Earning Your Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies : 8 Steps to Success By Paul Kubin, December 2013
If you have just discovered that as a physician assistant you may be able to do meaningful work, help others, and have fun, all while earning a decent salary, then congratulations – you may have a have a chance at an amazing career. Unfortunately, like any potential good thing, there are plenty of others who want to get in on it, and there just isn’t room for them all.
Planning ahead may be the best thing aspiring PA’s can do to ensure a spot in a physician assistant graduate program. Even if you are several years away from applying, the decisions you make today might mean the difference between a letter that begins with "Congratulations!" and one that begins with "Regretfully, we are unable..."
Don’t let it intimidate you, let it inform you.
You may be psyched to become a PA – so psyched that you plan to moonlight as a CNA or medical assistant while in school. Many students work jobs, earn certificates, and volunteer in hospitals so that they can apply to PA schools fresh out of college. Enthusiasm is great, but here it can get you into trouble.
Once you get your bachelor’s degree, your grades will be as unchangeable as your birthday. If your enthusiasm to get started takes your focus off of school, you may end up scrambling. Late in the game you may need to retake classes, earn extra degrees, and accrue extra hours of medical experience, all in an attempt to make up for problem grades. Sadly, this “do-over” strategy usually fails. So until you are finished, you may want to focus on school. There will be plenty of time to work in the medical field once you have crushed undergrad. It can’t be stressed enough: the best thing you can do to get into PA school and go for a Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies is to have excellent college grades.
Everyone wants to know: what is the ideal Pre-PA major?
The ideal Pre-PA major is the one that you will enjoy and do well in (see #1 above). If you major in something obscure or overly technical because you think it will please PA schools, you’re setting yourself up for failure. What if Psychoneurolabionics bores you? You’ll do poorly of course (again, see #1 above), and worse still, you won’t enjoy some precious years of your education.
You may want to avoid majors that have nothing to do with medicine, people, and health, such as art, music, or recreation. But PA schools have been known to regularly admit students of history, languages, sciences, math, and communications. If you can make a reasonable argument for a major relating to medicine, you’re probably okay. Better yet, combine your personal interests by designing your own major. Most colleges these days will let you.
PAs have only been around for about 50 years. It’s a new profession that is undergoing furious growth and change, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for PA’s are expected to grow by 30% between 2010 and 2020. This means that – odds are – what you think you know about being a PA is wrong, or at the very least, incomplete. The perfect way to begin seriously investigating this career is to shadow a PA. Spend at least a day at work with one, and longer if you can. The time you spend will assure you that the job is everything you think it is. It will help you understand the PA role and the relationship PAs have with their patients and supervising physician.You may even learn some medicine.
Need more motivation? When you interview for PA school, you better be ready to describe your idea of what a PA does and what a typical day on the job is like. If you’ve shadowed, these questions will be easy to answer well.
Remember that microbiology professor you made such an impression on? That supervisor you had at the hospital who loved your work? Don’t wait until you graduate to let him or her know about your plan to become a PA. Ask if they might be able to support you by writing a letter of reference. If you won’t apply until later, email or drop in on them once per semester so they don’t forget who you are. All letters of reference are submitted via email by their writers, so you should get their contact information (in case they relocate) and ask them to save your letter on their computer until you apply.
The vast majority of Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies programs are applied to through a national application clearinghouse called the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). Your CASPA application is filled out and submitted online through CASPA’s website www.caspaonline.org. Once your supporting documents like letters of reference and academic transcripts are received, CASPA will distribute identical copies of your application to the schools you select.
Here is a nice opportunity: open a CASPA account now, even if you don’t plan to apply this year. It’s simple, free, and it will help you understand the application process. It will also get you thinking about how you can become a stronger candidate. Don’t worry – signing up doesn’t obligate you to submit or even complete the application, and PA schools will never know you were there.
Know the Title
If you’re going to join this field, you’d better learn what you will be called: physician assistant. Note that there is not apostrophe-s after physician. Writing in your essay that you want to become a “physician’s assistant” is like telling them “I really haven’t researched this much, but whatever.”
Depending on the PA programs that interest you, you will likely need between 500 and 3000 hours of experience working with patients to get in. There are many ways to obtain this experience. Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) may be the easiest way, but respiratory/psychiatric technician, certified nursing assistant, registered nurse, athletic trainer, ER Scribe, and medical assistant in a clinic are other possibilities.
Doing all your time in one medical job isn’t wise. Instead, aim for a balanced combination of experiences. Ideally, you should have several different experiences, including some acute care (hospital or ambulance), some outpatient medicine (medical clinic or doctor’s office), and something else that is more unique (psychiatry, people with disabilities, people with HIV/AIDs, amputees, etc.). The important point with all health care experience is that it has you working directly with patients, as opposed to in a lab or over the phone.
The topic is always the same: Describe your motivation toward becoming a Physician Assistant. No matter what your grades and health care experience, your application essay, which CASPA calls your Personal Statement, is a crucial element of your application. This becomes doubly true if your grades or health care experiences are somehow lacking. Think of it like a written interview; your essay is a chance to give your application color, context, and personality. It’s your chance to tell them what you want them to know about you and your goal of becoming a PA.
Application committees read scores of two-dimensional, boring, poorly written, and predictable essays. Don’t let yours be one. Start thinking now about why this profession calls to you. What’s different about you as a candidate? What do you have to offer this field that others may not?
If you’re not sure what to write in your essay, think up an elevator pitch. What would you tell a PA school admissions officer about why you want to become a PA if you were on an elevator with her for just long enough to make it to the third floor? Your pitch needs to be engaging and organized, but there isn’t much time, so it needs to be brief. If you can’t sum up why you want to become a PA with an elevator pitch, your essay may end up lacking focus. So work at it until you have one. When your essay is done, why you want to become a PA should make sense and have them saying “Now that’s someone I would really like to hear more about – let’s have him come in for an interview.
Everyone wants to get into PA school yesterday (remember the problems enthusiasm can cause?) Resist the urge to rush.
If you spend a little more time training, preparing, and polishing yourself and your application, you may outshine other PA school applicants. So consider taking that extra year to make sure your grades are excellent, or that extra month to perfect your essay. If you are serious about a career as a physician assistant, you owe it to yourself to put your best foot forward. Be the tortoise – slow and steady may help you get the job done right. Follow my 8 tips for success and you're well on your way to a Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies!
About the Author:Paul Kubin, is a physician assistant and the publisher Inside PA Training, the internet resource on becoming a physician assistant. IPAT has articles and resources on applying to PA schools, as well as a free forum, iphone app, and podcast, Paul is the author of the ebook Crafting a Winning PA School Essay. He practices primary and urgent care in Sacramento, California.