Shadowing is crucial for all future PAs. It is essential to making an educated career choice.
Some may think they are sure of their choice without shadowing, believing the combination of an interest in medicine, appealing aspects of being a PA (flexibility, salary, training time), and the fact that PA school prep make take a couple of years warrants skipping past shadowing and moving right into PA school prep.
These people are wrong. There are very good reasons to spend time observing a PA in action before diving head first into pre-PA prep. Here are the three most compelling ones.
1. What you think a PA does vs. what a PA does
As with many jobs, what a PA can do may be very different than what a PA does do. There is more to being a PA than seeing patients, ordering tests, determining diagnoses, and providing medical solutions.
Most PAs spend a good portion of their day with patients, developing relationships and explaining disease processes and treatment plans. How a PA accomplishes this varies with a patient’s age, level of understanding, education, and compliance with the treatment. Seeing how a PA handles a difficult patient can give you insight to whether you could do or want to do the same.
PAs often act as patient care coordinators, calling specialists for referrals, obtaining prior authorizations, working with patient assistance programs to provide medications. Understanding that there is more to being a PA than the “job description” can help you in deciding if it is the right career path for you.
2. Being a PA is a dead end job
This was the motto of one of my PA school instructors. I thought it was a little strange back then, but over time I have realized it is remarkably accurate.
PAs are highly involved in patient care throughout their careers. This is unique to the profession. Yes, physicians and nurses can choose to stay in patient care, but often career advancement for a physician or nurse means an increased administrative role. There are many opportunities for physicians and nurses that do not involve direct patient care.
This is not the case for PAs. The focus on patient care persists through a PA's career, even for those who go into management or education. The vast majority of PA program faculty (85.8%) and PA program directors (94%) continue to practice clinically.
PAs are trained in primary care and our skills are specific to the role that we have. Being a PA is not a launching pad for the next step, it is the final step.
People who become PAs typically love the idea of focusing on patient care throughout their careers, but you need to be sure you are one of these people. Shadowing provides you the opportunity to see what it means to focus on patient care.
Even if you have jumped a few steps ahead and are working on PCE or prerequisite courses, take time to start shadowing now. If you find that a career focused on patient care is not for you, it is better to have lost a few months of time in preparation rather than a few decades in a career that isn't the right fit.
3. Access to personal favors
Shadowing not only allows you to learn if being a PA is right for you, it connects you to an individual that can give you priceless intel for free.
Many pre-PA students get their advice from peers who are in the same position as them. But, shadowing gives you the advantage of learning about pre-PA prep, PA school, and the field from someone who has actually been through it successfully.
Take time to regularly shadow the same PA. It does not have to be the first one you find, but find someone you want to spend time with to learn more. Developing a relationship will provide you with not only more information, but it will make you more comfortable when the time comes to ask for something.
Your PA may have colleagues in other specialties in which you want to shadow. Maybe they attended or have a connection with a PA program you are planning to target. Your PA may know of a great job opportunity where you can get direct patient care.
Another advantage of shadowing is making a connection for a letter of recommendation (LOR). The majority of PA programs now require at least one LOR from a PA. Even when it is not required, it definitely works in your favor to have at least one solid LOR from a PA.
An endorsement from one of their own will mean more to a PA school admissions committee than 3 shining letters from your biology professors. Shadowing is the easiest, most comfortable way to build a bridge and later ask for this.
Sure, you can get into PA school without shadowing, but why would you choose to miss out on the opportunity? Shadowing helps you to make an informed career choice and provides you with significant advantages in your PA school prep, whether or not a program requires it.
Finding a mentor who is a few steps ahead of you will give you deeper insight into the career and provide you with personal advice from someone who has been there. Witnessing a PA in action will improve your ability to craft your personal essay and perform in PA school interviews.
Shadowing allows you to make a connection with a PA who may be a key resource when you are ready to apply to PA school. Make the time and effort to build this relationship, it will be worth it.
Need help finding someone to shadow? Don't forget to download your free shadowing resources.
Physician Assistant Education Association, Physician Assistant Program Faculty and Directors Survey Report, 2015, Washington, DC: PAEA, 2015. doi: 10.17538/fsr2015.001.