Physician Assistant

A Few Facts About the PA Profession

  • Physician assistant programs usually last at least 2 years; admission requirements vary by program, but many require at least 2 years of college and some health care experience.
  • All States require physician assistants to complete an accredited education program and to pass a national exam in order to obtain a license.
  • Physician assistants rank among the fastest growing occupations, as physicians and health care institutions increasingly utilize physician assistants in order to contain costs.
  • Job opportunities should be good, particularly in rural and inner city clinics.

What does a Physician Assistant do?

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 the health care team, they take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and x rays, and make diagnoses. They also treat minor injuries, by suturing, splinting, and casting. PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy. In 48 States and the District of Columbia, physician assistants may prescribe medications. PAs also may have managerial duties. Some order medical supplies or equipment and supervise technicians and assistants.

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician. However, PAs may be the principal care providers in rural or inner city clinics, where a physician is present for only 1 or 2 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 may make house calls or go to hospitals and nursing care facilities to check on patients, after which they report back to the physician.

The duties of physician assistants are determined by the supervising physician and by State law. Aspiring PAs should investigate the laws and regulations in the States in which they wish to practice.

This information comes directly from the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Dept. of Labor. For additionl information on the PA profession, training, employment, job outlook, and salaries go to Use the A to Z menu and click on the link for Physician Assistant.

Undergraduate Preparation  

Undergraduate Preparation

Choosing a Major

There is no formal “Pre physician assistant” major. Physician Assistant programs are interested in broadly educated students who have developed excellent writing and speaking skills, possess analytic and synthetic thinking ability, and are enthusiastic, life-long learners. Understanding of the social aspects of rehabilitation medicine is just as important as understanding the science. Your major will not determine your success in applying to PT school. Your interests should determine your choice of major. Majoring in an area that you enjoy is more likely to lead to academic success than pursuing a field for which you have little enthusiasm. Regardless of your major, it is necessary to demonstrate a mastery of science; proficiency in other areas will not compensate for lack of science ability.

The benefits of choosing to major in one of the sciences is that many of the courses required to prepare for clinical medical careers and the associated standardized tests can be satisfied as part of the science degree requirements. Therefore, a student can prepare for PA school, while also satisfying degree requirements, without taking too many additional courses.

Note: Although some PA programs say that they will accept applications from students who have not completed a bachelors degree, in order to be a competitive applicant it is strongly recommended that you complete an undergraduate degree prior to entering a PA program.

Prerequisites Coursework

Entrance requirements for the Physician Assistants Program at MUSC include:







Statistics or Biostatistics


General Chemistry - includes lab


*Organic or Biochemistry


Biology - includes lab


Anatomy and Physiology 221 and 222 - including labs


Microbiology - includes lab


Behavioral Sciences - General Psychology (required) plus six credits of Psychology electives and/or Sociology courses




Electives - Communication, Computer Science, Epidemiology, and Medical Terminology suggested. Courses must be liberal arts/sciences and not professional or technical in nature


       * Some PA Programs (inlcuding the PA Program at the Medical University of South Carolina) are

          now requiring one semester of Biochemistry (3 CH) CofC students must complete two semesters

          of Organic Chemistry (CHEM 231 & 232 plus labs) in order to enroll in Biochemistry (CHEM 351)

Completion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).

The writing component of the GRE will be required for the 2005 application cycle. Applicants who took the GRE prior to 2002 must take the writing section at this time.

90 semester hours of prerequisite courses.

Applicants for admission are expected to complete their general education and support course requirements prior to admission to the professional physician assistant curriculum. The prerequisite general education requirements not only conform to college-wide degree requirements, but also include those courses deemed essential for preparation for the physician assistant curriculum.

Courses can only be applied towards the prerequisite requirement if a grade of "C" or higher was earned. Combined Anatomy and Physiology courses are accepted; however, you MUST take Anatomy and Physiology I and II to fulfill the separate Anatomy and Physiology requirements.

It is preferred that prerequisite coursework in Science, Math, and Behavioral Science have been completed within the past 10 years. Coursework in these areas not taken within 10 years may not be deemed acceptable by the Program.

