Become a Physician Assistant for Free in the US Military

physician assistant examining patient
Army Medicine/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Western medicine today is an interdisciplinary affair rather than a classist hierarchy: Earning a "respectable" medical career no longer requires spending the whole of your 20s (and putting up your first-born as collateral) to become a doctor. Physicians are still a common source of primary care, treatments, and prescriptions, but they often extend their authority to physician assistants (PAs) -- graduate-trained providers that perform many of the same duties.

I'm not saying it should be easy to break into a career like this -- where you'd better be prepared to work your butt off for the sake of your patients -- but surviving on your own through six years of school and a mountain of debt just for the ​chance to make it is a lot to ask, especially if you're already struggling to make ends meet.

So let's talk about how joining the military offers a few qualified individuals the chance to skip ahead a bit and earn themselves a free master's degree (and a job, obviously) as a physician assistant through the Interservice Physician Assistant Program (IPAP).

Disclaimer

This is not an entry-level program. You must be accepted for service in the US military, serve honorably, and prove yourself worthy and eligible for IPAP. Even then, seats are limited each fiscal year, so it's no guarantee. If you have no interest in military service or making the best of the cards dealt you at any point in your career -- including the possibility of not making it into IPAP -- then I recommend you seek other options.

Program Overview

In recent years, the military came to the common-sense conclusion that since they were all offering essentially the same jobs in the field of medicine, they should pool their resources and train their medical personnel side-by-side. Like the rest of these programs, IPAP is located at Joint Base San Antonio - Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

In total, the IPAP training program lasts about two and a half years. Before you lynch me for being misleading earlier, let me clarify: This road still takes plenty of time, but as you'll see in the program requirements to follow, that time is spent in the service with full pay and benefits.

The first year and four months of IPAP are spent in the classroom at San Antonio, building from a foundation in anatomy, physiology, and chemistry through a detailed study of body systems, medical disciplines, examination techniques, and clinical thinking.

The remainder of IPAP is a "clinical clerkship" spent working in a variety of specialty areas at military treatment facilities across the nation. Throughout both phases of training, IPAP students also develop and refine a master's thesis paper to present at the conclusion of the program.

Successful graduates then take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to earn their licenses and begin practicing in their branch of service as a PA. If you've made it that far, don't worry: A description of IPAP courtesy of the Naval Association of Physician Assistants claims "[IPAP] students have a 99% pass rate with a mean PANCE score consistently above the national average."

Program Requirements

Each branch of service publishes slightly differing requirements for its physician assistants:

  • Army Physician Assistants
  • Navy Physician Assistants (Enlisted Marines are also eligible for IPAP)
  • Air Force Physician Assistants (Coming soon)