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15 Best Degrees for Becoming a Physician Assistant What to study to get into PA school

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Managing Editor
Carrie Sealey-Morris has covered bootcamps, careers, and higher education for College Consensus since 2017. Carrie is a graduate of the University of New Mexico where she earned a B.A. in American Studies. 
Founder/Senior Editor
B.A., M.Div.
Jeremy Alder has spent over a decade researching and writing about higher education to provided students with the information they need to achieve their goals. He has significant personal experience with career transitions, working as a freelance writer and editor, non-profit director, community organizer, preacher, teacher, retail manager, and carpenter prior to founding College Consensus. Homeschooled from the second grade, Jeremy is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin (B.A., Philosophy) and Duke University Divinity School (M.Div.). He currently lives in North Carolina with his wife, five kids, and a Labradoodle named Hank.

Key Takeaways for Students:

  • There is no one major for a physician assistant
  • Many health science and medicine-related majors will prepare you for PA school
  • Getting into PA school is about your skills and drive, not your undergrad major

Thinking about becoming a physician assistant (PA)? It’s a rewarding career where you work alongside doctors to diagnose and treat patients. Many sites like Payscale and U. S. News and World Report rank Physician Assistant as a “Best Health Care Job.” But you might be wondering, what major should I choose to be a physician assistant?

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RankDegreeDegree TypesYears to Complete
1. PsychologyBA or BS4-5
2. BiochemistryBS4-5
3. EthicsBA4
4. KinesiologyBS4-5
5. ChemistryBS4
6.Biomedical ScienceBS4
7. Anatomy and PhysiologyBS4
8. MathematicsBA or BS4
9. MicrobiologyBS4-5
10. Human DevelopmentBA or BS4
11. Pharmaceutical SciencesBS4
13.Public HealthBA or BS4-5
14.Health ScienceBS4
15.Radiologic SciencesBS4-5

There’s not really a physician assistant major in college. After getting your bachelor’s, you’ll go on to PA school. But you might be surprised to learn that you don’t actually need a healthcare-related bachelor’s to enter PA school. You could literally major in marketing and go to PA school.

Some degrees will give you a leg up in your physician assistant studies, though. This article explores 15 of the best undergraduate majors to prepare you for PA school. These degrees will give you a strong foundation in science, healthcare, and communication – all essential skills for PAs.

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1. Psychology

Psychology is an excellent major for learning about either yourself or the people around you. Studying for a bachelor’s degree will provide you with insight into the factors that cause people to behave as they do. With this knowledge, you can determine what you need to do to help people as a physician assistant. It will even increase your compassion for others when they are behaving in a difficult manner.

The courses that you will have the opportunity to take will provide you with knowledge of the specialties within healthcare. These include abnormal psychology and psychiatry. In addition to that, you will be introduced to the full spectrum of psychology specialties. The bachelor’s degree is a great place to start when your intention is to move on to physician assistant school.

The curriculum provides you with instruction in the many areas of psychology as well as the diverse ideas and activities that are involved in this area of study. You will develop a broad knowledge of major theories and the sub-disciplines that are a part of the psychological sciences. Part of this course of study includes learning how to interpret statistical analyses and perform research with the ability to write research papers in APA style.

Courses you will be required to take include biology, analytical thinking, multicultural and international, social science, and general psychology. You also have the choice of taking courses in:

  • abnormal psychology
  • social psychology
  • cognitive psychology
  • neuroscience

This course of study provides you with a broad and general treatment of psychology, and it will prepare you to move forward in your medical career.

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2. Biochemistry

Biochemistry is another excellent option for a future physician assistant. This major will take you to the beginning of human healthcare by introducing you to the extensive knowledge of living organisms. This means that you will learn about living things on an organismal, cellular and genetic level. The study of chemistry relates directly to living organisms on cellular and molecular levels so that you can understand biological concepts.

Biochemistry courses are the foundation that you will need when you arrive at physician assistant school. They include several courses, such as organic chemistry, genetics, cellular biology, chemistry and biology.

As a physician assistant, you will contact patients even more than with the physician. Your biochemistry major will give you the opportunity to take electives in psychology or sociology so that you will have the means to communicate with your patients effectively. Communication is a very important skill to master for someone in the medical field. Then, you will have the means to work in any medical practice that you choose.

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3. Ethics

Ethics is an extremely valuable course for people in the medical field. The decision-making process encompasses several areas, such as what the patient’s insurance company will allow, issues of informed consent, the patient’s wishes, medical ethics, and how the medical field is limited. Ethics courses will expand your mind to think in ways that you never imagined.

