"Do you think it's too late for me to become a PA?"
Stay-at-home parents in their mid-thirties ask this question. Twenty-eight-year-olds with careers in sales or marketing ask. And empty-nesters nearing "retirement" wonder the same, all with the presumption that they are an anomaly. (College seniors ask this question too, but that's nonsense.)
If you're not the average age and don't have the typical background of a PA student, you may feel isolated in your quest to become a PA.
Without the on-campus pre-PA clubs, college advisors, or peers working toward the same goal as you, your desire to pursue a new career in medicine may feel a bit unorthodox. And it may make you question if you realized your path too late. Or cause you to wonder if you're a bit crazy to consider a new career at your age.
But while you may feel alone or a touch delusional, you're not. Working toward dreams and setting big goals are not reserved for those in their early twenties.
There are excellent reasons to pursue a future as a PA even if you're over (gasp!) 30.
If you're considering a PA career a bit later in life, whether that's five years or 25 years after college, here's what you should know to help build your confidence.
1. You can still have a long career
Instead of getting stuck on how much time has passed before you considered become a PA, think about how much time you'd have left to practice as a PA.
Let's say you're 60-years-old and motivated enough to become a PA. After getting through PA school, you could still have a decade-long career doing what you love. (If you're 60-years-old and vital enough to get through PA school, you can surely work for ten years as a PA.)
Though "older" future PAs are rarely in their 60s, I've worked with plenty of clients who were in their 40s and 50s who successfully got into PA school. These folks can expect to enjoy 20-30 years working in a career they enjoy. That length of time hardly makes deciding to become a PA later in life seem "too late."
If the time you'd "have left" to be a PA doesn't seem like it would be long enough, consider how long it would feel if you spent that same time doing something you weren't driven to do.
2. The OG PA students were just like you
With high school students more regularly earning college credit and knowledge of the PA profession expanding, prospective PAs are often deciding on the career track earlier and going to PA school at a younger age. But it wasn't always this way.
Though now there are over 230 PA programs in the U.S., there were only around 50 programs in 1995, a number that was not much changed from the 1975 tally. While the PA profession is now over 50 years old, there were far fewer new PAs entering or working in the field 25 years ago.
Many people, even today, find out about the PA profession by encountering a PA in practice. Imagine how far fewer these encounters were before there were 200+ PA programs or 100K+ practicing PAs, as there are today. Pre-PA clubs didn't exist, there was no such thing as a "pre-health" major, and blogs loaded with killer advice on becoming a PA (ahem) were non-existent.
Your chance of knowing about the PA profession while you were "young" in the old days was next to nil. So those who became interested in the PA field were typically working for at least several years before they learned what a physician assistant was.
Many had a happenstance encounter with one while working in healthcare or learned everything they knew about the role from their neighbor's niece's babysitter's sister who was the only PA in their orbit.
So if anything, being a little further along in life makes you a typical PA student, historically speaking.
3. PA programs love older students
I talk to a lot of non-traditional PA students who worry that choosing a PA path later in life may work against them. They're concerned that they may appear less passionate about the field compared to their younger counterparts. But taking time to decide to become a PA is a good thing and is seen as such by PA programs.
With time, people tend to make more thoughtful, deliberate decisions. We move out of the apartment we shared with seven friends, shed the disaster of a boyfriend who we once thought was great, and wear seatbelts 100% of the time.
Regardless of your age, you're better starting-PA material than you were five years ago. You've gotten better at relating to and interacting with others and have navigated more tricky situations than the younger version of you did.
PA schools care about this. A hot topic in PA education at the moment is how to assess the maturity level of PA school candidates as part of the application process. Some programs are implementing the CASPer test, which aims to measure the personality characteristics of applicants based on how they handle hypothetical scenarios.
The curriculum of PA programs is packed; there's no time to try to teach students how to behave in social situations or how to approach patients on a basic human level.
Fair or not, by being older, you will be assumed to have a certain level of maturity. Faculty members are likely to view you as someone who can quickly pick up the social and interpersonal elements of patient care who only needs the medical training and knowledge, which makes their jobs and lives easier.
Additionally, your training experience as a non-traditional student can be amplified. When you've seen the other side, and you're sure of your decision, the experience of PA school is different.
Having more experience balancing responsibilities and priorities and managing your time is a huge advantage when going into PA school. Some of the best PA students I've ever worked had a winding path to a PA career, and their training experience was heightened because of everything that came before it.
Also, programs love having a mix of students from different backgrounds with a variety of life experiences. There's unlikely to be 80 students interviewing for your program who are just like you, so being a bit different is an advantage.
4. Patients will assume you know your stuff from the start
I was 23 when I graduated from PA school. For the first eight years or so, patients asked about my age and when I'd finish my training.
I like to assume this abruptly stopped because I immediately came across as very knowledgeable to each and every patient, so let me keep believing that.
But this doesn't happen to new-grad PAs who are a bit older. Patients will automatically assume you've been practicing for a while and know what you are doing.
While that may be a bit scary for the first 6-12 months, it will give you confidence and the freedom to practice without worrying that patients are second-guessing you because you seem "too young" to be doing what you're doing.
Personally, I'm a huge fan of non-traditional PA students. I like to imagine how much better of a student I would have been if I didn't go straight from undergrad to PA school.
But we all find the PA role and benefits of it at different times in our lives. Don't let discovering the profession a little later in life keep you from moving toward your goals.
Having more life experience before PA school can result in having a great training experience and working in a career that you love for years to come.