Some of the descriptions physician assistants in training use to describe their education experience include: “Demanding,” “Intense,” and “Like drinking from a fire hose.”
This makes sense. You’re embarking on a career that will require you to diagnose illnesses, prescribe medication, develop treatment plans, and, in many cases, serve as your patients’ chief healthcare provider. You would expect this type of career path to require a depth and breadth of medical knowledge that can only be obtained by completing thousands of hours of education and training. It’s challenging, but the end result is a career that is ultimately rewarding and important, especially in an era where there is an urgent need for qualified healthcare professionals.
This isn’t a road you’ll have to travel alone. Current and former PA students who stressed the importance of relying on your classmates for support, both academic and emotional. We’re here to help, too. We’ve created this guide to offer you the solutions, tools and expert advice you’ll need to survive — and thrive — as you enter PA school.
PA School Study Survival
“Three weeks in and I am drowning in the material. First semester anatomy is insane! I feel like I have been staying up on the material really well, but at the same time it is so overwhelming.”
– A PA student discussing their first-year challenges on a web forum.
While it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed in PA school, the good news is that there are numerous tips, apps, and other resources to help PA students get into the groove.
Perhaps not surprisingly, PA classes come with a mountain of material to sift through. When you’re confronted by the thought of “Where do I even start?,” step back, take a few deep breaths, and know that there are things you can do to get the most out of your study sessions.
Study Apps and Tools
Physician assistant training might seem daunting, but take heart; technology is on your side. For studying with flashcards, getting the most up-to-date medical news, and finding peer-reviewed disease indexes, like the old iPhone ads used to say, there’s an app for that.
Surviving PA Clinical Hours
When you begin your clinical rotations, you’ll take the knowledge you learned in the didactic (teaching) portion of your PA training and apply it to the real world.
The things you learn during this period will help you gain the certainty you need to be an effective part of a healthcare team and gain a better understanding of a specialty you might want to pursue once your schooling ends.
Here are some tips to help you survive during this hectic time.
Hacks for Clinical Rotations
Apps and Tools for Clinicals
Don’t feel like you need to tackle your clinical hours on your own. The AAPA recommends these apps and resources to help you through portion of your PA training.
Surviving PA School Time Management
PA school is demanding, with many students juggling their course work, jobs, and family life. In this next section, we’ll look at some of the dos and don’ts of time management and share a few apps that can help physician assistants in training better manage their time.
Time Management Do’s and Don’ts
Time Management Apps and Tools
Does it feel like time gets away from you during the course of your day? Get back on track with the help of these time management apps.
Stress Survival for PA Students
PA students experience greater levels of stress than most people in America, according to a 2012 study published in The Journal of Physician Assistant Education. It’s safe to assume that in 2021 and beyond, PA students are still experiencing similar stress levels. The good news is that in a study by the Physician Assistant Education Association, 74% of PA students reported that they sometimes or always felt that things were going their way. In that same study, only 2.1% of students reporting always feeling like difficulties were piling up so high that they could not overcome them. It’s important for all students in these programs to find coping strategies.
Stress Management Strategies
Stress can affect PA students at different times in their school career and in different ways. Writing on her blog, veteran PA and PA student coach Ryanne Coulson says that this stress can last long after your schooling ends.
But she also notes there are ways to deal with some of the more common stressors you’ll face during this time.
Stress Management Apps and Tools
There are a number of apps designed to help PA students deal with stress and overcome anxiety during this busy time. Some of the more popular ones include:
Surviving Financially in PA School
As you consider a career as a physician assistant, you’ll likely find yourself asking the same question your peers who want to be lawyers or nurses or dentists ask themselves: “How will I pay for this?”
Below, you’ll find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about financial aid for PA school.
Q: Is financial aid available for PA school?
A: Absolutely. Once you’re accepted to a PA program, you’ll fill out a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which will help determine what federal programs are open to you to help finance your education.
The school’s financial aid office will let you know how much you are eligible to borrow based on this application.
Some common federal loans include:
- Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
- The Federal Perkins Loan Program, which is offered through schools.
- The Stafford Loan Program, which is offered by banks and other lending institutions.
In addition, there are also a number of state-level loan programs. Your school’s financial aid office will likely have more information.