At times, you will encounter unpleasant things in your job as a physician assistant, but a course in ethics will give you the chance to examine these difficult topics in a classroom setting. You will be prepared to address these issues with patients when you must give them news they do not want to hear.

An introductory ethics course teaches you several theories in this genre, including the theory of virtue and vice, the theory of goodness and badness, and the theory of right and wrong actions. The course will be instrumental in teaching you how to read philosophical literature and then explain it, evaluate it and analyze it as you develop your own ethical positions. This course is important for teaching you how to think critically and analytically with regard to ethical issues.

With an ethics degree, you can provide the best care for your patients. It will be your duty to treat your patients legally and morally, so it is imperative that you know the laws of ethics before you begin your career. Because what the law will require of you and your ethical expectations will not always be on the same page, a degree in ethics would be a highly desirable degree for you to have in this profession.

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4. Kinesiology

Kinesiology is a course of study focusing on health and wellness, physical activity, and sports. If you are interested in becoming a physician assistant for a sports physician, this would be an excellent major for you. With this degree, you will learn how to help athletes prevent injuries, decrease the time it takes for them to heal from injuries, and improve their bodies’ abilities to move and function. Kinesiology also allows you to be involved in the community. For example, your profession will be at the forefront of helping ordinary people increase their physical activity and improve their quality of life.

As a kinesiology student, you will study how physical activity affects the human body. The program also focuses heavily on sports as a business and as part of the larger community. Therefore, you can earn different degrees in kinesiology, including sport management, movement science and applied exercise science.

Kinesiology allows you to take a course in motor control. In this course, you will learn about movement and the control of movement throughout a human being’s lifetime. Exercise physiology educates you on the cardiovascular, hormonal and metabolic responses to physical activity. Biomechanics instructs you about the mechanics that are involved in human movement. The knowledge you will gain from studying kinesiology will prepare you to work in an athletic setting and will be ideal if you are a sports fan.

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5. Chemistry

Chemistry is a natural science that focuses on the properties of substances and the changes of these substances. It also focuses heavily on the natural laws that describe these changes. Chemicals are in absolutely everything, so they are abundant in medicine. As a matter of fact, one of the most important uses for chemicals is in new medications that cure or treat several diseases and disorders.

Chemistry is a field of study that helps you gain analytical skills, and these skills are important for a career as a physician assistant. It is at the forefront of the medical profession and will teach you infinite lessons on caring for your patients. For example, with your knowledge of chemistry, you will be aware of the possible interactions between medications, which will be highly valuable as a physician assistant.

You will have several options for chemistry courses in the program that you choose. For example, you may be able to select:

  • general chemistry
  • organic chemistry
  • analytical chemistry
  • inorganic chemistry

You learn several important skills from studying chemistry that will benefit you as a physician assistant. For example, you will be introduced to very sophisticated equipment that you will use to examine your patients. You will also learn how to take chemical information and critically analyze and synthesize it as you present it to an audience. You will be an expert in working in a laboratory and providing data analysis. Lastly, you will be able to use chemistry principles to solve problems in a medical setting.

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6. Biomedical Science

Biomedical science is the study of biology as it specifically relates to healthcare. Therefore, it is an appropriate field of study for a physician assistant. With a major in biomedical science, you will take courses in:

  • kinesiology
  • nutrition
  • biochemistry
  • epidemiology
  • anatomy
  • physiology

This field of study will lay the foundation for your future studies as a physician assistant.

A biomedical science degree lays the groundwork for studying human health and disease as it focuses on biological and molecular sciences. The program you will be involved in will include courses, laboratory work, and research opportunities that will benefit your communication skills, writing skills, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Graduates from this program are fully prepared to continue on to further postgraduate studies in healthcare.

Courses in biomedical science include human medical genetics, human microbiology, human physiology and clinical human anatomy. After you are finished, you will have learned highly valuable skills. These include project management, data analysis, safe experimentation, and research and observation.

7. Anatomy and Physiology

One of the most obvious majors for someone in the medical field is “anatomy and physiology.” Most pre-med students choose this major for their undergraduate careers, but it is also a great fit for a future physician assistant. The science of anatomy identifies the body’s structures and describes them. The first thing you will need as a physician assistant is the knowledge you will obtain in your anatomy courses.

Physiology studies how the human body functions. You will learn the physics and the chemistry behind the human body’s functions. For example, you will learn how the molecules in your body behave in your cells. It is the full study of how the human body works when it is in proper working order. In addition to that, you will learn what is happening within the body’s cells and molecules when illness is present.

