Figured it would be easier to have all of these in one post. As always, shoot me an email if you have any additional questions about the whole process or PA school in general!
Questions about PA school:
1. Have you worked at a hospital or clinic for all the required shadowing hours?
Yes, upon graduating I took a CNA course. I got a job at a hospital as a float PCA. This stands for patient care assistant and is essentially a nurse’s aid, performing tasks like vital signs, blood sugars, and EKG’s, and helping with daily living activities like ambulation, getting dressed / washed up, and assisting with meals / going to the bathroom. I liked being in the float pool because it allowed me a vast array of experience. Each day I was sent to one of seven floors: telemetry, oncology, ICU, geriatrics, orthopedics, general surgery, or pediatrics. I had approximately 2200-2500 hours at the time of application.
2. What are key aspects that you look for in PA school that make you want to go there?
Ideally, I want an emphasis on preventive medicine or something beyond traditional western medicine. Tufts offers a class in Nutrition, BU offers a class in preventive medicine, PCOM is a PA program in a DO school, which focuses on osteopathy and a more holistic view of healthcare, OHSU offers classes called Gut and Metabolism and Hormonal Regulation and Reproduction, and Duke is associated with an Integrative medicine facility. These were my top 5 schools. I also looked for more than one elective, as this allows a broader and more personalized rotation experience.
3. Why not MD or NP?
I am collaborative rather than competitive and always have been (I used to tickle soccer players to get the ball away from them. That’s when my parents thought oh perhaps she would excel more in a dance class). For this reason, I don’t think I would enjoy the climate of med school – so cutthroat, competitive and high stakes. Most PA schools genuinely want all students to pass and learn the material, and hence there is no ranking or valedictorian system. I also wanted more time to spend honing different specialties that will supplement my knowledge a healthcare provider – NUTRITION! Med school is both time and financially more consuming, and would prevent me from spending as much time on my nutrition studies and having them contribute to a medical background. Furthermore, I think there is so much I could do with a nutrition background, be that in dermatology, gastroenterology or just family practice. Choosing to go the PA route means I can easily switch between these disciplines, rather than having to commit to one / doing an entirely new residency.
Regarding NP, I didn’t want to have to commit to a speciality before starting school because I had so many interests. I also didn’t know either the population or setting I wanted to work in. With PA, you can switch many times throughout your career and there’s a very broad scope of practice. I still love GI and maybe could see myself doing that somewhere down the line! It was also a longer training for me because I didn’t have my RN. I’d have to do an accelerated nursing program (1 year) followed by an NP program (2 years) vs the PA 2 years. However, with an NP you have total autonomy and don’t have to work under a physician with your license. So if opening your own practice is something you’d like to have the flexibility to do (without having an MD sign off on it), then this could be a good option for you!
4. What were your statistics before applying?
I had 2200-2500 hands on patient care hours. I worked as a PCA in the float pool at a nearby hospital. I also had about 200 hours volunteer work (through Cooking Matters as a nutrition instructor / classroom assistant). My overall GPA was a 3.79 and my science GPA was a 3.85. At the time of my application I was about half way through my Master’s in Nutrition and Functional Medicine. I was offered seats at Tufts University and Northeastern University, and received interviews at 5 schools, though didn’t take all of them after gaining acceptance to programs I liked.
5. Do you feel PA school is worth it?
100%. A resounding roar of yes. I was actually not excited to start when August rolled around. I kind of went into it knowing if I didn’t like it, that was okay because I had other options and I had another Master’s degree already. And my expectations were exceeded in every realm. My classmates are like-minded, curious, kind, hilarious, and just so wonderful, and being alongside them every day is so motivating to represent the PA field. My professors are inspiring and open to alternative treatments and ways of thought. It’s 2 years, a fraction of the cost of med school, pays well, you have autonomy when practicing, can easily switch between disciplines without having to do another residency or rotation, and is just a badass profession.
