There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to preparing for PA school. Between choosing target programs, knocking out prerequisite courses, and timing your application submission just right, it's easy to get bogged down by the details.
However, for every aspiring PA, taking a look at the big picture, at least once in a while, is essential. Answering "Am I dedicated enough to be a PA?" is part of that big picture, but perhaps not in the way you expect.
I spend a lot of time doling out advice on pre-PA strategies and the PA career in general. I love working as a PA and sharing what I've learned about the profession with others.
But, even as much as I believe in the profession, you'll never find me touting the idea that you should be willing to do absolutely anything to become a part of it. In fact, I think this attitude is detrimental and often leads to weak decisions made from positions of desperation.
However, when you're working toward your goal of getting into PA school, it's easy to become a bit nearsighted. While caught up in the experience, it might be difficult to realize that you're moving along a toxic path, especially when it's one that's been well-trodden by other aspiring PAs.
As someone who has worked with future PAs who fall into this trap in both big and small ways, I've come to notice a pattern for how it happens. Often, aspiring PAs don't even realize they've slipped into an "anything it takes" mindset until we map out the progression for how it commonly occurs.
So, let's examine how working to become a PA can turn from a reasonable path into a drastic slippery slope, and how to course correct when it does.
When reasons get left behind
For most of us, a big part of the appeal of the PA profession, at least initially, has to do with the lower personal and economic costs of becoming and working as a PA compared to a being a physician.
Yes, a physician assistant is its own unique role, and there are other reasons to be into it beyond time and cost. But early on, the practicality of becoming a PA and the proclaimed "work-life balance" is usually the driving force for someone looking deeper into the field.
Yet, a shift can begin once you decide that becoming a PA is your goal, especially as you get closer to making it happen.
As the months or years of pre-PA work wear on, you'll encounter more people who, like you, are preparing for PA school. You'll begin to hear stories of people doing "whatever it takes" to get into PA school and wonder if you're dedicated enough to cut it.
Through this, the original draw of why being a PA was a good fit for you can begin to erode, often without you realizing it's happening.
Maybe you start to believe that paying any amount of tuition is worth it if a program would just let you in, without noticing the cost has begun to rival that of med schools. Or perhaps you, too, should quit your current job to dedicate yourself full-time to only pre-PA activities like you've seen others do.
Frequently, this shift in perception that you should pay anything, do anything, or sacrifice any part of your life comes from external pressure. Other people have done it, so will you be perceived as less dedicated if you aren't willing to do the same?
Sometimes, this pressure is born out of words of encouragement from those intending to support you — just do whatever you need to do to go for your dream.
But there's a limit to "whatever." More importantly, you should have a limit.
Because here's the thing: no one will appreciate your martyrdom as much as you do.
If you walk away from a well-paying career with benefits, hoping that a PA school will recognize the sacrifice you made to work full time in a $12/hour pre-PA job, they won't.
Your PA school application cannot capture how extreme that move was for you, and you'll be the only one who fully appreciates the drama of it.
Moving from the practical decision of becoming a PA toward a do-anything mindset doesn't happen overnight; it's insidious. You start to see what other prospective PA students are doing to prepare, and question whether you should be doing the same. Or if you're moving your plan along fast enough.
Things can get even more extreme as an application cycle wears on — perhaps applying to 10 additional programs that you're not really invested in starts to seem like a good plan. Or, if you've already been through a previous application cycle without success, you try to cram in two new volunteering opportunities and find all new references in the span of four months before the next cycle opens.
Your original rationale for becoming a PA likely centered on practical aspects of the career. However, once you're in the thick of it, it's tempting to feel as if a willingness to do anything is your ticket to success.
But, if you hope to maintain some sense of control in the process of becoming a PA, setting boundaries for what you're willing to do is essential.
If PA schools suddenly turned into 4-year programs with required post-graduate residencies, I hope you'd tap the brakes.
It's perfectly reasonable to adjust your boundaries along the way. What you're willing to do for a future application cycle may be different than what you'd do for the first one.
But any reset should be intentional. Deliberately adjusting your long-term strategy might be smart, but desperately scrambling to prove that you're as dedicated as the next applicant is not.
Setting the right boundaries
What you're willing to do to become a PA is entirely up to you. Your limits shouldn't be dictated by what others are doing or what you perceive them to be doing.
Everyone preparing for PA school doesn't start from an even playing field.
Some will simply need to work for another six months to gain the patient care experience that makes them competitive for their target programs while others will have to make up for past academic mistakes and take on additional course credits well beyond those gained from prerequisite courses to be competitive.
Career changers with degrees in unrelated fields or prerequisites that are considered expired by their target programs may have to start their coursework from scratch. Other future PAs may choose to keep their full-time job to support their families or save up for PA school while slowly gaining patient care experience on the side.
The true measure of whether you're dedicated enough to become a PA is your willingness to do what you need to do to get ready.
Your method does not need to mirror someone else's. And I encourage you to have limits.
If someone told me that after my now nearly 13 years as a PA, I'd have to go back to school to get a doctorate to continue to practice as one, I'd have to weigh whether that was worth it to me seriously.
Similarly, determining how many credits you're willing to take in a semester or how much time you're ready to dedicate to shadowing in a given month is wise.
Being dedicated enough to become a PA is not synonymous with preparing for PA school as fast or as dramatically as possible; it's about whether you're ready to do what you need to succeed.
Set up the parameters for your pre-PA that are right for you, regardless of how quickly others are going or what they appear to be sacrificing. You can (and should) decide how much is too much.
Exploring the question, "Am I dedicated enough to be a PA?" isn't intended as pep talk or a rallying cry. If you're deliberate in your plan, reflecting on what you're willing to do to become a PA shouldn't create a knee jerk "whatever it takes" reaction.
Your dedication is proven through building your foundation to prepare for PA school and to work as a PA, however long that takes.
If you're like most PAs, being able to care for patients at a high level after a relatively short training period at a reasonable(ish) cost was a big part of your consideration, so remember to carry those principles with you as you create and adapt your pre-PA plan.