How to Level-Up at Each Stage of Your Journey to Be a PA


For most of us, life as a prospective PA student, actual PA student, and, then, new PA grad is both thrilling and turbulent. In just a few short years, future PAs gain a ton of knowledge and experience, and then they're given a heavy responsibility as new PA graduates. 


Because of the massive amount of change you experience in these years, each phase of preparing to practice as a PA can leave you doubting your approach, technique, or even your ability. 


If you struggle too long with the insecurities that tend to arise in each phase, you'll have difficulting moving forward or gaining the confidence you need to be an effective PA. 


In this post, we'll take a look at the most common self-doubts for each phase of future-PA prep and lay out how to level up at each stage of your PA journey. 


Stage 1: Preparing for PA School

Everyone else seems to be further along than me.
— Pre-PA Self Doubt

When you first start looking into the possibility of becoming a PA, it can feel like everyone else knows more than you, started sooner, or has access to resources that you don't. 


Those assumptions are valid but only to a point. The people that are doling out advice are typically a little further along than you, at least in a particular area. Once we've navigated something successfully, we're more inclined to share our experience.


But, you're not hearing from the thousands of other people that are in your exact position. They too feel like they don't yet know enough to offer insight to others or if their "non-traditional" path to PA school makes them different than everyone else trying to do the same.


You may not find them answering questions on forums or openly giving advice in pre-PA groups, but they are the silent majority. 


So, it's first necessary to understand that despite how it may feel, you are not alone. Also, everyone that now has some insight to share was once in your position. 


It doesn't matter where you're starting, only that you find resources to help move you forward. 


How to "level-up" in Stage 1

In the pre-PA phase, you can accelerate your plan tremendously by finding a mentor. Having someone who has "been there" to weigh in on your ideas, advise on possible patient contact roles, and help you with the application process is invaluable. 


While it can be helpful to understand what your peers are doing to prepare for PA school, it's impossible to cover every potential pre-PA activity. Having a mentor can help you filter through the many options to figure out the best plan for you. 


Even if your plan doesn't change at all, getting it endorsed by someone who is in the know will grow your confidence substantially. 


So, your mission is to find a PA mentor. 


Connect with PA through a shadowing opportunity, an alumni association, a family member or friend, or community service. Even if you're a little shy, or not sure you can find someone, or live in too small of a town or too big of a city. 


No excuses. The quality of your pre-PA plan depends on it. 


Stage 2: PA Student

If I’m not completely overwhelmed, I must not be working hard enough.
— PA Student Self-Doubt


Ever find yourself in an elevator, leaving a class, or the parking lot at work responding "Just so busy!" when a colleague, classmate, or friend asks how you've been? 


Often, we wear being busy as a badge of honor. It's the proof that we deserve what we have or what we earn.


We can feel an external pressure to say we are busy to prove we being productive. But busy-ness and productivity are not the same things.


Navigating this difference a PA student can be difficult because there are, genuinely, many demands on your time. In PA school, there's a lot of information to take in and much of how you absorb the material will be up to you. You legitimately don't have much free time. 


However, being overwhelmed in PA school is not a requirement. You can study medicine while staying sane, but it takes intentionality and a strategy. 

How to "level-up" in Stage 2

Don't think of time as the one reason you can't improve or advance as a PA student. 


How you study and how you organize your time will have a more significant impact on your sense of control than the amount of time you spend studying. 

How to Be a Better Pre-PA and PA StudentlBe a Physician Assistant


PA students are tired. When we're tired, we succumb more easily to distractions. So, it's often not enough to decide to spend "all weekend" studying. 


A better system and strategy is needed if you hope to be productive rather than just busy. And, a better system won't require the entire weekend. 


It will, however, require that you schedule your work in (manageable) blocks of time, commitment to eliminating distraction during these periods, and create a rhythm for working that is reproducible.


If you set up a routine, you'll develop habits that make getting directly to work and ignoring distractions easier. You'll feel less busy and be more productive. 


For inspiration, I highly recommend reading either How to be a Straight-A Student or Deep Work by Cal Newport. Either will give you an excellent foundation to create new, better study habits and make a case for why you don't have to aim to be overwhelmed, even if all of your classmates seem to be.


Stage 3: New Graduate PA

I’m expected to know everything about being a medical provider.
— Early-Career PA Self-Doubt


One of the toughest things about being a brand new PA, other than feeling like you should know everything about medicine, is admitting you don't know everything about medicine. 


Being a new PA is a strange feeling particularly for the first few months. Just weeks ago, people were telling you if you had the right or wrong answers, if your ideas were good ones or not, or if you picked the right first-line medication for the treatment of a theoretical patient.


Now, no one tells you that you got the right answer. They expect that you know how to treat the patient. When you reach the correct diagnosis and choose the appropriate treatment, there's no confirmation that you did a good job. (Other than when you scramble to look it up after leaving a patient's room.)


As a new PA, you have the same authority to treat patients as PAs with 5 or 20 years of experience. Patients often don't know that you're brand new. If you're working in a hospital or interacting with staff at an outside practice, often those you are working with won't realize this is your first gig either. 


As a result, you may feel pressured to provide an answer in which you're not entirely confident. Wanting to please a patient, you may set unrealistic expectations for what's possible. Hoping to not look like foolish, you may hesitate to ask a colleague a question that you would have been perfectly comfortable asking as a student mere months ago. 


How to level-up in Stage 3

The first step to growing as a brand-new medical provider is choosing to work in a place that will be accepting of your newness. Look for a role where you'll be supported as a new graduate with colleagues and staff who are open to training you on the job. 


But regardless of the environment, the most important way you can grow as a brand new PA is to be open to what you don't know. Continue to ask questions as if you were a student. Don't be afraid of appearing as if you don't know enough. 


Most people love to be helpful, especially when you're asking for their expertise. Your new colleagues will likely jump at the chance to teach you something. 


Follow the same approach with patients. If you don't know something, tell them you'll check with someone who does. Though it may make you feel a bit vulnerable in the moment, patients will appreciate an answer you took the time to verify over than one that you seemed unsure of but that was readily offered. 


The only way you'll grow as a new PA is to acknowledge your limits. You want to be a better, stronger PA after six months or a year of practice. The path to getting there requires you to be open to learning what you don't know. 

Much of the doubt and insecurity that accompanies the journey to becoming a PA comes from what we think others are doing or our concern over what they think of us. 


But, if you stay where you are, silent about what you don't know, questioning your actions or not asking for help, you can miss out on the opportunity to become a better PA school candidate, PA student, or new graduate PA. 


Asking for guidance, creating a strategy, and acknowledging your limits is necessary if you want to level-up with each phase of your mission to become a exceptional PA.