6. What’s your plan for next semester? How to keep the stress and anxiety at bay?
At the time of writing this, I just finished my first semester of school. Admittedly it was hell on earth, and is the hardest thing I’ve ever taken on. Being in a classroom for 9 hours a day, followed by 2-5 hours of studying afterwards is just downright draining. I wish I had stayed on top of things better during the week during first semester, rather than cramming 16 hours of studying in on the weekends. So my goal is to stay on campus and review the material THAT DAY, rather than waiting and telling myself I’ll do it the following day, and then pushing it off until the exam was coming up. I also wasn’t very efficient with my studying – rewriting all PowerPoints, studying while not very focused, and not taking breaks. Group study actually ended up being really effective for me, and I’ll try to do this earlier on in my studying this next semester. I also want to prioritize my important mediators: journaling, making time to do some breathing exercises, exercise, seeing friends, and cleaning my room. I cannot function when my study space is a disastrous mess. For a list of more 2018 resolutions, check out this post.
5. What’s been the hardest part of going back to school?
The sitting all day – feeling restless and cooped up in a classroom, whereas my days used to be filled with more movement. Because of back injury in high school, I have pain whenever I’m sitting for too long. I try to remedy this by seeing a chiropractor every few weeks. And also taking a 20-30 minute walk on my lunch break and stretching in between classes when we have a brief 5 minutes (for more tips on easy movement during the day, check out this post). I also really, really miss blogging. I have so many ideas for new content, and very unfortunately I’m limited to doing this on weekends. I strive to singularly focus on school during week days, otherwise my studying isn’t very efficient. Multitasking never really works in my favor. But I just have to remember that school is brief and temporary, and I’ll have time over breaks and when I finish. As of now, I’m taking time to invest in my future.
6. Do you regret enrolling in your program?
NO. Even in moments of absolute despair and when really really cool opportunities present themselves, I feel like I made the right decision and I am on my path. Keeping this in mind when I have NO motivation to study is really helpful.
7. Did you apply to PA school during undergrad?
No. I got my undergrad in psychology. When I graduated I took the necessary pre-reqs at community colleges / state schools, got my CNA, and worked at a hospital while taking courses. In total, I took 3 years off in between undergrad and PA school. I’m so glad I did this!!! Truthfully, PA school tends to be an older crowd, and it’s not uncommon to take some time and get experience before starting. In fact, everyone I’ve talked to in the program is glad they’re doing it when a bit older (not to say that 26 is by any means old). You need a bit of maturity to face the workload in my opinion.
8. How do you know if you’ll be allowed to integrate nutrition in your PA practice?
Point blank, I don’t. I will have to find and choose to align with a physician who has a similar mentality. Or work in an integrative medicine office. Truthfully, I don’t think this will be too difficult. Most patients come to their physicians and providers with questions from self-research. I haven’t faced any backlash yet re: talking about nutrition or probiotics with patients, and it makes you stand out. It also gives you an opportunity to educate the physician you choose to be alongside. For a bit more info about how I incorporated nutrition into rotations, check out this post. I was also recently accepted to a nutrition fellowship specifically for PAs, which I begin in August, 2020.
9. You had a previous degree in psychology as well as a masters in nutrition and functional medicine. I am curious why you obtained a master’s degree prior to PA school? To me it would seem like a lot of time spent in school, but is the approach to medicine totally different?
I got the master’s degree in nutrition and functional medicine beforehand because I wanted a robust education in nutrition before entering into medicine, so that I could marry the two philosophies into a cohesive practice when finished. I also needed 2000 hours of patient care before being able to apply to PA school as I didn’t do this in undergrad, so that allowed me to do the Master’s at the same time as acquiring patient care hours (it was an online program so I could easily complete the course load from the comfort of my own home). I suppose I could have just applied without the master’s but my real passion is nutrition and how it can be used alongside a traditional western medicine model! So I definitely wanted additional nutrition education before entering into school. It has provided me with a unique lens going through classes and rotations, and I’m so happy I did it!
10. When you graduate and finish your PA program, what are your goals? Are you planning on working under a MD or starting your own practice?
My goals are to integrate nutrition in a medical practice. Truthfully I’m not entirely sure how this will be enacted because I’m really just trying to focus on immersing myself fully into rotations without being too, too concerned or anxious about the future. But I see things really changing in the field and having the additional nutrition background just makes me more marketable to future employers. To clarify, as a PA, I cannot have my own practice; I must operate under / alongside a physician. I will definitely look to align with others in the field who share my beliefs, so that will be a must when I start interviewing for jobs next year.
addendum: I have now graduated and was just accepted to my first job as a primary care PA in a community health setting. Read all about that here!
11. If you could do it over again, given the opportunity, would you take the same route?
I would do it absolutely exactly the same. This isn’t to say my journey should be the same as yours, but it’s worked for me so far!
