How to Overcome Three Mistakes in Your Shadowing Hunt

How to Overcome 3 Mistakes in Finding PA ShadowinglBe a Physician Assistant


The pre-PA topic that I'm asked about most often, other than what to do with a low GPA, is how to find shadowing opportunities. I'll admit, finding PAs to shadow can be a challenge, but it's certainly one that you can overcome.


And it's one worth overcoming, even if shadowing is not "required" by your target PA programs. 


Before you spend a lot of time and money going down a path to become a PA, you should be absolutely sure of what being a PA is like. Even if you've worked alongside PAs before, being in the room with them while they see patients is a much different experience. 


But, beyond making sure your on the right track, shadowing also gives you huge advantages strategically. Shadowing is usually the easiest avenue to get a letter of recommendation from a PA, which is something that is valuable for any applicant to have (even more so than a letter from a physician). 


Shadowing also gives you an experience that can be essential to writing an authentic-sounding personal essay and in answering questions well in a future PA school interview. 


However, many prospective PA students give up the hunt to find someone to shadow prematurely, forfeiting all of the potential opportunities that shadowing can provide. 


After fielding this question over and over, I've identified three primary hangups that are often at the root of the struggle to find a PA to shadow. 


Here is what most often holds pre-PA students back from finding providers to shadow and what you can do instead to find a mentor successfully.


Mistake #1: You're not targeting your search. 

Doing an internet search for PAs is your area or cold calling a medical office to find someone to shadow may occasionally work, but success with these tactics is infrequent and using them is not usually the best use of your time. 


How to Overcome 3 Mistakes in Finding PA ShadowinglBe a Physician Assistant

Instead, you're more likely to find a mentor by focusing your search on those interested in helping out the next generation of PAs.


Often, these PAs will be members of professional organizations within their state or subspecialty (like surgery, pediatrics, or dermatology). 


Many of these organizations have memberships available to prospective PA students, which may give you access to a member directory. You can find a full list of these state and subspecialty organizations at AAPA's website


In the age of social media, you can also easily connect with PAs who are putting themselves out there publicly to promote the PA career, particularly on LinkedIn and Instagram.


If someone is spending their time supporting the PA profession, they are more likely to be interested in helping others navigate the pre-PA world. If they can't take you on as a shadow, they might be able to connect you with someone that can.


An essential part of targeting PAs is to show you focused on them for a reason when you make your request. A generic email won't work. 


When reaching out to prospective mentors, your request should be personal. Take a moment to review their profile and search for any publications they have. If they work in a specialty, incorporate this in your request. 


"I'm interested in the PA profession and how PAs work in surgery and would love to see first-hand what your daily work involves. I am also planning on applying to the PA program at your alma mater and would love to get your insights on the program" goes a very long way. 


Mistake #2: You haven't yet asked enough people. 

It is discouraging to be turned down or ignored when you reach out for shadowing. It can even feel embarrassing after putting yourself out there. 


This disappointment is behind many of the questions I field on the topic. But when I press those who ask me about shadowing on how many people they've reached out to, it's often less than five. 


Being ignored, even by email, stinks. I completely understand the feeling.


I reach out to a lot of people for interviews for different projects of mine and, more often than not, I'm ignored. I've been a PA for 12 years and worked at a prestigious hospital for a decade, and I don't get a reply. 


I've gotten to the point that I'm okay with it for the same reasons that you should be—people are awful at managing their email promptly and will simply delete what they can from their inbox, and I'll probably never meet them. My reasoning may or may not be true, but telling myself this and allows me to feel better and move on to the next potential opportunity. 


If you allow yourself to wallow in the handful of denials you receive, you'll never ask enough people to find shadowing. If you target well and ask 10-15 PAs, there's an incredibly high probability you'll find someone. And if you don't get someone by 15, keep going. 


Mistake #3: You're blaming geography.

Maybe you live in a college town, and there are too many students requesting shadowing for the local hospital and practices to accommodate them. Perhaps you live in a small town without access to PAs. Or you might live in a city that has dozens of hospitals, but the hospitals restrict the amount of shadowing you can do at each. 


These are all reasons I've heard for the lack of shadowing opportunities. 


But here's the thing: other applicants are finding ways around these obstacles. They are finding shadowing even in small towns with a single regional hospital and in major metropolitan areas saturated with medical trainees. 


These applicants will be getting the advantages of getting PA-written letters of recommendation and gaining experiences they can use in their applications, essays, and interviews. They will be vying for the same spots as you in PA programs. 


So, if you want to reap the benefits of shadowing, you cannot fall victim to the idea that it's harder for you than most. 


It may take some creativity to accomplish your goal. If the hospitals in your area restrict shadowing to a certain number of hours, start with the opportunities you do have. 


If you can get a day of shadowing in at a hospital, take it. At least that's a starting point. Even if you're not able to shadow a PA long-term, they may still be willing to mentor you. You might consider shadowing a few different PAs to find one that is the right fit.


Ask if you can follow up with questions or schedule to meet with them for 30 minutes every two weeks to chat. You'll gain the benefit of their insight and the more they get to know you, even if it's not through direct shadowing, the more likely you are to get a high-quality recommendation for your application. 


If your target PA programs have a minimum number of shadowing hours required, you should be able to meet these even if you can only spend one day with each provider you find.  

To be successful in your hunt for shadowing, you have to target your search on the right kind of PAs, continue to ask for opportunities even when you face rejection, and get creative when necessary. 


Finding a mentor can give you access to better understand the everyday work of a PA, result in experiences that will strengthen a personal statement, and connect you with someone who can provide a coveted PA-written letter of recommendation at application time. 


Remember, even when you feel like giving up, your competition isn't. Let that be your motivation to send out a few extra requests in your search to find shadowing.