Why I Became a Physician Assistant


If you follow the blog or have worked with me, you know that I believe nailing down your answer to “why do you want to be a PA?” is incredibly important.

Doing so will help you to develop a strong foundation, write effective personal statements, and perform better in PA school interviews. On the other side of this question for some years now, I can now easily describe what I love about being a PA and why it was the right choice for me.


But, as an applicant, my answer to why I wanted to become a PA was not so romantic.


Here’s what happened…


The list

In the first few weeks of our junior year, my friend Anna and I decided we needed to come up with some plans for our futures. Anna and I were both biology majors. After meeting in intro biology lab freshman year, we took most of our required science courses together. We agreed to each pick 3 potential careers and share them with each other the following week.


I was not exactly using my biology major as a jumping off point for a future career. Biology came easily to me in high school and I liked the subject material. It seemed like my obvious choice for a major. But, the only real decision I had made by the start of my junior year was I did not want to be a doctor, teacher, or work in a lab.


Like many eventual PAs, my family thought I should be a doctor. I held a work-study position at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh throughout college. I liked being in that environment. The work being done by the professionals seemed important and meaningful, but I did not know how I could fit into that world.


What I did know is that I didn't want to spend 10 years going through medical school, residency, and a fellowship to work in a specialty. I wondered how anyone could ever be sure they were choosing the right path. I’d be 30 before it was all over. At 19 years old, that seemed like  f  o  r  e  v  e  r  to me. Also, I can like being in control and can be kind of bossy. I didn’t think I’d do well being a trainee for that long. So, being a doctor was out pretty early in my college career, but nothing else was yet “in.”


A week after we set out to make our future plans, Anna and I shared our lists. We each only came up with one option - mine was being a PA, hers was being a physical therapy. Anna is a physical therapist.  



The seed

Choosing my lone career option did not come out of thin air. During the second semester of my sophomore year, my stepdad had a serious brain tumor. Once found, it required near immediate surgery. Surgery was followed by a long ICU stay and complicated by postop meningitis.


Through the weeks he spent in the hospital, Doug, a PA with the neurosurgery team, was the one heading up his care. I did not know that Doug was a PA, or what a PA was, for at least the first week. Doug ordered tests, performed exams, updated my family a few times a day, and was the one who caught the early signs of meningitis.


It was a pretty dramatic time, but it was not a lightning bolt moment when I realized my life’s purpose. I was not looking for career opportunities, but I did not forget about seeing what a PA could do either.


After sharing my list of one with Anna, I found a PA to shadow in pediatric neurosurgery. I followed her as she reviewed MRI films and performed lumbar punctures. I was impressed by her knowledge and her skill with patients.


Shadowing is what sealed the deal for me. Seeing the high level of care PAs could provide convinced me this was a career that was important and meaningful.



What no one told me about being a PA

There are more upsides to being a PA than the classic “work-life balance, team practice, and specialty flexibility." While those aspects are nice, they are not exclusive to PAs. Also, depending on where you end up working, they are not always true.


I have found some major benefits of being a PA that no one ever talked about while I was preparing for PA school. To me, these are more important than a work-life balance or the flexibility to switch specialties, as I'm not sure I'll ever experience either.


PAs can work at amazing places without a pedigree. I have worked at a top-ranked cancer center for most of my career. We hire new graduate PAs in my department (and across the hospital) every year. No one cared where I went to undergrad or grad school. I did not have to have a certain number of publications or be involved in the right kind of research to get in. If I wanted to move to another highly ranked hospital, there are plenty of opportunities for PAs, including new graduates.


PAs can move from one type of position to another without it seeming like a scandal or demotion. As a PA, I have the ability to move from a tertiary center to a community practice without worrying about how it might look to future employers. I do not have to focus on cultivating a career that shows I am rising up the ranks in a certain field. I can go from working in an outpatient role to an inpatient role, not a typical change for physicians. PAs can move from clinical practice to teaching at a PA program and later back to clinical practice without skipping a beat.


PAs have geographic freedom. As a PA, you will be able to find a position nearly anywhere in the U.S. You will not be told where you will live after matching for a residency. If you have to move for family or personal reasons, you are likely to be in demand in your new town or city. You can choose where you want to live first and find a position second, rather than the other way around.


You will have an “out." For me, this is perhaps the most important factor. I struggled with the idea that I’d have to choose one specialty and take one track if I became a physician. Though I have worked in outpatient oncology for my entire career, I have the ability to change that. Knowing that I could do inpatient, or shift work, or change specialties makes me feel that what I do every day is my choice, rather than the only option I have.

If I knew what I know now when I was applying to PA school, I would have had no hesitation to about my decision. To be honest, I wasn't sure if it was the right choice. I knew a little about it, but not nearly what I have come to understand since I started practicing.


It is totally normal to feel like your reason for wanting to be a PA is not grandiose enough. But, the reality is that most of us do not have dramatic origin stories.


Most of us find out about being a PA or see one in action, and slowly start learning more about it. After a few (or many) months, we dip our toe in the pool by volunteering or shadowing. Over time, the idea of a career as a PA grows on you. 


You don't need to worry about having a dramatic answer for why you want to be a PA. Your strongest, most honest answer will develop over time as you work towards your goal. And your most accurate answer will likely come well after you are a PA, once you come to learn why you love being one.