However, keep in mind that there are also a wide variety of grants and scholarships available to PA students.
Q: Is it possible to go to PA school without going into debt?
A: Yes, but don’t get discouraged if you must rely on loans to finance part of your education. Many PA students take on some debt to finance their education. According to a report by the Physician Assistant Education Association, average in-state tuition for PA public programs increased from $38,794 to $52,585 from 2014 to 2019, while average tuition for private programs increased from $74,475 to 95,058 during that same timeframe.
By coming up with a sound financial plan, applying for scholarships, and choosing a school that fits your budget, you can go to PA school without taking on too much debt.
Q: What scholarships are available for PA school?
A: The American Association of Physician Assistants offers a number of different scholarships to its members. There are also several scholarships designed for students who represent different groups, such as students from underrepresented minority groups, students who are the children or veterans or students who want to work in rural health.
Q: Can I work while attending PA school?
A: Many students do hold down jobs while attending PA school. However, several veterans of PA programs warn that it’s a lot to take on during such a busy time. And some PA programs simply don’t allow their students to work outside the program.
Q: How much do physician assistants get paid?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistants earned a wage of between $36,500 and $175,000 a year in 2019, with a median salary of $80,500.
It’s also a job with much more flexibility than doctors enjoy, offering shorter, more regular hours in a field where your skills will always be in demand.
Financial Management Apps and Tools
You’ve read about apps to manage your time and control your stress levels, so it won’t come as much of a surprise to learn there are apps and tools to help you apply for financial aid and stay on top of your finances. For example:
While there’s plenty of material online about surviving PA school, nothing can compare with hearing from people who have done it themselves. We spoke to two PA program graduates who were kind enough to share their experiences.
Matt Kohls is a 2020 graduate of Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania currently looking for a PA position.
Rebecca Buckley is an inpatient and outpatient psychiatric physician assistant who has also served on the faculty at the physician assistant program at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Here’s what they had to say about their experience with PA school.
Q: What are some things you know now about PA school that you wish you had known going in?
Rebecca Buckley: When I went to PA school 35 years ago, it was different than it is now. It was just as rigorous; however, due to the current requirements for a master’s degree, it is even more of a time commitment due to the added courses. I taught in Drexel University’s PA Program for 12 years and it always amazed me how packed the curriculum was. There’s literally no spare time at any point in the training. It is difficult on relationships, and it is difficult financially.
Matthew Kohls: Prior to PA school, I had read many forums on what it is like being a PA student and what to expect. However, there is a difference from just reading a forum and actually being a PA student. PA school is a very rigorous educational experience. The majority of your time is spent in class or out of class studying. I don’t think I truly conceptualized in my head until I was actually doing it.
Q: What was the toughest part of the clinical side of your education? How did you get through it?
Rebecca Buckley: The toughest part of the clinical year was changing sites every six weeks. No sooner had you started to feel competent, then you were done [and] headed to another site and practice you knew little about. The other thing I found challenging was the vast differences in teaching styles, level of autonomy with talking with patients, performing procedures and physical exams. There was quite a range.
I kept my “eye on the prize.” If things were tough, I kept reminding myself it wasn’t forever. I also looked at it as a learning process, I learned what I didn’t want to do, as much as I learned what I wanted to do.
Matthew Kohls: The toughest part of the clinical side of my education was the transition from student to clinician. I found it very challenging in the beginning to talk to the patient while also forming a differential list of everything that could be wrong at the same time. As time went on, I got better at that skill from experience and by consistently going over my notes when I went home to really reinforce concepts in my head.
Q: What advice would you offer to students who are having trouble with time management?
Rebecca Buckley: Don’t procrastinate. Keep up with all reading and assignments because there will always be something that comes up that will need your attention. Be realistic. Know your strengths and weaknesses and plan accordingly. Tackle the most challenging assignment first.
Join a study group, if you find it is distracting, or not as focused as you need to be, venture out on your own.
Spend time in the library (school, local, etc.) or another place that’s quiet without the distractions of home.
Make a schedule, and stick to it.