12. Can you tell me a little bit about like the classes you take and how long you spend on each topic? I read that like some programs have 10 classes at a given time?
Yes, I took somewhere around 7-8 classes per semester. Sometimes 3-4 exams per week, usually 2. Here is a screenshot from our calendar to give you an idea of what things are like:
(happy birthday Amy and Maureen!!!)
13. What made you decide on being a PA?
I’ve always been drawn to medicine, knew I didn’t want to be a physician or surgeon because healthcare is changing and doesn’t make sense financially to go to med school and go into primary care. I also wanted more time to spend honing different specialties that will supplement my knowledge as a healthcare provider, so I got my master’s in nutrition before going to PA school. I wouldn’t have had the financial capacity to do that if I went to med school. PLUS if you do emergency medicine for a few years then decide oh maybe I’d like dermatology, you can easily switch between these disciplines, rather than having to commit to one / doing an entirely new residency if you’re an MD.
14. Do you get breaks in between semesters?
Yes! 2 weeks after first semester, 1 week after second semester, 2 weeks after third semester, 3 weeks after fourth semester, and 1 week after the fifth semester. Then you’re done!
15. Do you have any advice on building a good application for PA school? I have a BS and I am currently taking a gap year and working as a medical scribe. I could use any advice you have.
My main piece of advice is to highlight what makes you different, and build consistency in your resume around that thing. Mine was nutrition and I had my masters in nutrition, volunteer work in nutrition, and my blog / social platforms about it, too. So I had this common theme and then was living it out in a variety of different ways. That way I could build out my personal statement in a consistent way, showing how I wanted to contribute uniquely to the field of PAs.
I also think having a variety of experience can benefit you, ie. medical scribe, dermatology MA, ER tech, PCA, nurses aide, EMT, etc. Show your range!
16. How did you go about selecting the schools you were applying to? Or do you have any additional advice for applying?
I love that Duke was associated with an integrative medical center, so that was on my list to apply. I’d also look through all the classes of programs, seeing if they had any coursework that felt more integrative to me. In addition to looking through the curriculum of the program, I’d also look at cities who had strong integrative or holistic practices, with the hopes that I could get a rotation there. Cleveland clinic, for example, has a functional medicine department. I don’t exactly recall every school I applied to as it’s been about 4 years now, but thought that Duke and OHSU had some holistic focus.
This (obviously) took so much time. Oddly enough, I ended up nowhere that had even a bit of an integrative focus, haha. And zero of my rotations had a holistic or functional medicine approach. But with enough tenacity, I was able to add them in myself. To both my rotations and my program. And I did just fine! As of last night actually, I was offered a position in primary care and in my interview I discussed at length how I saw myself incorporating nutrition in the practice. And teaching yoga to patients in group settings while doing nutrition education alongside movement. Which goes to show that if you pitch yourself in the right way, you can really incorporate whatever you’d like into your practice.
I wish I didn’t spend so much time thinking about this to be honest. Because you have to learn the traditional medicine, before adding in an integrative flair. And also you will inevitably (probably) be frustrated with the curriculum wherever you go. This isn’t representative of any specific program or instructor, but rather just where we’re at in healthcare right now. Again, entirely my opinion. If anyone has had a different experience and found a program with an integrative curriculum, would love to hear from you!
I am graduating in May from undergrad and I have been “pre-pa” for a year now, but I want to go down a more holistic path incorporating nutrition. How did you decide on PA school with your interest in nutrition and holistic medicine? Were you able to study under conventional teachers with your interest in more non-conventional methods?
Regarding PA school, I’ve written a little bit about why I decided on it hereand here. It was definitely a difficult decision for me to make. I got into my dream PA school, put the deposit down, but then had to forfeit the deposit because the timing just wasn’t right for me. I was still doing my Master’s in nutrition and I would have had to stop that program and pick back up when I finished PA school, which I was confident I would have done. So I ended up getting off the waitlist at another school in Boston with a later start date and I accepted! I’ve never once regretted the decision.