In your studies, you will learn about the body’s systems, including the reproductive system, the digestive system, the endocrine system, the respiratory system, the muscular system, and the skeletal system. You may also be introduced to microscopic anatomy and the study of tissues and cells of human beings, plants, and animals. The specimens you will be dealing with in this course of study will require you to use a microscope to see them.

This degree prepares you to take biopsies from your patients and analyze them to diagnose their diseases.

8. Mathematics

Mathematics doesn’t seem like the typical undergraduate course of study for a career as a physician assistant, but it is actually highly useful for this purpose. Courses in science and medicine are very important for a career in the medical field, and you need to have strong mathematical skills to excel in those courses. In addition, you are very likely to be confronted with math while engaging in your duties as a physician assistant.

You will find several opportunities to perform mathematical calculations as a physician assistant. You can also be assured that you will need to understand statistics. You may also choose to study algebra, calculus, trigonometry or mathematical modeling.

A mathematics major would be highly beneficial for you when you need to calculate the right amount of medication for your patients. It may also require that you make mathematical conversions, such as converting one type of measurement into another. This is critically important! If you fail to convert the dose into exactly the right dose that the physician prescribed, you may administer too much or too little of the medication to your patient, and this could be very dangerous. Time may be of the essence when performing these calculations, so as a physician assistant, you will need to be very familiar with performing such calculations.

9. Microbiology

Microbiology studies living organisms that are too small to be seen without a microscope. These microorganisms include algae, protozoa, prions, fungi, viruses, archaea and bacteria. Called “microbes,” they are involved in the mechanisms that cause diseases, so microbiology is a necessary topic of study in the medical field for several reasons.

“Microbiology” is an example of an undergraduate course in microbiology. In this course, you will study the microorganisms that live on and within the human body. You will also begin to learn about the many pathogens that can make the body sick and the tests that must be performed to diagnose the illness. You also learn about the natural immunities that protect the body from dangerous microorganisms.

Microbiology is highly useful for a physician assistant because you will need to know the microbiology terminology as you work in your chosen profession. You will need to know how to recognize the most common diseases and the signs and symptoms of those illnesses. It is also helpful to know how often a disease occurs and how often people die of the disease. Your studies in microbiology will place you in the best position to be prepared to diagnose diseases.

10. Human Development

Human development studies how the environment causes people to change throughout their lives. Specifically, it studies the developmental processes that human beings go through at each stage of their lives. This is the area of study where you will learn how people develop socially, emotionally, and cognitively. It is seen through the prism of individuals, families, and communities. Human development requires studying nutrition, social science, and biological science. Observation techniques will also be a part of the curriculum. Along with studying how human beings develop normally, you will also study abnormal development in children and adults.

You will be able to study several sciences, including chemistry and biology. This program also requires that you study statistics, mathematics, and nutrition. Along with those classes, you will also take courses in human development. For example, human development is where you will learn several highly important studies, including the development of identity, moral development, separation and individuation, adolescent cognitive development, self-concept and self-esteem, family and school influences, social development, language development, learning, attachment, and temperament.

After you complete your human development studies, you will know how human beings develop within their families, within a community, and within the larger society. You may choose to focus on older adults, adolescents, or early childhood.

The skills you learn from a human development program will transfer to your career as a physician assistant. For example, you will be ready to help those in need in familial groups, in the community or individually. You will also have experience in keeping people from falling into the use of drugs or alcohol as well as the knowledge to stage an intervention. You will be able to recognize the problems that your patients are having, and you will be able to refer them to human service agencies or other appropriate professionals if this is the best course of action.

11. Pharmaceutical Sciences

As you can imagine, a B.S. in Pharmaceutical Sciences can give you a great start and will be immensely helpful in a physician assistant program. An understanding of pharmaceuticals and the interactions of drugs with one another is a critical component of a physician assistant’s ability to provide quality care. Pharmacology is an integral tool of a physician assistant’s graduate studies and essential in quality patient care.

This four-year degree will typically require 120 credit hours of study for completion. Courses in English, math and calculus, general humanities courses, and communications will also be included in addition to specialty courses.

This undergraduate major will have you study a range of disciplines that will greatly help your PA studies as you’ll concentrate on drug discovery, development, regulation, and production. Coursework can touch on many scientific studies in molecular biology, chemistry, genetics, anatomy, and physiology. Laboratory experience is part of this discipline as you study several of the sciences.

