There is a physician assistant specialty that is perfect for you, be it surgery, emergency medicine, internal medicine, dermatology, and urology.  If you are considering a career in physician assistant medicine, having an idea about what physician assistant specialty you might train in will help to guide your career trajectory.

About a week ago I wrote on the physician assistant personality, and John Holland’s theory that you tend to enter careers that align with your own personality.  Even if you aren’t yet in PA school, start thinking about which physician assistant specialty might be right for you–now.   Why?  There are two primary reasons:

  1. First, it could make the difference between attending one PA school and another.  For example, my school, UC Davis School of Medicine, places huge value on primary care (AKA general practice or family practice) as a physician assistant specialty.  If primary care wasn’t a good fit for me, it would have made more sense for me to go somewhere else.
  2. If you are interested in a competitive specialty (say, cardiothoracic surgery) you can start shaping your education right now.  You can learn about the specialty, make contacts, and line up clinical experiences that will make you the ideal candidate for work in that area when you graduate.

But how can you know which clinical specialty is right for you before you’re in the field?  You can’t.  What you can do is get a feel for which physician assistant specialty or specialties tend to fit with–you guessed it–your personality.   I should say here that many feel that the power of the PA license is its versatility.  Even so, the world will always need PAs who are experts within specialty areas of medicine.

The MSAT is a quick and free inventory that ranks the various medical specialties that might be a good fit for you and who you are.  It’s helpful and interesting.

Before you take the MSAT, you should know:

  • The test is designed for pre-meds (pre-MD), not PAs.  There’s no way to know if it’s less valid for pre-PA students or not, so just keep this in mind.
  • Because it’s designed for pre-meds, there are specialties listed that may have fewer openings available to PAs.  With that said, there are PAs working in most or all of the areas listed.

Don’t read into this test too much – I include it here to help guide your search for a physician assistant specialty that might be your calling.

Click Here To Take The Medical Specialty Aptitude Test (link)

physician assistant specialties
It’s never too early to think about physician assistant specialties. Besides – it’s fun.
  • Miguel V. February 11, 2011, 4:44 am

    Great article! And that brainstorm diagram with arrows in the bottom was priceless! I laughed the whole way thru. :)

    You mention in the article that some schools are a better choice for certain specialties. How do we, pre-pa students, would go about finding out which are the best programs for these particular specialties? Do you know of any resource where they list this info by some ranking mechanism?

    I know this ranking exists:

    But how bout one geared more towards specialty training?

    • Paul February 11, 2011, 4:43 pm

      You should start by contacting prospective schools and asking for their information packet. You can also ask by phone (you don’t have to give your name if you don’t want to) if they prepare students for any particular specialty, or group of specialties. Most don’t, but you still shouldn’t assume. It’s a great question, and I will post some more ideas about this in an upcoming post. Thanks for the compliment, and the question! -P

  • Kevin December 29, 2011, 7:31 pm

    HA HA HA, great flow chart. I keep leaning towards family practice but it just sounds kind of boring. I’m hoping to bounce around a little, I’d like to do emergency medicine, some general surgery, some obgyn, pediatrics and then land in family practice, maybe some of them concurrently, do you think that’s possible?

  • Claudia May 1, 2012, 9:08 pm

    is there any way to download the flow chart? I’m having a hard time reading it(on iPad) but would love check it out as it looks super helpful. Thanks!

    • Paul May 1, 2012, 10:03 pm

      You should be able to right click it and pull down to “save as.”

  • Brian Wallace May 4, 2012, 12:18 pm

    A very important consideration when thinking about specialty fields is lifestyle. Not only that, but PAs are used in different ways at each hospital or office even among the same specialty. Family medicine is typically one office location 9-5 Monday through Friday (blow my brains out). Private surgery is usually a few days a week in an office and a few days a week in the OR. It may include a hospital day to two. ER is usually something like 4 ten hour shifts and when you leave at the end of the day you are done. There is a lot to consider even aside from the medical areas that you like. The graphic is GREAT!!

  • claudia May 4, 2012, 7:59 pm

    Thanks for graphic tip, got it now.

    Wondering how common is it for PAs to have 1 full time job and then also take on part time work? And is it possible to do it in different specialties? My ‘interest’ take me to ER and Dermatology.

    What are typical hours/setting for Derm specialty. Thanks All!

    • Paul May 5, 2012, 8:46 am

      It’s not uncommon. We’ve had PA lecture to our class who worked in primary care by day, and psych or emergency as a moonlighting gig. Probably easier the closer the specialities you hope to practice in are – neurosurgery and dermatology might not work so well…

  • Maggie June 17, 2012, 4:50 pm

    Hi Paul,

    I’m interested in applying to the UC Davis PA program. I was wondering if you had a hard time searching for a job in CA. How long did it take you to find a job and did the PA program help you as far as job searching? I’m worried about employment. Thanks for the help!

    • Paul June 17, 2012, 8:08 pm

      I just graduated last Saturday, so I don’t yet have a job. The program does not have employment assistance, per se (something I asked about when I interviewed). They told me that they had not heard of a graduate having difficulty finding a job in recent years. However the challenge is sometimes in finding the job that you want in a particular geographic area, and it depends a lot on the local demographics, income, number and size of local hospitals, etc. Most of my classmates are currently in the process of applying and interviewing. Some of them have jobs already, and some do not.

