How to Become a Surgical Physician Assistant


A surgical physician assistant works at the direction of a surgeon to assist in the surgical setting before, during and after surgery. Such physician assistants are highly trained and adeptly skilled in providing adequate care, diagnosis, recommendations, testing, surgical assistance and outpatient services related to operations. Becoming a surgical physician assistant offers a diverse career path with the option of specializing in a variety of surgical procedures such as cardiovascular surgery, general surgery or head and neck surgery. Becoming a surgical physician assistant will demand time and dedication to education, experience, clinical residency and practice.

Things You'll Need

  • High school diploma
  • Attend college and graduate with a bachelor's degree in a field that will give you an opportunity to work in a health care setting. Some options include nursing programs, health science programs, health care administration and nutrition programs, to name a few. The key is to get a degree affording you the opportunity to gain experience in a health care setting. You will also need to take a strong foundation of scientific-related courses similar to pre-med, such as biological sciences, organic chemistry and physiology.

  • Work in the health care field upon graduation for a period of four years. All accredited physical assistant programs (including surgical) will require you to have two to four years of experience working in the health care field, in addition to your bachelor's degree. The average applicant has four years of experience in health care settings.

  • Apply for, gain admission and graduate from an accredited surgical physician assistant master's degree program. If you are able to go this route, you can seek licensure upon graduation; otherwise, you will need to enter into a physician assistant program that does not specialize in surgery. Upon graduation from the program, you will need to complete an approved residency to gain required expertise in the surgical environment. You may also choose to enter a residency program regardless of the program you graduate from to gain valuable experience in the surgical setting.

  • Take the national certification exam offered by the National Commission for the Certification of PAs, as passing this exam will be required in order to receive licensure from the states in which you wish to practice.

  • Apply for licensure in the states in which you wish to work. Each state will have its own application process and procedures. The aforementioned steps will make you eligible to apply for licensure in all states; however, keep in mind that passing scores on the national exam required by state licensing boards will vary from state to state. Keep in mind, as well. that the scope of practice for a surgical PA will vary from state to state. All states allow the PA to prescribe medication, but the degree of independence afforded the PA will vary considerably.

  • Maintain your national certification, by completing 100 hours of continuing education every two years. You will also be required to take a re-certification exam once every six years to keep your national certification and state licensure.

Tips & Warnings

  • The average physician assistant program takes just over 26 months to complete. Year one usually focuses on classroom studies, while year two will focus on clinical rotations in private practice and institutional settings. Expect to take courses related to anatomy, physiology, microbiology and biochemistry, to name a few.
  • Employment opportunities abound for the surgical physician assistant, as the field is the fastest growing in the health care industry. One of the best places to begin your job search is with the American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants.
  • You cannot use the title "physician assistant" until you have passed the national certification exam. At any point, if you do not re-certify, likewise, you are not eligible to make use of the title.

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  • Photo Credit laparoscopic surgery image by Grzegorz Kwolek from
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