There is a long tradition of apprenticeship in medical training. We see this today in structure of internship, residency, and fellowship for physicians.
Student nurses are trained by seasoned nurses and may become graduate nurses before they are RNs. PA students are often trained both didactically and clinically by PAs. PA students learn how to practice from PAs as preceptors and mentors.
Every PA has once been in the shoes of a pre-PA and a PA student, and most are willing to help foster the next generation of PAs.
As a pre-PA student, hopefully you have been convinced of the importance of shadowing and followed my targeted approach for finding a PA to shadow. Once you have arranged to shadow a PA, you can be sure to get more out of it by entering into the experience with a plan.
Before you start
It is perfectly fine to be a complete novice when you are shadowing for the first time. You will not be expected to know medical conditions or even how a PA practices. However, that does not prevent you from preparing a bit for the experience. Once you have arranged a date and time to shadow, ask the PA about some specifics that will help you be more at ease on the first day.
What dress code should I follow?
Business casual will be fine for most settings, but scrubs may be preferred if you are shadowing in an OR, ER or procedural suite. Scrubs may be provided if required, but find out before you go.
Do I need to complete any paperwork or training before arriving?
If you are shadowing in a hospital, pre-shadowing training for HIPAA (patient privacy) and fire safety may be required before you can shadow a PA.
How should I contact you when I arrive?
You may need to check in at a front desk or call/page the PA when you arrive. Be sure you understand how to page the PA if this is required.
Phase I: Your first shadowing
On your first day of shadowing, be sure to take a notebook with you. Wear a watch if you need to leave at a particular time to keep from looking at your phone, even just for quick glances. Remember that someone is taking time out of their day to help you. Be respectful by showing you are interested and engaged. The questions that you ask your PA on the first day should be aimed at learning more about the profession and their personal experience. Early on, consider asking these questions to learn more:
What is a typical day like for you?
How do you collaborate with your supervising physician?
What made you decide to be a PA?
How did you choose to work in this specialty?
Have you worked in other specialties? If so, what made you change?
What do you think is the hardest part of being a PA?
Was there anything about being a PA that surprised you once you started practicing?
Can I return and continue to shadow you?
What can I do to prepare for the next day of shadowing?
Phase II: Logging more hours
Once you have been shadowing the same PA a little longer, you will be able to more comfortably ask questions about their PA school prep and experience. I would encourage you to wait until after the first shadowing day to ask these types of questions. Asking these questions too early may come across as mining for information about how you can get into PA school without first learning more about the profession. Once you have logged some hours, consider asking these questions:
How did you prepare for PA school?
How did you ultimately choose what program to attend?
What was the most important part of your PA school prep?
What was the most difficult part of PA school?
Can I see some difficult patients with you? (Including socially difficult patients so you can see how the PA handles this)
I would love to continue to follow the case of a patient to learn more about their continued care. Do you think this is a good idea and can you think of one that would be appropriate?
Do you recommend shadowing in another specialty? (If so, they may have another PA colleague that can help.)
Phase III: After at least 20 hours
After demonstrating your commitment to the process and cultivating a relationship with the PA, you can consider making a bigger ask. If this seems like a far reach, spend more time shadowing first. Making a more significant request will be a bit uncomfortable, but you should have a sense that the PA has learned enough about you and knows that you are committed to the process before asking. Do not miss out on the opportunity if you have put in the time, it can be one of the biggest benefits of shadowing.
Can I ask you about a particular part of my CASPA application?
Can you look over my personal essay and let me know what you think?
Would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for PA school?
It will take time and commitment to gain all of the benefits of shadowing that are possible. Shadowing not only allows you to learn first hand about your potential future profession, it can connect you with someone who has the ability to significantly strengthen your application.