12. Neuroscience

Earning a B.S. in Neuroscience is a great undergraduate degree before you enter a PA graduate program. Please keep in mind, though, that neuroscience is a challenging degree. Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field exploring how complex systems function and blends studies in psychology, human behavior, and brain and neurosystem function.

There are a hundred billion neurons (brain cells), each with a thousand connections to other cells. Neuroscience maps those networks and processes all thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Psychology Today) using imaging tools and computer simulations to study the physical anatomy of the brain. This undergraduate degree will teach you how the brain impacts our physical health.

You can’t underestimate the value of this science degree in becoming a Physician Assistant. Neuroscience will teach you the basics of brain anatomy, neurophysiology, diseases, cognitive processes, the human nervous system, etc. This undergraduate program may offer concentrations in neuroscience areas such as cognitive, molecular, clinical (diseases and disorders), neuroimaging (advanced imaging technology), and neural processes.

13. Public Health

The global pandemic in 2020, demonstrated the critical importance of public health in individual and community health. Undergraduate and graduate degrees in public health, Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH), and Master of Public Health (MPH) can be very useful gateway degrees to physician assistant programs.

Although rigorous, public health studies will prepare you to understand disease and health prevention. Undergraduate public health programs are 120 credit hours and take four years to complete. Coursework covers topics in epidemiology, nutrition, kinesiology, biostatistics, injury prevention, environmental health, communications and advocacy, and emergency and disaster preparedness. You’ll also study physiology, child development, and community health.

Colleges and universities also have dual master’s degrees in Public Health and physician assistant. These joint degrees allow you to earn both degrees concurrently, saving you time and money. A dual degree will offer enhanced practicum experiences that can lead to career opportunities.

Public health majors will complete an internship or field practicum. These are unpaid but offer hands-on experience working with clients and patients through a public health agency. You can gain valuable insight into working with community health issues and patients in mental health, nutrition, hygiene, education, and others.

14. Health Science

An undergraduate health science degree would seem to be a no-brainer for becoming a physician assistant, and it is.

In addition to general education classes in this BS degree, you’ll study health topics in genetics, pathophysiology, biochemistry, chemistry, human anatomy and biology, psychology, genetics, microbiology, etc. Many of these classes will require laboratory and research studies that greatly benefit a physician assistant student. You’ll develop communication and critical thinking skills that are key to being an effective physician assistant. Opportunities may be available for clinical internships or practice that will give you face-to-face experience working with patients and coworkers.

This major may be offered as a 4+2 dual degree with a physician assistant degree. Dual enrollment often guarantees admission to the corresponding PA program.

Even if your plans change and you don’t want to continue to a physician assistant program, this BS degree will prepare you for other healthcare administrative positions, such as health educator or services manager.

15. Radiologic Sciences

Earning a bachelor’s or master’s in radiologic sciences can be a good stepping stone to a physician assistant degree to become a radiology physician assistant (RPA) or a registered radiologist assistant (RRA). While an associate degree is all you need to work as a radiology technician, many colleges and universities offer degree completion options for students to earn the bachelor’s required to enter a PA master’s program.

Whichever is your goal, radiologic science is an excellent undergraduate degree and starting point toward entering a physician assistant program.

Even if you don’t necessarily want to specialize in radiology, a radiologic science program will cover anatomy, physiology, disease processes, diagnostic and scientific imaging, patient care, and communication. Radiation physics, radiation protection, and principles are studies that can be beneficial even outside of a career in radiology. A radiology physician assistant practices under a licensed radiologist’s guidance but can also work independently without constant supervision in certain situations.

What Should I Major in to Become a Physician Assistant?

There’s no particular major for physician assistant, so the answer really comes down to what you want to do. The best majors for pre-PA might be in biology or health sciences. But there are many other options we’ve discussed already.

Another way to approach the question of what to major in to be a physician assistant is to ask what you want to specialize in. There are specialities that pay much better than others:

Highest-Paying PA SpecialtyMedian Average Salary (BLS)
Emergency medicine$133,990
Occupational medicine$133,120
BLS, 2023

Is a Physician Assistant Major Worth It?

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the job outlook for physician assistants is projected to grow at a rate of 27% over this decade. That is much faster than the average for other occupations. In May of 2022, the median annual pay was $126,010, but a physician assistant employed by an outpatient care center earned the most money at $128,820. In order to enter a physician assistant school, you must first complete an undergraduate program. This can be done on campus or online.

Related Resources:

Top 10 Best Degrees

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