  • Yelena September 16, 2012, 8:12 pm

    Your specialty map is PRICELESS!!! Way better then the aptitude test! Thank you for creating this website and putting together this great map!

    • Paul September 16, 2012, 11:43 pm

      Thanks! I thought it was fun too!

  • Leslie December 25, 2012, 11:53 pm

    Thanks for the specialty map! It helped a lot and I think I’m interested in dermatology and radiology. Do you declare a specialty after your 2 years of PA school? And how do you get to your specialty?

    • Paul December 26, 2012, 5:00 pm

      No – specializing happens when you accept a job. If you really like the specialty, you continue to take jobs in that area and to develop your knowledge and skills. That’s it. There are a very few residencies (usually in surgical specialties, but they’re rare and most people don’t do them because they aren’t necessary).

  • Shana January 18, 2013, 12:34 pm

    I just wanted to say I love your blog!! Keep up the good work! Also, the specialty map is very entertaining.

    • Paul January 20, 2013, 10:28 am

      Thanks, Shana!

  • abiola October 13, 2014, 2:09 pm

    Hi Paul am Ghanaian with a Bsc. Pa is it possible to do masters in uc Davis or other place and what is required??

    • Paul November 2, 2014, 2:19 pm

      It is possible. You should contact the schools that interest you and ask them for their requirements for international student applicants.

  • Christine January 28, 2015, 5:09 pm

    Paul, thanks so much for all of these great articles! I’ve been following your site for what feels like forever… trying to decide what the heck to do with myself… stay in my career field or go back to school. I’m terrified of investing all of this time and money into more education to learn I’m still not fulfilled or satisfied.
    Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky. I have a MSW and have worked in the medical field- which is something I truly enjoy… and I’ve also become a behavioral health clinician (providing therapy for severely emotionally disturbed children) but I can’t seem to combine the things I like: science, the medical field, research and psychology. I feel if I choose to go back to school my current and past experiences will certainly benefit me but I’m also concerned that PA programs may see me as wishy-washy… I want to dabble in everything!

    What specialties do you think are best for the wandering heart? I naturally feel I lean towards pediatrics or psychiatry and I feel like PA would really combine my passions with what I actually want out of my life as far as career dedication and job satisfaction.

    Do you hear a lot about people returning to school/changing careers to enter the PA field and do you feel that the programs look favorably to this or do they tend to want less experienced/younger candidates?

    • Paul February 7, 2015, 3:31 pm


      Your question is near and dear to my heart. I was a returning student and a mental health clinician when I applied.

      The PA field has a lot of returning students — people who have changed to it from some other career. It can be done (I applied as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. To be fair, I had been an EMT years prior and worked in the hospital setting at a psychiatric emergency).

      I too have a “wandering heart. As much as I have always yearned for what I thought of as a “sexy” job (becoming an expert in a specialized area of medicine), I have found primary care to be a beautiful fit. There are primary care practices that do more work in one area than others, so you could look for one that emphasizes patients of a type that appeal to you (pediatrics, psych, whatever). I currently work in a mixed practice with 1) urgent care (a mini-ED), 2) work comp (people with disabilities and pain), and 3) traditional primary care. My psychotherapy and psychiatry skills have been priceless, and have allowed me to connect with and help patients who otherwise would not have had that. I love the variety of what I do, and have (finally) made peace with the fact that the “sexiest” job is the one that you both love and excel at. That means — at least for now — I need look no further.

      Sure, there are aspects of my job that I dislike. Working with huge workman’s compensation insurance companies who often do not have the patient’s interests at heart definitely tops the list. But at the same time, that’s where my counseling skills are invaluable, because my patient’s often feel discarded, mistreated, and ignored by their insurer, and that’s when they need someone like me to advocate for them and help them. It’s a mixed bag, you see.

      From what I’ve heard from you, you would be wise to check out primary care specialties (pediatrics, family practice, OBGYN), emergency medicine, and psychiatry. Those are fields with variety and/or “soft skills,” which are more valuable than you might realize.

      Please keep me informed of your progress, okay?

  • Kristian March 31, 2015, 4:39 pm

    What are the average hours of a primary care PA, weekly or monthly, and what about the holidays and weekends? Also, how often do they take calls? I plan on having a family one day, and I certainly don’t want to overwhelm my life with work and leave my husband and future children absent of their wife/mother. If you have any info at all I’d greatly appreciate it!

    • Paul April 5, 2015, 4:09 pm

      There are all kinds of jobs. I work 8-6 four days per week and I never take call. There are hospital jobs that are per diem, part time, and full time. There are also plenty of jobs that will pay you a base pay to be away from work, but take call. You might benefit from looking at a PA jobs board, just to see what’s out there. Anyway, there are many ways to do it.

  • Marine April 3, 2015, 1:09 am

    Wow great blog !! I want to do PA but I am scared of surgeries. You mentioned that PA can choose a speciality ?!?! Can you suggest what schools are the best or what should I do if I do not want to deal with surgeries?

    Thank you !!!!

    • Paul April 5, 2015, 3:35 pm

      Almost all programs will train you to be a primary care PA first. That’s how PA training usually works. Then after you graduate you can specialize as you wish. Keep in mind though, that pretty much all programs will want to at least expose you to surgery with a surgical rotation. If it still isn’t your cup of tea, then you can make that your last surgical experience and go on to work in some other area.


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