What do Physician Assistants Do?
Physician Assistants (PA’s) are health care providers who work under the supervision of physicians to diagnose and treat patients. They take medical histories, perform physical exams, order and interpret diagnostic tests, perform procedures, and prescribe medications. Most work in primary care areas such as pediatrics, internal medicine, emergency medicine, family medicine or obstetrics and gynecology, or in surgical subspecialties. The majority practice in a clinic, hospital, or urgent care center. Students who are interested in working with patients but do not see themselves undertaking at least 7 years of preparation to become a physician may find this career very attractive. There is a high demand for practitioners and job satisfaction among PA’s is also very high, in fact, higher than among physicians. (However, Genetics majors more frequently opt to become physicians.)
What training is required to become a Physician Assistant?
Following the Bachelor degree, a 24-28 month Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) must be completed in an accredited program. There are four accredited programs in the state of Iowa, with the program at the University of Iowa consistently ranking among the top one or two in the country. After completing the training, you are eligible to sit for the PANCE, Physician Assistant National Certification Exam, and apply for licensure in the state in which you intend to practice.
How do I best prepare for admission to a Physician Assistant Program?
Coursework: While the courses taken for the Genetics major cover all the prerequisite Statistics, Chemistry and Biochemistry classes needed for admission, you will need to include classes in both human anatomy and physiology. You can choose to take either BIOL 255 & L (Fundamentals of Human Anatomy) or BIOL 350 (Comprehensive Human Anatomy) and BIOL 256 & L (Fundamentals of Human Physiology) or BIOL 335 & L (Principles of Human and Other Animal Physiology). The 200 level courses will be electives but the 300 level courses will fulfill requirements for advanced science electives (“the 6-credit area”).
GPA: You should attempt to achieve a cumulative GPA equal to or exceeding the mean GPA of successful applicants to the PA schools you are considering. These are generally available on the schools’ websites. The mean GPA’s are in the 3.6 range which is much higher than the minimum 3.0 for eligibility.
Other Requirements and Recommendations:
At least 1000 hours of direct patient care (not job shadowing) are required before entrance into an MPA program. The number varies by program. The best route to achieve this may be to train and work as a CNA or EMT or become a medical assistant. It may not be possible to accumulate the number of hours needed (most successful applicants have 2000 or more) during your undergraduate career so a gap year or two is not uncommon. This is reflected in the average age of 25-26 among admitted students.
Either the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) or the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) is also required. The GRE is not subject based and so could be taken at any time, including after graduation. However, if planning to take the MCAT, we recommend doing so either after your Junior year or during your senior year if not applying for admission directly following graduation because it tests over specific material. Depending on the program, MCAT scores may be accepted for up to 10 years. You should select PSYCH 101 (Introduction to Psychology) and SOC 134 (Introduction to Sociology) among your social sciences choices because these subjects are tested on the MCAT. You should have completed these, your Statistics (101 or 104) choice, the 300 level Biology and Genetics classes, Chemistry and Biochemistry sequences through BBMB 405, and Physics 111 and 112 before taking the MCAT. Consider becoming a tutor or SI leader for General Chemistry or Organic Chemistry as a way to be paid for reviewing material before taking the MCAT.
As with other careers, we recommend that you include undergraduate research in your program of studies. Research helps you to develop organizational, problem-solving, analytical, and communication skills and a close relationship with mentors who can then provide meaningful letters of recommendation. Teaching experience (as a tutor, undergraduate TA or LA, peer mentor, or SI leader) will be valuable in developing communication skills and learning how to interact with a variety of individuals.