Matthew Kohls: My advice for students who are having difficulties with time management is to prioritize your work. Oftentimes, there are a lot of assignments, tests, practicals, and projects which can be stress inducing if you look at the big picture. It is important to take it by a week by week basis and focus on that particular week. The work due that week should take a higher priority than something in the following week.
Another advice piece I have is to take small frequent breaks (10 minutes every hour). While it may sound counterproductive, giving yourself that small break can make you more productive the next 50 minutes that you do work.
Q: What methods did you use to help you study?
Rebecca Buckley: I rewrote all my notes at night after the lectures, including rereading the Power Points. Anything I wasn’t totally clear on I would read the textbook to clarify. If I still wasn’t totally sure I went to the professor for clarification.
Repetition is the key. Reviewing new material within 24 hours of first learning it helps solidify the new knowledge.
Matthew Kohls: I’ve always been the type of person who printed out the notes and listened as the professor went along. If I heard something important that wasn’t on the notes, I would jot it down on the side. After class, I spent a lot of time on each individual disease state until I felt like I had mastered it.
I built what I called “concept maps” in my head for each disease. I attempted to connect the pathophysiology of the disease to the signs and symptoms and then to potential treatments. This strategy worked very well for me and I believed it helped me get a better understanding of each disease.
Q: By all accounts, becoming a PA can be pretty stressful. Was that your experience, and if so, how did you cope with stress?
Rebecca Buckley: Yes. I was so stressed that I started having hives the night before each exam, and after the exam, they would disappear. I mostly coped by “compartmentalizing.” I had to have time booked into my schedule on the weekends that had nothing to do with school.
Matthew Kohls: For myself, PA school was definitely a very challenging but do-able experience. It’s arguable which year is more stressful, the first or the second. I found the first year to be more stressful because of the avalanche of information being presented to you to learn. I spent the majority of time outside of class studying to stay as on top of the material as possible. On the weekends, it wasn’t super uncommon to study from the morning to bedtime to try and become as proficient as I could. My second year, while stressful, got better as time went as I started to feel more and more confident in myself as a provider.
I coped with the stress in a variety of ways. My biggest stress reliever was being able to lift weights or going for a run. Physical activity helps clear my brain and also makes it fresher for when I would start working again. Another big stress reliever was leaning on my roommates who were also in the same program as me. It was always nice to be able to talk about what was going on with someone who understood what you were going through. I highly recommend anyone entering a PA program to make a couple of friends because I think it incredibly important for success.
Q: What’s something that’s different about your field now compared to when you first started?
Rebecca Buckley: I work in a sub-specialty (psychiatry), while early on most PA’s worked in primary care. Now it is much more weighted in specialties, primarily surgical subspecialties, especially in urban and suburban communities.
In addition, we are making a lot more money. Again mostly in the surgical subspecialties.
Our profession, much like other providers, is driven by insurance reimbursement. Early on, we were hired to help treat some of the more common medical complaints so our physician partners could concentrate on some of the more complex cases. Now, it is all about money, how many patients we can see and how much we will be reimbursed. We still have physician back-up if we need it, but we are much more autonomous now.
Matthew Kohls: COVID-19 is something that is most certainly different about my field now than when I first started PA school. The pandemic has put many hospital systems into hiring freezes and in some cases the furloughing of employees. This is mainly due to the huge loss of revenue many hospitals suffered during the pandemic. This has made finding employment more challenging than under normal circumstances.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being a physician assistant?
Rebecca Buckley: It is all about taking care of people as best as I can and treating them with respect and compassion, no matter who they are or where they come from. The human connection.
I know you did not ask, however, what I do not like about being a PA is the lack of respect we sometimes suffer from other medical providers.
It is always providers who have never actually worked with a PA… “I know somebody who knows somebody who was treated by an incompetent PA…” It feels at times that it is more of a turf war than about actually taking care of people and providing quality healthcare. They generally have no idea the training we have or the ongoing medical education to keep our licenses. Fortunately, the nurses, NP’s, physicians etc. I have worked with in the past have been respectful, supportive, and great team players.
Matthew Kohls: While it may sound cliché, my interactions with patients are what I enjoy most about being a PA. Having the opportunity to meet people in need and being able to help them is incredibly satisfying for me. I love knowing that what I’m doing can have a positive impact on someone living a longer, healthier life.