s one example.
Depending on the school, this could be a lot of different things. For example, you could work as a paramedic or medical assistant, or various other jobs in the medical field.
You could also do some type of volunteer work. But what’s acceptable varies from school to school, so make sure you look at their requirements. And reach out to the school if you’re not sure.
I took a really meandering road to PA school, and my “healthcare experience” was actually doing clinical rotations in podiatric medical school. (Weird, I know.)
The exact number of hours of healthcare experience you need varies from school to school, so take a look. You can usually accumulate the needed hours in less than a year, but it will depend.
Applying to PA School
Once you graduate from college–and while you’re getting some type of healthcare experience…
That’s a good time to start working on your PA school application.
PA school applications open and close at specific times each year, so you want to prepare in advance so you can figure out all the deadlines, and not waste too many years going through the application cycle.
You can probably apply to PA school while you’re working on building up your healthcare experience. But again, this may depend on the individual school.
So you’ll need to plan on at least one “gap year” between college and PA school, and possibly a couple years.
How Long Does PA School Last?
Here’s the simple answer:
Depending on the school, physician assistant school usually lasts between 2 and 3 years.
Sometimes they state it in months, so that’s somewhere between 24 and 36 months.
For example, when I attended PA school it was 28 months long. We started in July of 2011, and finished at the end of October, 2013.
After researching a little online, it looks like the average length of PA school may be 26.5 months.
The longest PA programs are Touro University, Vallejo; University of Southern California, Los Angeles; and Rush University, Chicago with 33 months.
The shortest PA program is Stanford University, with 21 months.
Putting it All Together
Considering all of the information above…
To become a PA:
First, you have to get your college degree, take prerequisite classes, and get some healthcare experience. Then you apply to PA school. Then you go through PA school.
Here’s a little chart that shows what that might look like:
|Undergrad + Prerequisites||4 years|
|Healthcare Experience + Applying to PA school||1-2 years|
|PA school||2-3 years|
As you can see, the range of possibilities is about 7 to 10 years.
Compared to physicians, who take at least 11 years… it obviously takes less time to become a PA. (The physician track is 4 years undergrad + 4 years medical school + minimum 3 years residency.)
Conclusion: How Long does it Take to Become a Physician Assistant?
While PA school lasts 2-3 years, the overall timeline is closer to 7 or 8 years. That’s if you’re including undergraduate college education, healthcare experience, and taking some time to apply to PA school.
So realistically, you’ll be about a decade out of high school before you finish PA school and potentially start working as a PA.
That sounds like a long time, but you can finish all of it while you’re still in your 20s–which is often not true for physicians.
I took a somewhat longer route, so I didn’t finish until I was in my 30s. Almost like a 2nd career. But if I had to do it over again, I would have become a physician assistant a bit sooner and more quickly.
Hopefully, this gives you a better idea about the timeline for becoming a PA.