Becoming a Doctor's Assistant: Salary Information & Job Description

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A doctor's assistant earns a median annual salary of about $97,000. Is it worth the education, training and licensure requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a doctor's assistant is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Being a Doctor's Assistant

Doctor's assistants, often called physician assistants (PAs), treat patients under the supervision of a physician or surgeon and, unlike medical assistants who perform basic routine care, perform complex diagnostic procedures. Following are some pros and cons of being a doctor's assistant or PA that can help in deciding whether or not this position is right for you.

Pros of Being a Doctor's Assistant
High income (average of about $97,000 annually in May 2014)*
Faster-than-average job growth (38% expected from 2012-2022)*
Can complete training program in as little as two years*
Able to help save lives*

Cons of Being a Doctor's Assistant
Assisting doctors with complex procedures can be stressful*
Need to become licensed*
May require standing for long periods during surgery cases*
Schedule may vary week-to-week and could involve early mornings, late nights, weekends and be on-call* (based on physician's work hours)*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Duties, Career and Salary Info

As a doctor's assistant, your duties will be based on the requirements of your supervising physician and your state's healthcare laws. You'll most likely examine patients to evaluate health risks, take medical histories and make initial diagnoses based on laboratory results or body scans. You may also treat wounds and injuries by casting, splinting or suturing the affected area, provide therapeutic and emotional care management, follow up with patients after procedures and supervise lower-level medical staff. You can even prescribe medicine as needed.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), if you plan on working in a rural or urban area - where a doctor is only available once or twice a week - you may serve as the primary caregiver for patients. In this circumstance, you might visit patients at home, in a hospital or nursing care facility to provide feedback to the attending physician.


Just as physicians can specialize, so can physician assistants. You might consider focusing on psychiatry, pediatrics, surgery or even emergency and family medicine, among other options. Your duties will differ depending on your specialty and the type of doctor who supervises you.

Job Outlook and Salary

You may find pursuing a job as a doctor's assistant a worthwhile effort, since the BLS projected a much faster-than-average job growth from 2012-2022 at 38%. Doctor's assistants were expected to be in high demand to perform more primary care services as a way to cut healthcare costs. Additionally, job opportunities should be widely available in inner city and rural districts, since physician availability is limited in those areas.

As of May 2014, the BLS reported that physicians' offices, with hospitals and outpatient facilities coming in second and third, employed the largest number of doctor's assistants. During this time, most doctor's assistants earned between approximately $64,000 and $135,000. These earnings were significantly higher than those of medical assistants, most of whom earned roughly between $22,000 and $43,000.

Education and Training Requirements

To work as a doctor's assistant, or PA, in any state, you must pass the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants' (NCCPA) Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination. You need to graduate from an Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant-accredited PA program to qualify. After achieving a passing score on the exam, you will be awarded the Physician Assistant-Certified credential. Every two years, you're required to complete at least 100 credits of continuing medical education; every six years, you must pass the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam.

You can complete formal training in at least two years through a program at a medical or allied health school. Master's degree programs are most common, but some schools offer bachelor's degree programs; associate's degree and graduate certificate programs are least commonly awarded. Typical topics covered in formal training include anatomy and physiology, clinical medicine and pharmacology, biochemistry and medical ethics. Additionally, most PAs already have a 4-year degree and experience in the medical field. A prior degree or experience may or may not be required, depending on the PA program you choose, according to the BLS. If you're interested in pursuing a specialty, you can choose from postgraduate programs in such areas as obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedic surgery and dermatology.

Career Skills

An important aspect of working as a doctor's assistant is being comfortable using medical tools and computer technology. Some of the most common tools and technologies used in this field, according to O*Net Online, include artery forceps, central venous pressure lines, defibrillators, scalpel blades, ChartWare software and electronic medical record software.

The BLS reports that physician assistants need to be detail oriented, emotionally stable and compassionate. These traits will help you stay focused and follow directions, as well as stay calm while working under pressure.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Depending on the state in which you plan to work and the level of services you'll provide, some employers may require that you have a bachelor's or master's degree. Also, employers may include nurse practitioners when advertising for PA positions. Below is a list of real job postings from February 2012 for physician's assistants:

  • A hospital in Maryland looked for candidates with a Bachelor of Science and NCCPA certification, at least two years of clinical care experience and training in hospital acute care.
  • A Pennsylvania hospital healthcare system sought PA or nurse pracitioner (NP)candidates to act as a contact between patients, nurses and physicians. PA applicants needed to have or be eligible for state licensure as a physician assistant; basic life support and CPR certification and experience in oncology was required for all candidates.
  • A multi-specialty clinic in Ohio looked for a PA or NP for a full-time position. The PA candidate was required to be a graduate of an accredited program and possess NCCPA certification.
  • A medical research company in Georgia sought a PA or NP with a 4-year degree, CPR or basic life support certification and at least two years of experience working in a hospital. The company preferred one year of experience performing clinical trials.

How to Stand Out in the Field

One way to stand out as a physician's assistant is to earn basic life support and CPR certification. Some employers require such certification, and certification may be considered an asset by those employers that do not require it. The American Heart Association offers both online and classroom-based basic life support courses for healthcare professionals. Basic life support certification must be renewed every two years. The American Red Cross offers training and certification in CPR, first aid and automated external defibrillator (AED) that meet U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other professional standards.

Other Career Paths

Nurse Practitioner

If you'd like to take care of patients independently and be a primary caregiver without becoming a physician, you might be interested in becoming a nurse practitioner. According to the Mayo School of Health Sciences, NPs also provide counseling and therapeutic support, examine patients and interpret test results. NPs are licensed to prescribe medication to some degree in all U.S. states.

Since NPs are also registered nurses (RNs), you need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses. Qualifying as a nurse practitioner involves completing clinical training and advanced education, so a bachelor's degree in nursing is typically the minimum education needed. The Mayo Clinic reports that most NPs have a master's degree. According to, the median salary for nurse practitioners in May 2012 was about $91,000.


If being a physician assistant wouldn't provide the amount of responsibility or income level you desire, and you're willing to invest eleven or more years into completing your education, you might consider becoming a physician. As a physician, you could choose from a variety of specialties, such as family medicine, surgery, anesthesiology and psychiatry. Aspiring physicians must complete medical school, which generally requires at least a bachelor's degree for admission. An allopathic medical school leads to a Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree, and an osteopathic medical school leads to the Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree.

Aspiring physicians must then complete 3-8 years of internship and residency requirements, depending upon specialty, and pass either the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination. Requirements vary by state medical board. Employment for physicians and surgeons was projected to grow by 24% from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, the mean annual salary for physicians and surgeons was about $185,000.

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