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Physician Assistant

Physician assistants (PAs) practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They should not be confused with medical assistants, who perform routine clinical and clerical tasks. PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive health care services as delegated by a physician.

Working as members of a healthcare team, PAs take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X-rays and make diagnoses. They also treat minor injuries and can suture, splint or cast. PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients and order or carry out therapy. In 48 states and the District of Columbia, physician assistants can prescribe some medications. In some establishments, a PA is responsible for managerial duties, such as ordering medical supplies or equipment and supervising technicians and assistants.

Although PAs work under a doctors' supervision, they can be principal care providers in rural or inner city clinics where a physician is present only one or two days each week. In such cases, the PA confers with the supervising physician and other medical professionals as needed and as required by law. PAs also can make house calls or go to hospitals and care facilities to check on patients, after which they report back to their supervising physicians.

A PA's duties are determined by his or her supervising physician and by state law. Aspiring PAs should investigate the laws and regulations in the states in which they wish to practice.

Many PAs work in primary care specialties, such as general internal medicine, pediatrics and family medicine. Other specialty areas include general and thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, orthopedics, and geriatrics. PAs specializing in surgery provide preoperative and postoperative care and can work as first or second assistants during major surgery.

Education and Training

Physician assistant education programs usually last at least two years and are full time. Most programs are in schools of allied health, academic health centers, medical schools or four-year colleges; a few are in community colleges, the military or hospitals. Many accredited PA programs have clinical teaching affiliations with medical schools.

Admission requirements vary, but many programs require two years of college and some work experience in the healthcare field. Students should take courses in biology, English, chemistry, mathematics, psychology and the social sciences. Some PAs have previous experience as nurses, and others come from varied backgrounds, including military members or medics and allied health occupations such as respiratory therapists, physical therapists and emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

The courses listed are the most commonly required and/or recommended courses for physician assistant programs. It is each student's responsibility to know the required preparatory courses for the programs to which they apply.

One year of biology

Effective Fall 2023:
BIO 11/11L - Introduction to Molecular Biology (with lab) and
BIO 12/12L - Introduction to Introduction to Organismal Biology (with lab)

Prior to Fall 2023:
BIO 1/L –  Contemporary Biology (must take lab) and
BIO 2/L – Introduction to Molecular Biology (must take lab)

One year of chemistry CHEM 2 - General Chemistry I
CHEM 10 - General Chemistry II
Additional courses in biology BIO 120/120L - General Microbiology
BIO  161 - Human Physiology
BIO  164 - Human Anatomy^
Writing WRI 10 - College Reading and Composition
Math  MATH 18 - Statistics for Scientific Data Analysis or
MATH 32 - Probability & Statistics or
PSY  10 - Analysis of Psychological Data
Social sciences ANTH 1 - Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology or
PSY 1 - Introduction to Psychology or
SOC 1 - Introduction to Sociology
Courses in the humanities Some schools require additional courses in arts, humanities and foreign languages

^Course currently unavailable at UC Merced. May be taken at community college.  Check with intended schools for more information.

PA education includes classroom instruction in biochemistry, pathology, human anatomy, physiology, microbiology, clinical pharmacology, clinical medicine, geriatric and home healthcare, disease prevention and medical ethics.

Students obtain supervised clinical training in several areas including family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, prenatal care and gynecology, geriatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry and pediatrics.

Sometimes, PA students serve one or more of these rotations under the supervision of physicians who are seeking to hire PAs, and the rotations often lead to permanent employment.

Physician assistants must have a desire to serve patients and be self-motivated. PAs also must have good bedside manners, emotional stability and the ability to make good decisions in emergencies. Physician assistants must be willing to study throughout their careers to keep up with medical advances.

GPA Calculator 

Professional and graduate schools, and the application services they use, expect you to report all attempted classes as part of your overall GPA calculation. Please refer to the "course work" sections of the instruction manuals -- available below -- for how to accurately compute your Math-Science or Science GPA and overall GPA based on your professional goals.

CASPA for applicants to Physician Assistant Schools (PA):

  • Science GPA: is calculated based on these Course Subject GPA categories: Biology/Zoology, Inorganic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics, and Other Science.
  • Non-Science GPA: is calculated based on these Course Subject GPA categories: English, Math, Social/Behavioral Science, and Other Non-Science. 
  • CASPA also breaks down your GPA by school year.


The majority of schools require students to take the Graduate Record Exam. Additionally, a few schools require the MCAT. It is each student's responsibility to be aware of the specific requirements of the school to which they are applying.

California Schools

*For information on a career as a physician assistant, including a list of accredited programs, contact:
American Academy of Physician Assistants Information Center
950 N. Washington St.
Alexandria, VA 22314

*For eligibility requirements and a description of the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, contact:
National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, Inc.
12000 Findley Road, Suite 200
Duluth, GA 30097