Note: C of C students preparing to apply to PA school should be aware that the completion of a bachelor's degree will make them a more competitive applicant, even when the school will accept 90 SH of coursework.Four years of undergraduate preparation allows time for students to explore, grow, mature, and have experiences that enrich their lives and make them better candidates.

*As of 2007, the entry-level masters PA Program is the only PA program in SC. Prerequisite requirements may vary for other PA programs throughout the US, please check the admission requirements for each school of interest.


Students are urged to do volunteer service in their intended Allied Health field. This is especially true for those interested in the Rehabilitation Sciences or a Physician Assistant program. You may volunteer only a few (e.g. 3) hours per week, but you must be dependable and your activities should extend over a significant period of time. The experience component of your applicant profile is increasingly important for some programs, so you should make the most of this opportunity. Also, you should ensure that someone familiar with your performance can serve as a reference.


Tests and Application  

Tests and Application

Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The GRE® (Graduate Record Examination) General Test measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking and analytical writing skills that have been acquired over a long period of time and that are not related to any specific field of study. The GRE Subject Tests gauge undergraduate achievement in eight specific fields of study and is often required for admission into a master's degree program. More detailed information about the GRE can be found at



Design an Academic Plan

First Year

Fall Semester

Explore various majors and declare as early as possible. As soon as you declare your major, you will be assigned an academic advisor within that department. Make sure to identify that you are a pre-health professions student on the major declaration form.

Make an appointment with your advisor to discuss professional goals and determine an academic game plan to ensure you will have taken all courses needed to prepare for standardized admissions tests in your field of interest by the time you take the exam (usually around the end of your junior year). Most PA programs require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) which is not subject specific.

As soon as you get settled into your classes, contact the Pre-professional Health Advisor, to make an advising appointment to discuss professional goals and discuss the necessary prerequisites, shadowing/volunteer work etc.

Spring Semester

Meet with your academic advisor to discuss your progress. Search for shadowing and volunteer opportunities in your field of interest. Explore areas of community outreach to establish your humanitarian interests.

First Summer

Shadowing/Work/ or volunteer to gain insight into your career choice.

Second Year

Fall Semester

Meet with your advisor to discuss your Spring schedule. Visit the Center for Student Learning and schedule a meeting with the Director to begin learning about the GRE. Continue working on your volulnteer hours.

Spring Semester

Discuss your academic progress with your advisor and adjust your academic plan, as needed. Meet with Pre-Health Professions Advisor to make review your progress and the next phase of preparation. Explore career options and alternatives, if your GPA is not adequate or your career interests have changed. Sign up to take a free practice GRE through Kaplan.

Second Summer

Work/volunteer to gain insight of your career choice. Explore available internship and research opportunities. Get involved in the community. Start researching the professional schools and visit their campus and schedule a meeting with their PA Director of Admissions/Program Director

Third Year

Fall Semester

Meet with your advisor to discuss Spring schedule. Get organized, order review booklets and practice tests to prepare for standardized exams. Explore various professional schools and determine to which ones you will apply. Pay special attention to appllication deadlines.

Spring Semester

Discuss your academic progress with your advisor. Meet with the Pre-Health Professions advisor to determine if your GPA is competitive and whether or not this is the year you should apply to professional school. (Contact the Pre-Health Advisor).

Collect materials needed to fill in application and start working on application essay. Apply and study for standardized admissions tests. Check the deadlines and do not miss them. Practice, practice, practice taking the standardized admissions test. Take the standardized admissions test and request that scores be released to the College of Charleston, schools to which you are applying. Request letters of evaluation from faculty and health professionals who know you well.

Third Summer

Continue to work/volunteer in your field of interest and community outreach projects. Organize application materials and make sure that everything is complete. Retake standardized admissions tests, if necessary.

Fourth Year

Fall Semester

Meet with your advisor. Get a degree audit and apply for graduation. Make sure your application materials are organized and submitted within the deadlines (earlier is always better than later when submitting application materials). Prepare for interviews (if applicable). Interview and wait. Search for sources of financial aid.