As you know, Boston is a HUB of medicine. Harvard medical school, Dana Farber, Brigham and Women’s and Mass General, etc – you get it. It’s an amazing place to study medicine, but we’re certainly behind in terms of integrative / functional medicine approaches. So PA school was ENTIRELY western medicine. In the beginning this was extremely frustrating. But as I continued to go through the program I began to appreciate it. I also shadowed a functional medicine doc half way through school and he recommended I NOT do functional medicine right away which I thought was incredible advice. I have to have a very firm understanding of which medications individuals are on and why they’re on them in order to even consider going off of them / the RIGHT way to go off of them. I firmly believe that in order to be the most holistic version I need a very, very deep understanding of both sides. This will take me a very long time to feel competent in this regard, but I want the traditional training of both models to then work on combining them somewhere down the line. I also REALLY wanted to be 100% covered by insurance, which made PA school even more appealing.
If you are 1000% gung ho in a more naturopathic side, then PA school likely isn’t for you and would be absurdly frustrating. Because you learn how to treat people when they’re sick rather than learning how to prevent them from getting sick. There’s very little focus on preventative care and lifestyle medicine. But if you want a balanced approach and generally like medicine and the problem solving nature of it, then PA school may be right for you.
Moving forward, I’d advise you to reach out to people who have a job you’re interested in. There are some PAs working in functional medicine already. I literally just called offices and asked to speak to PAs so I could find out if my dream of combining PA + nutrition + functional medicine was even possible. They took my calls and spoke so highly of their jobs. So it’s most definitely not the norm, but it’s also not impossible. I also spoke to naturopaths, chiropractors, dietitians, nutritionists, physicians. It was a lot of research before making the decision, but I believe it was the right one for me! Everyone is different, of course.
I also took 3 years in between undergrad and PA so you have time! Take that time to really sift through what it is you want out of your career. PA school is so grueling and you have to really want it to make it through.
I’ve spent the past few years researching all the different fields I could dive into. I understand the importance of credentials when it comes to providing people medical or nutritional advice, so I’ve been investigating the RD route. I also have a love for functional and integrative medicine but something about the ND route bothers me. This is how I’ve stumbled across the PA route. The team dynamic and broad medical training are appealing to me. I currently work with an MD who practices in an integrative clinic and I’m so into that setup and would love to be a part of the preventative medicine movement. Is a functional/integrative environment something you realistically think PAs could work under?
In contrast, if my true passion is in nutrition, do you feel the PA career would frustrate me? I sometimes worry I would feel limited by the RD route and would want “more” in terms of how I would be working with patients and treating them.
I think you nailed it in terms of what it means to be a PA – dynamic and communicative with the right amount of autonomy to really move the dial for patients. Prior to PA school I called a PA in an integrative office and she LOVED her job. She worked in a traditional cardiology setting at a major hospital before transitioning to the integrative route, so it’s definitely possible if you’re in the right setting. Not the norm, but integrative anything isn’t the norm unless you’re in a private practice setting / aligned with the right MD, be that in nutrition or PA.
Regardless if you go the RD vs PA route, you will inevitably be frustrated with the education. 90% of PA school is learning how to diagnose and treat. There truthfully wasn’t all too much education on prevention and lifestyle medicine. I also started an RD program before doing my integrative nutrition masters and was bothered by that – having to take classes in things like food management and kitchen engineering. Every school is different and has different classes but there are certain things the school is required to cover which I imagine would frustrate you. Unless you decide to go a master’s degree route with something exclusively integrative / functional nutrition or medicine. But (sigh) this too has its drawbacks. You’d likely have to do something more independent / private practice and it’s tough to get covered by insurance, which was something that was hugely important to me. I also felt the RD route would be too limiting and that I’d eventually want to do more. I love the idea of having my own patients, motivating lifestyle and really understanding the medications in order to know how to come off of / taper them down if that opportunity arises / feels appropriate for that patient. I also knew that only thing I’d be super interested in in terms of nutrition was an outpatient practice, whereas I think there’s a way to sprinkle nutrition into patient education with a vast array of specialties (primary care, GI, derm, some emergency, etc).
Overall, I don’t regret PA for a single moment. I understand the human body in a far more complex way. It also helps the salary is healthy and seems fair for what we pay for school. Whereas RD is similar in expense but doesn’t pay as much if you work in a traditional setting. Hate to toss the financial argument in there but that was definitely important to me as I weighed the two against each other. AND you can switch between specialities if you start to feel one get stale for you. I didn’t feel that was the case with RD.
I hope this is even remotely helpful! If you take all the pre-reqs you can technically apply to both (they’re quite similar for RD and PA) and see where you land!