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Physician Assistant

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Overall Score
(7.6 out of 10)

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Median Salary


Unemployment Rate

1.2 percent

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If you search for images of physician assistants online, you’ll find photo after photo of smiling men and women in crisp white lab coats holding stethoscopes to children’s chests or taking patients’ blood pressure. This paints the picture of a calm job. It looks simple and routine. But an element of unpredictability belies this perception of physician assistants and the important job they do caring for the sick and injured. Weather is partly to blame for the fluctuations and inconsistency in the job: During warmer months, more patients come in with sports- or outdoor-related injuries, while the colder months unleash a flood of flu cases on hospitals and clinics, says Kwenda Johnson, a physician assistant at Arboretum Urgent Care in Charlotte, N.C. On a daily basis, physician assistants must be prepared for wild patient-to-patient swings. “You have to change pages quickly from someone who has a cold to someone with a laceration to someone who has burned himself,” Johnson says.

Working under the supervision of doctors, physician assistants interpret X-rays and blood tests, record patient progress, conduct routine physical exams and treat a range of ailments. The extent doctors must supervise them varies by state and medicine speciality, and often takes the form of reviewing medical records or checking in with a patient after the physician assistant has finished caring for him or her. “You have to humble yourself because sometimes the doctor disagrees with you. That part is OK because the patient wins,” Johnson says. “I don’t feel like my patients are losing out in any form by seeing me rather than the doctor.” Physician assistants practice in primary care and family medicine, psychiatry and emergency medicine. Johnson says in recent years, it has become more common to specialize in an area of medicine, which offers physician assistants the ability to change focal points throughout their career.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an astounding 38.4 percent employment growth in this profession between 2012 and 2022. To frame this rapid increase another way, the BLS expects an industry currently boasting 86,700 physicians assistants to add 33,300 new positions by decade’s end. A trio of factors spurring this growth include heightened demand for health care services from the country’s swelling aging population, increased prevalence of chronic diseases and a physician shortage that has become more serious in recent years. Couple the growth projection with a razor-thin 1.2 percent unemployment rate – one of the lowest on our Best Jobs of 2014 list – and the job outlook for physician assistants is quite strong.


Physician assistants raked in a median annual salary of $90,930 in 2012, according to the BLS. The top-earning 10 percent in the profession made approximately $124,770, while the lowest 10 percent of the pay spectrum brought in about $62,430. As one might expect, doctors’ offices, general medical and surgical facilities, and outpatient care centers employed the most physician assistants in 2012. Professionals working in speciality hospitals and home health care services were the best compensated. The highest-paid in the industry reside in the metropolitan areas of Racine, Wis., Texarkana, Texas, and Tyler, Texas.

Salary Range

75th Percentile $108,580
Median $90,930
25th Percentile $78,640


Providing top-notch medical care is serious business, which is reflected by the stringent educational requirements for gaining entry to this field. Physician assistants typically need a master’s degree from one of 170 accredited educational programs, which usually take two years of full-time study to complete and are best suited for students with two to four years of undergraduate science coursework under their belt. Supervised clinical training is a significant component of the educational programs. Aspiring physician assistants participate in hundreds of hours of training in a variety of specialities, including family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics.

All states plus the District of Columbia require practicing professionals to hold a license, which is obtained by passing a certifying exam from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. To maintain certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education and pass a recertification exam every 10 years, the latter of which is a new requirement in 2014.

Reviews & Advice

Since physician assistants must make the complicated comprehendible, excellent communication skills are essential. Aside from explaining medical concepts to patients, they must also flex their communication muscles when interacting with other medical professionals – whether they’re doctors, nurses or medical assistants – on their team and possibly at other hospitals or clinics. Being observant and detail-oriented, especially in the midst of the job’s hustle and bustle, is another quality someone looking to break into this field should exhibit. For Johnson, one of the most important qualities every physician assistant should have is an unwavering passion for the well-being of the patients he or she treats. For someone looking to pursue a career as a physician assistant, she advises: “Make sure that you really enjoy medicine – enjoy helping people feel better. You really have to be a health cheerleader.”

Job Satisfaction

Upward Mobility fair Average
Stress Level poor Above Average
Flexibility fair Average
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Last updated by Nathan Hellman.

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