How to choose a PA School / PA Master Program

Written by Bianca Belcher, MPH, PA-C, Edited by Laura Morrison, for, February 2014

10 Things to Think About Before You Pick A PA School

choosing a physician assistant program

1) PANCE pass rate

A question that I strongly recommend asking during the interview process or while inquiring about a PA school is:

“What is the average pass rate for the PANCE exam for your program?”

After all, this is the culmination of your academic career and an absolute necessity for you to become a practicing PA-C. A follow-up question may be:

“How does your program prepare its students for the exam?”

Some programs incorporate course review into their curriculum, while others expect the students to study on their own. Depending on your study style this may be a crucial aspect to choosing the right program for you.

2) Location

PA students are often offered jobs based on connections made during rotations so choosing a school in a geographic area that you may want to practice in may be beneficial when looking for a job. In addition, if you go to school outside of the area in which you like to settle, it is difficult to apply for jobs from far away for two reasons.

(a) It is expensive to travel to interviews.

(b) It is difficult to get time off rotations to leave for interviews.

In addition to the above reasons, PA school isn't cheap. When you factor in the cost of living it can be very expensive. Living with family or outside of the city may save you a ton of money and is definitely worth considering.

3) Cost

Although I do not believe that cost alone should be the main factor in selecting a PA school, I do believe that it should be a consideration. While looking at schools you should consider the following:

(a) The cost per year

(b) The program duration

(c) Additional costs such as travel to and from rotations

4) Rotations availability

With the current boom of the PA profession it is important to make sure the PA programs that you are applying to have rotations available.

In the larger cities, rotations can be difficult to come by because you’re competing not only with other PA schools, but also with medical school and NP schools in the area. You should ask about average travel distance for rotations.

Variety of rotation is important as well. Some schools do not offer elective rotations. This may not be a big deal if you are certain about going into a standard rotation such as primary care or emergency medicine. However, if you think you may end up in a specialty such as neurosurgery or cardiac medicine then you want to consider a program that offers at least 1 elective rotation for you to gain experience.

5) Length of program

The length of a physician assistant graduate program typically varies from 24 months to about 36 months. Generally the shorter programs require students to have a certain level of experience working with patients before they enroll in the program. These programs may be most appropriate for people who have worked in the health care field in some capacity prior to applying. If you do not have experience or are coming straight out of an undergraduate program, perhaps a longer program with more exposure to patient care would be most appropriate.

6) Legacy

Although program legacy is not the end-all be-all for choosing a PA program, it maybe helpful when looking for a job. Programs with long-standing histories are well-known by employers and are known to put out quality PAs.

7) Class size

For some people class size does not matter, but it is something to consider. If you do better in a smaller, more intimate setting you may want to consider programs with class sizes fewer than 50.

8) Pre-prerequisite experience

As I mentioned earlier under “length of program,” some PA programs require prerequisite time spent with patients of up to 2000 hours. Programs with prerequisite hours spend less time focusing on patient interaction and more time on things like physical exam and clinical knowledge.

9) Dual degree or not

There are a few programs out there that offer a dual degree, most often a master in public health (MPH) or business administration (MBA). If you have aspirations to expand your career beyond just the clinical, you may consider a dual degree program.

10) Current student opinion

This is a crucial component to choosing a PA program. You should spend time speaking to current students and asking them the pros and cons of the program. You will not get a feel for the cons just by looking at the website or asking questions to the administration.

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About the Author: Bianca Belcher is a licensed neurosurgical physician assistant.

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