Physician Assistant: Job Description, Salary, and Skills

physician assistant
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Are you interested in a career as a Physician Assistant (PA)? It can be an alternative career path for someone who is interested in medicine, but wants to get started on a career sooner than the time it takes to become a physician. In addition, PAs often have more limited costs for medical liability insurance.

Physician assistants carry out many of the same functions as traditional medical doctors including examining patients, prescribing medicine, and ordering diagnostic tests. In most cases, they work under the supervision of physicians or surgeons. In some states, rural areas, and inner-city areas, physician assistants work more independently, consulting with physicians only when they need help with a case.

Physician Assistant Job Description

Physician assistants interview and examine patients to determine a diagnosis. They order tests to ascertain the nature and extent of illnesses and injuries. They prescribe medications and suggest lifestyle changes to remedy medical problems. 

Treatments provided by physician assistants include stitching wounds, setting bones, and administering immunizations. They also maintain patient records and provide documentation for insurance companies.


Physician assistants can specialize in areas like psychiatry, pediatrics, dermatology, or surgery. They work for hospitals, group medical practices, colleges, and government agencies.

Education and Training Requirements

Physician assistants are formally educated to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment. Graduate school, typically a master’s degree from an accredited educational program, is required.

In general, two years of full-time postgraduate study is required to earn the degree. Most applicants to physician assistant education programs already have a bachelor’s degree and some healthcare-related work experience.

The graduate programs include classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects including pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical medicine, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, and medical ethics. To become a physician assistant, you will also need hundreds of hours of supervised clinical training in different practice areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and pediatrics.

Licensing Requirements

Physician assistants must be licensed in every U.S. state and the District of Columbia. To become licensed, you must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). A physician assistant who passes the exam can use the credential Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).

Continuing education is required to maintain certification. To keep their certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years. A recertification exam is required every 10 years.

Physician Assistant Salaries

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistants earned an average of $104,860 in 2017. The bottom 10% of physician assistants earned less than $66,590 while the top 10% earned at least $146,260.

Employment Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physician assistants is expected to expand by 37% from 2016 to 2026. Increased demand for medical services from an aging population and efforts to limit the costs of delivering medical services are factors impacting this growth.

Physician Assistant Skills

When applying for physician assistant positions, you will get the most attention from employers if you utilize job-specific keywords in your resume and its accompanying cover letter. The best way to decide which keywords to use is to closely analyze job announcements and then echo these words (typically found under the heading “Qualifications”) in your application materials.

Here’s a list of the most commonly-sought skills in physician assistants. Skills will vary based on the position for which you're applying, so also review our list of skills listed by job and type of skill.

Patient and Care Team Communications: Physician assistants must be able to communicate, clearly and compassionately, with patients and their colleagues within often-stressful medical treatment settings.

  • Active Listening
  • Advocacy
  • Calm Demeanor
  • Comforting
  • Consulting
  • Cooperating with Other Medical Staff
  • Counsel Patients
  • Customer Service
  • Effective Interaction with Diverse Patient Population
  • Explaining
  • Foreign Language
  • Instructing
  • Interviewing
  • Making Referrals
  • Managing Staff
  • Negotiating
  • Patient Education
  • Social Perceptiveness
  • Speaking
  • Writing

Patient Diagnosis and Treatment: Here are a few of the typical daily tasks you will be performing as a physician assistant, as well as the practical medical skills you will need to do this important work effectively.

  • Administer Diagnostic Tests
  • Administer Injections
  • Care Planning
  • Casting and Removing Casts
  • Comfort with Blood, Injuries, Bodily Disfigurement
  • Examining Patients
  • Facility with Medical Terminology
  • Manual Dexterity
  • Patient Care
  • Patient Screening
  • Physical Examinations
  • Prescribing Medications
  • Psychosocial Assessments
  • Suturing Wounds
  • Visual Acuity

Analytical Skills: Strong analytical talents are as important for physician assistants as they are for medical doctors in ensuring accurate patient diagnoses and the implementation of responsive care plans.

  • Apply Knowledge of Pharmacology to Medical Cases
  • Attention to Detail
  • Deductive Reasoning
  • Inductive Reasoning
  • Interpreting Medical Tests
  • Interpreting Research Findings
  • Observation
  • Ongoing Learning
  • Prioritizing
  • Problem Solving
  • Quantitative
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Scientific Reasoning
  • Understanding of Anatomy and Physiology
  • Understanding of Psychology and Behavior Change

Interpersonal Skills: Solid interpersonal skills (also known as “soft skills”) are key to displaying a “good bedside manner” when working with sick or injured individuals.

  • Assertiveness
  • Confidence
  • Dependability
  • Energetic
  • Integrity
  • Maintaining Confidentiality
  • Memory
  • Motivating
  • Multitasking
  • Patience
  • Persuasive
  • Stress Tolerance
  • Time Management
  • Tolerance for the Pain of Others
  • Understanding One's Limitations

Technical Software: The development and almost universal adoption of electronic medical records across the healthcare industry means that physician assistants must be more technically savvy than patient care providers needed to be in previous generations.

  • Documentation
  • Electronic Medical Records
  • Medical Histories
  • Medically Related Computer Applications