John R. and Kathy R. Hairston College of Health and Human Sciences

What is a Physician Assistant?

Studying to be a physician assistant (PA) is one of the most rewarding graduate degree opportunities in today's growing range of health care fields. And with good reason: PAs work on the front lines of medicine alongside doctors and providing medical treatment. The work in nearly all primary and specialty medical fields, from pediatrics to cardiology.

PA responsibilities include conducting patient exams, diagnosing illnesses, creating treatment plans, writing prescriptions, assisting doctors in surgery and more. In some rural areas, PAs provide care for whole communities alongside supervising doctors.

Under state law, PAs are considered independent clinicians. Laws governing PAs vary from state to state, as do specific duties or functions that PAs are allowed to perform. They work in a variety of settings -- hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, schools, correctional facilities and more.  

PAs receive training similar to that of a medical student, and that begins with a bachelor's degree with science-focused coursework. After that, students must complete a physician’s assistant program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. 

Most programs take about two years of study for students to earn a master's degree in PA Studies. In addition to classroom education, students undertake at least 2,000 clinical rotation hours. Before they are allowed to practice, PAs are required to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Upon completion, they may practice with physician assistant certified (PA-C) credentials.

PAs are required to take 100 continuing education credit hours every two years to maintain certification, as well as a recertification exam every 10 years.


The average PA salary in North Carolina is $102,261, according to the employment and compensation site Indeed. A North Carolina PA with 10 years or more experience could expect to earn $128,385, on average. Nationally, the average base salary is $115,336, while more experienced PAs earn, on average, $144,800, reports Indeed.