When it comes to the medical field, there are plenty of specialties and areas for people to go into. Becoming a Physician Assistant (PA) is appealing to many aspiring healthcare professionals due to the versatility of the role and close contact with patients. The growth rate for PAs is 37 percent over the next decade, which is much higher than the average seven percent. However, there are several steps needed to become a licensed PA.
Cristee Cordes currently works in the operating room as an autotransfusionist, and will begin her Physician Assistant Program at the University of Colorado starting in the spring. She explains the steps she needed to take to get to this program, and what she has ahead of her before becoming a PA.
Psst…stay tuned for a video about becoming a PA below!
1. Undergraduate degree
As with many professions, the first step in the process of becoming a PA is to earn an undergraduate degree. While there is no “official” PA undergraduate degree, PA programs require certain behavioral science classes as prerequisites. Many students choose science and pre-med related majors, but this is not required, you will just have to take the specific classes required by the specific Physician Assistant programs to which you will apply in the future.
2. Work experience
Before applying to PA programs, you will be required to have at least 1,000 hours of work experience. This is beneficial in finding out if being a PA is exactly what you want to do, and what area you’d like to go into.
“Most people who want to be in the medical field obviously have a love of science and working with the human body, they want to help people. But there’s so many different occupations within the medical field that it’s really hard to decide what you want to do unless you start shadowing people or working in the medical field,” said Cordes.
Cordes explained that her shadowing of multiple professions after earning her bachelor’s degree aided her decision to become a PA. Shadowing multiple PAs and doctors is beneficial not only in your career decision, but in your application to PA programs. Cordes’ current work allows her to be around PAs as well as doctors, nurse practitioners, and anesthetists consistently so she is able to see what the profession is like day-to-day. She participated in volunteering throughout her work experience, which also aided her program application.
3. Applying to Physician Assistant programs
The process of applying to PA programs generally require a basic application called the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants, or CASPA, which is where you fill out your experience, schooling, volunteering, and personal statement essay. The personal statement essay is an important component, where you essentially explain why you want to be a PA.
“A lot of people will start with a story or something that they’ve gone through, but basically they’ll link up their experiences in the field,” said Cordes.
Then, many schools require additional essays. Cordes said she wrote 21 additional essays when she applied to PA programs this year. After submitting all of your materials, you may be called in for the final step–an interview. After an interview, you will be contacted about your acceptance or rejection.
The process of applying to PA programs is lengthy and competitive, and you can only apply once per year. Cordes explained how she applied three separate times, as she was denied during her first two years of application. She said that each time, she learned how to strengthen her application the next year. The first year Cordes applied, she was denied because she was missing a prerequisite, as the class she thought met the requirement was out of date and had to be re-taken.
“I would always advise someone to try to contact an academic advisor within the school that they’re applying to, to try and find out if they are meeting the requirements,” said Cordes.
The next year, after re-taking the class, Cordes applied again, and was denied.
“When I didn’t get in that year I was pretty upset. [My fiance] said, “You have 24 hours to be upset, and then after that let’s figure out what you want to do to be better next year.” So the next day I found some better volunteering opportunities, I changed my job to get some diversity within the hospital, and then in January I started thinking of what I wanted to write about for my personal statement. But the biggest part was just knowing what colleges I wanted to apply to, having a list of everything on what they required, and just going through everything way before the application period even started,” said Cordes.
Like Cordes, applying to PA school may take a bit of trial and error, but there are steps you can take to strengthen your application in the time between application periods.
4. Master’s degree at a PA program
PA programs usually take three years to complete. As you may expect, they include both classroom and clinical work. All PA programs are required to provide 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, giving students a wide variety of clinical experiences.
As the role of the PA can vary greatly, these rotations are in many different areas of medicine. PA school rotations include family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, general surgery, emergency medicine, and psychiatry.
PA programs are also designed to prepare you for the test that all registered PAs must pass–the PANCE.
5. Standardized testing
As a last step before becoming a licensed PA, you must pass the PANCE. This is usually done shortly after completion of the PA program. The PANCE is a computer-based, 300 question, multiple choice test. The test assesses your medical and surgical knowledge relevant to being a PA, that you learned at PA school and through your experience.
There are two types of questions on the PANCE: “organ systems and diseases, disorders and medical assessments that relate to those systems; and knowledge and skills needed to confront those diseases, disorders and assessments.” You can take the test year-round at a Pearson VUE testing center.
6. On-the-job training
After completing your PA program and passing the PANCE, you can begin work as a licensed Physician Assistant. However, you typically don’t jump straight into practicing on your own, and receive training to your specific area of work when you begin your new position. Length of on-the-job training varies based on the specialty. Due to this, if you decide later to switch the area of medicine you’re practicing in, you have the flexibility to do this without going back to school.
“As a PA, you learn a lot on the job. For instance, I’m really interested in surgery, but I may not want to do surgery forever because you’re on-call a lot. So it’d be really nice later in life to have a bit of an easier work-life balance, and I’d be able to switch over to something else,” said Cordes.
A Physician Assistant is a rapidly growing profession, and offers a lot of flexibility in the world of medicine. PAs are able to work directly with their patients and form connections, which is what draws Cordes and other aspiring PAs to the field. While the process of becoming a PA is fairly extensive, these steps are important for PAs to provide the best care to their patients as possible.
To get a current PA’s perspective, we sat down with Pediatric PA Brielle Smith, who offers her advice on starting a career as a Physician’s Assistant. Brielle discovered a passion for medicine at a young age before realizing that the PA path is much more cost-effective (and just as rewarding) than that of a doctor.
In this video interview, Brielle shares what misconceptions exist for PAs, how to find a job after school and the flexibility this career offers. Watch below: