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Here's an option if you’re interested in a health profession but feel faint at the idea of the 7 to 13 years and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars involved in going to med school and becoming a doctor. Physician assistants perform many of the same tasks doctors do, but go through a much more reasonable period of training. Physician assistants (PAs) receive their certification by attending a PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. And they don’t do exactly the same things doctors do—they, well, assist. In some cases, you might enter a PA program after you graduate from college; in other cases, you’ll take general college courses for two years then transfer into a PA program. (Some schools even offer a major in pre-physician assistant studies that includes this 2-2 split.) Programs are generally competitive, and you must pass the NCCPA (National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants exam) to become certified after your course work has been completed.

Even though you won’t bear the burdens of med school, PA programs are rigorous too, and demand focus, dedication, and a lot of time. As a PA major, you’ll learn how to take patient histories, request and perform laboratory tests, and read and analyze the results. You’ll learn about preventive medicine and how to counsel patients on their health and wellness. By the time you graduate, you’ll be able to give a physical exam, diagnose illnesses, and develop treatment plans. Some PAs even write prescriptions. Since you are an “assistant,” however, you’ll always practice under a doctor’s supervision.

There are specialties within the field of physician assisting, such as surgery and emergency room care. (A surgical PA, for example, is the one who responds when the surgeon commands, “Scalpel!”) In all cases, you’ll provide assistance to the doctors you work for in addition to caring for patients to a certain extent on your own. And while your paycheck won’t look quite the same as the doctors’ you’re assisting, it’s a rewarding way to combine your love of medicine with a true desire to help people.


  • Cardiology

  • Clinical Decision Making

  • Clinical Procedures

  • Clinically Oriented Anatomy

  • Health Systems

  • History Taking

  • Medical Ethics

  • Pathophysiology

  • Pharmacology

  • Physical Assessment

  • Physical Examination

  • Physiology

  • Preventive Medicine


A strong background in math and science will be to your benefit as you begin your major in physician assisting, so load up your schedule with upper-level courses such as physics, calculus, and chemistry. Physician assistants must also be good communicators, so be sure to hone your reading and writing skills in humanities courses such as English and languages. Some hospitals, nursing homes, or social services organizations accept volunteers, which may give you some good hands-on experience.