Spring Semester

Send updated transcripts directly to the professional schools to which you have applied. Sometimes it takes more than one try to get accepted. If you don't get accepted the first time, discuss options with the pre-health advisor.

Letters of Recommendation  

Letters of Recommendation

As part of the application process to various PA programs, you will be required to provide letters of reference (usually 3). Different programs may ask for these letters to come from specific individuals, such as science professors and a licensed PA. Check with the schools to which you will be applying to make sure that you are satisfying their criteria. If the application is done online, there are usually recommendation forms provided. You want to make sure the appropriate forms accompany any letters that are submitted on your behalf. Not using the recommended forms can delay processing of your application.

Online Resources  

Online Resources

The only academic program for physician assistants in South Carolina is located at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Information about their PA program is available at American Academy of Physician Assistants MUSC Physician Assistant Program

Frequently Asked Questions  

Frequently Asked Questions

Have a question you think should be addressed here? Contact Us

What areas of medicine can Physician Assistants work in?

Physician assistants (PAs) are found in all areas of medicine. They practice in the areas of primary care medicine - that is family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology -- as well in surgery and the surgical subspecialties. Physician assistants receive a broad education in medicine. Their education is ongoing after graduation through continuing medical education requirements and continual interaction with physicians and other health care providers.

Where do PAs "draw the line" as far as what they can treat and what a physician can treat?

What a physician assistant does varies with training, experience, and state law. In addition, the scope of the PA's practice corresponds to the supervising physician's practice. In general, a physician assistant will see many of the same types of patients as the physician. The cases handled by physicians are generally the more complicated medical cases or those cases which require care that is not a routine part of the PA's scope of work. Referral to the physician, or close consultation between the patient-PA-physician, is done for unusual or hard to manage cases. Physician assistants are taught to "know our limits" and refer to physicians appropriately. It is an important part of PA training.

Can PAs prescribe medications?

All fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have enacted laws that authorize PA prescribing. In California, PA prescriptions are referred to as written prescription transmittal orders.

Physicians and PAs

What do physicians think about Physician Assistants?

Most physicians who have worked with physician assistants like having PAs on staff. The American Medical Association, the American College of Surgeons, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians, and other national medical organizations support the physician assistant profession by actively supporting the PA certifying commission and the PA program accrediting agency.

Studies done by the Federal Government have shown that PAs, working with the supervision of physicians, provide care that is comparable to physician care. The Eighth Report to the President and Congress on the Status of Health Personnel in the United States (released in 1992) states, "Physician assistants have demonstrated their clinical effectiveness both in terms of quality of care and patient acceptance."

What is the working relationship between a physician and a physician assistant?

The relationship between a PA and the supervising physician is one of mutual trust and respect. The physician assistant is a representative of the physician, treating the patient in the style and manner developed and directed by the supervising physician. The physician and PA practice as members of a medical team. In 1995, the American Medical Association developed suggested guidelines for how physicians and PAs should work as a team in the delivery of medical care.

This information is taken directly from the website for the American Academy of Physician Assistants. For additional information about the PA profession go to

Becoming a PA

Do I have to be a science major to go to apply to PA schooll?

No. Your major is not important as long as you complete the pre-requisite course work to satisfy the admissions requirements and prepare for the standardized admissions test in your field of interest.

Will majoring in science give me an advantage in applying to PA school?

Not necessarily. Most schools are looking for well rounded students who have an aptitude for science. They do not give preference to science majors. Taking additional science courses may be beneficial in preparing for standardized exams, but the questions in standardized exams are based on knowledge found in introductory level science courses. The additional science background may also be especially helpful for preparation for the first two years of classes in medical school.

Can I get into PA school in less than 4 years?

Yes, however, this is not the norm and is not recommended for most students. The only PA program in South Carolina located at the Medical University of South Carolina requires a minimum of three years of undergraduate work or 90 hours to matriculate into their programs. However, PA school is highly competitive and the majority of applicants already have completed at least a bachelor's degree. Four years of undergraduate preparation allows time for students to explore, grow, mature, and have experiences that enrich their lives and make them better medical school candidate