How Long Is PA School? A Walkthrough of the PA Journey
Are you thinking about pursuing a career as a PA? If you’re wondering how long your overall PA journey will take, there are a few variables to consider first. The pathway to becoming a PA varies depending on where you are in your career and your educational background. Here’s an overview of how long PA school can take to give you a better idea of your path forward.
What are the general requirements for becoming a PA?
To become a certified PA (PA-C), you must obtain your Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS), which takes about two years. This is in addition to acquiring a Bachelor’s degree, which takes roughly an additional four years.
The events leading up to the graduate portion of the program are anything but linear, however, so the question “how long is PA school?” is nuanced. Within your PA program, you’ll learn alongside a wide range of people who came to PA school at different ages and from diverse backgrounds. The PA journey will look different for everyone, which is the beauty of this profession!
What do I need to do to apply to PA school?
All pre-PA students will need to gain patient care experience, shadowing experience, and complete PA school prerequisite courses before applying to PA school. In regards to the amount of each necessary, this varies per program. Be sure to have your ideal programs in mind prior to applying to make sure you will meet the criteria!
In addition, some programs will require you to take the GRE prior to applying. Make sure you know whether your top programs require the GRE or other PA school entrance exams, as you will need a lot of time to prepare and take the exam prior to submitting your applications.
How long is PA school?
Most PA programs are split roughly into two parts: didactic year and clinical year. As a PA student (PA-S), it’s common to refer to yourself as a PA-S1 during your didactic year and PA-S2 during your clinical year before becoming a PA-C.
The didactic and clinical portions of PA school are each about one year long, making the average PA program between two to two-and-a-half years. If possible, it’s a good idea not to work during the program given the rigorous, ever-changing schedule and the need to be able to study outside of classes and clinical rotations.
Didactic year (PA-S1)
Many will describe the PA didactic year as a whirlwind of information. This is the classroom learning portion of the program. It involves a multitude of topics, including anatomy, pathology, and clinical conditions, among all organ systems as well as their diagnosis and treatment. You will also have labs, which will teach you how to perform a physical exam and surgical skills.
The structure of these courses varies per program. Oftentimes, your class layout will vary daily and go from early in the day to later in the afternoon or evening with a multitude of breaks in between. You should expect to be on campus Monday through Friday, with even the potential for weekend commitments depending on the program. You should also expect to have many didactic year exams during this portion of PA school, often multiple per week.
Clinical year (PA-S2)
The clinical portion of PA school involves hands-on experience and teaches you how to practice medicine through clinical rotations. During this time, you’ll attend ~40 hours per week of clinical rotations where you’ll gain experience in different PA specialties.
Rotations typically last four to six weeks, depending on the program. There are some required specialties you will need to rotate through regardless of the program you’re in, including general surgery, pediatrics, primary care, internal medicine, emergency medicine, women’s health, and psychiatry.
Most programs then allow you to pick one or two specialties to gain experience outside of the required rotations. Oftentimes, programs use additional rotations to help students gain more experience in a field they’d like to pursue or if they struggle with a topic. For example, if someone finds cardiology challenging they may choose an elective cardiology rotation to gain experience before the PANCE. You should expect a range of commutes or even the possibility of traveling during the clinical year of the program. Rotations can vary by program, so be sure to understand the rotation structures at the schools you apply to.
End-of-rotation exams & the PANCE
Although you may not have the traditional class layout during clinical year, you will definitely have some studying to do. Each PA program may be a bit different, but in any program, during this time you will prepare for end-of-rotation exams (EORs) and the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam (PANCE). EORs are given at the end of each of the required clinical rotations. They typically follow PANCE-style questions and are used to ensure students are where they should be following these important rotations.
You’re eligible to take the PANCE after graduating from a certified PA program. You can schedule your PANCE exam date at your own pace. For example, I took the exam about two weeks after graduating, while others in my program may have waited a month or so to have more prep time. The PANCE compiles topics learned throughout PA school, and you should plan to begin studying during your clinical year. You cannot practice as a PA-C until you have passed the PANCE.
Not everyone will follow the timeline above for obtaining their MSPAS to become a PA-C. For example, some programs offer a 5-year fast-track program combined with undergrad. In order to pursue this, you would need to know you want to practice as a PA prior to obtaining your undergraduate degree. If you have yet to attend college and are set on this career path, this may be a great opportunity for you! This reduces the overall time of studying by about one year, which subsequently can help reduce costs associated with additional schooling.
In addition to the possibility of a shorter timeline, there are always circumstances that could extend it. As mentioned above, there are certain prerequisites that need to be met in order to apply for various PA programs. If you find yourself near completion of your undergraduate degree without all the prerequisites met, you may need to take additional classes prior to applying to the program.
In addition, if you struggle academically during the PA program, you may be required to repeat a course. This could result in the extension of a semester or even one year depending on how often the course is offered. You are unable to take extended time off during the PA program, so if other life circumstances come up, this could also delay your degree.
And, of course, if you do not pass the PANCE at the end of the program, you are required to retake this. Before you retake the exam, you have to wait an additional 3 months prior to eligibility.
Additional career shadowing
Personally, I had little experience with PAs prior to my undergraduate years. I knew I wanted to practice medicine, but I was not sure which specific career was right for me. I enrolled in my undergraduate university and took a pre-med track. From there, I shadowed various different careers, including physicians, pharmacists, and, of course, PAs!
After these experiences, I decided to look further into the PA track. From there, I researched many different programs in areas of the country I would consider moving to. After interviewing at a few schools, I ended up at a program a few states away from where I was currently living.
Keep in mind, PA school is competitive! The more programs you are willing to apply to, the better chance you have of acceptance. I had a wonderful experience, and I have now been practicing as a PA for one year. Can’t wait to see you out there!