“Why do you want to be a PA?”
This might be the top PA school interview question and prompt for your personal statement in your application. As you consider your answer, remember the admissions committee is looking for more than a rehearsed, two-minute elevator speech. They already know the benefits and advantages of working as a physician assistant—they want to know why you’ve decided that becoming a PA is the right career choice for you.
It can be daunting to face decisions about your future career and education. With the number of choices available in the medical field, just thinking you want to be a PA isn’t enough. You need to be sure that the physician assistant career is the route you want to take to practice medicine.
Of course, shadowing medical professionals and asking about medical schools and physician assistant programs will get you closer to discovering the right career. But how are you sure that becoming a PA is the best career for you?
It may be challenging to find the answer until you’ve asked the right questions and done some deep thinking. But that’s where we come in. We’re here to help you discover why a career as a physician assistant may or may not be the right choice.
PA Job Requirements: Responsibilities and Benefits
Let’s start by evaluating the path to your PA-C practice, the requirements of being a PA-C, and the benefits you’ll experience. Then decide how they fit with what motivates and inspires you.
You might find these factors are not what drives or motivates you—in fact, they may be exactly what you don’t want to do. In that case, becoming a physician assistant may not be the right choice. The following is just a quick overview of a physician assistant’s responsibilities. To read more about a PA’s duties, check out our article on a PA’s day-to-day schedule.
Rigorous School Program
The road to and through a PA program is rigorous. PA students who enter the program with idealized, romantic notions of working in medicine are quickly brought back to reality by the long hours of studying and clinical rotations.
PA programs only last two years, which isn’t a lot of time. But the sheer volume of information and the pace of learning is challenging and requires strong organizational skills and focus.
If you think you’re done learning once PA school is over, you’re wrong. There is an ever-growing body of research, and new information is published on a daily basis. To ensure you provide the best patient care possible, it’s necessary you are a lifelong learner. If you don’t enjoy discovering new information and constantly learning, you may find yourself stressed, burned out, and unhappy.
Hands-On Patient Care
As a physician assistant, you’ll be working with people every day, all day. Working in primary care or in specialty areas, you’ll have the unique ability to enjoy personal interactions with your patients and grow relationships that’ll enrich their lives and yours.
Consider whether your motivation is recharged by being with people or by being alone. If you want to practice medicine but find it’s difficult for you to spend time around people all day, a research position may be more suited to your personality.
Excellent Job Prospects & Flexibility
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the PA profession will grow 31% by 2028, which is faster than most other careers. Plus it’s a very flexible job, and the flexibility extends beyond the ability to change specialties. PAs have versatility in their job functions, such as the ability to switch from patient care to administration or utilization management. PAs can also switch from working in a clinic to a medical center, or even in the Armed Services.
The flexibility and projected growth mean you also have job security. In the coming years you’ll be able to change your focus, if you find working directly with patients eventually becomes draining. The flexibility and versatility in your work can also contribute to improved work-life balance.
Characteristics of a Strong Physician Assistant
Knowing the responsibilities and benefits of a physician assistant is just part of understanding the scope of the position and whether it is the right choice for your career path. The real answer is found in what motivates you. Take a look at the following characteristics of a physician assistant and see if they resonate with who you are and what motivates you.
Physician assistants are compassionate. They have the ability to recognize the suffering in others and help, without taking on the other person’s pain. Compassionate people get involved with those who are suffering but are able to maintain enough emotional distance to protect themselves.
It’s a fine balance and one that physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and doctors must walk in order to protect their own emotional health. If you have a tendency to feel and keep another person’s troubles with you, then working in medicine may not be the right choice.
You will be called upon to respect your patient’s preferences, involve the patient’s support system, and provide comfort and care. It can be difficult when a patient makes a decision you believe will cause more harm than good. But, providing patient-focused care means the patient is in control of decision making. If you have difficulty giving up that control, you may want to consider a field of medicine where patient interactions are not your primary daily activity.
3. Problem Solving Skills
Being a physician assistant is a bit like being a detective. You get to figure out the diagnosis and then determine the appropriate treatment plan to help patients get back to their daily lives. At the end of the day, your reward is the ability to solve a problem that has significantly impacted another person’s life. Will that be enough to motivate you to return to work, day after day?
Working in primary care or in specialty areas, you have the unique ability to enjoy personal interactions with your patients and grow relationships that enrich their lives and yours. It will be your responsibility to engage with your patients since they will share more with someone they trust. Are you a person who enjoys getting to know someone and is easily trusted?
PAs work as a part of a team of healthcare providers. While PAs collaborate with their supervising physician, they also interact and work together with a number of other health professionals including administrators, insurance case managers, and therapists.
As a PA, you may work with a community-based social worker to help with discharge into the community or to make patient care decisions that are best suited for the patient’s home situation. Do you enjoy collaborating with others or would you rather work alone?
Is a Physician Assistant Program Right for You?
If you’re still unsure if becoming a physician assistant health care provider is the right decision, read through these questions. Ask yourself if these factors fit with your personal and professional desires. As you answer, be honest with yourself and what makes you the happiest.
Do You Enjoy Spontaneity in Your Workday?
As with many other medical professions, no one day is like the last or the next. If you choose to become a PA, you will be working in an environment where you won’t be able to predict what will happen day to day, or even hour to hour.
There is some continuity and structure to your day, but each patient is different. Each diagnosis is affected by the patient’s lifestyle choices, underlying medical conditions, and family structure. In other words, it’s not your standard office job!
Are You Driven or Satisfied by Helping Others?
Although PAs are paid well, that doesn’t automatically mean the PA profession is best for you. In fact, job satisfaction is much more important in establishing and enjoying a long-term career. The biggest reward as a PA-C is helping others live longer and healthier lives. Some of your patients will not follow your advice and others may die despite your best efforts. Will you be satisfied enough by helping others to the best of your ability?
Is Autonomy Important to You?
Physician assistants engage in collaborative efforts with their supervising physician and other healthcare providers. This is a vital part of working as a PA-C and one which is regulated by legislative bodies and your supervising physician. If working independently motivates and inspires you, then becoming a PA will not be a good career choice.
Are You Unsure Where You Want to Finish?
If you’re sure you want to start a career in patient care but you’re unsure where you want to end up, the PA profession might be for you. Another benefit of becoming a PA is the flexibility in being able to change your career focus.
You have the opportunity to practice in nearly every medical specialty from family practice or emergency medicine to dermatology or cardiovascular surgery. If you enjoy patient care but have aspirations of moving into administration, pharmaceutical industry, insurance, or academics, starting your career as a physician assistant will give you a good foundation.
So Should You Become a Physician Assistant?
That’s really for you to decide by questioning why you want to become a PA. As a PA, you would be a part of improving access to care for individuals and communities. You would help those with chronic illnesses and be a pillar of hope in times of widespread illness.
If the characteristics and responsibilities of a PA fit your personality and desires, then it may be time to delve more deeply into exploring your options to become a PA. But, if after reading you realize that you’d rather be doing something else, then becoming a physician assistant is probably not the right path for you.