Why I Became a PA and Not a Physician

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My decision to become a physician assistant did not come easily or without much deliberation. Going into my freshman year at the University of Georgia, I declared myself a biology major, with an eager intent of going into some area of healthcare. I was well aware of the PA profession, but I had doubts about whether that was the right career path for me, and to be quite honest, I really didn’t even know myself yet.

As I spent many hours studying for chemistry and agonizing over my future, I looked at every option I could think of. I tend to be a research addict, so I made a list of potential professions I could do with my biology major. That list included everything from medical school to teaching high school biology. I had to ask myself important questions about my future. What would make me happy? How could I help people at the same time? Did I even have a future at all? (I could be a little dramatic at times.)

After surviving chemistry, and developing some intense test anxiety, I spent the summer between freshman and sophomore year shadowing as much as possible. I spent time with doctors, PAs, nurses, and physical therapists. I took the time to ask them about their studies and how they ended up in their chosen career paths. I also asked about their job satisfaction. At the end of that summer, I confirmed that becoming a PA was the right choice for me. I witnessed some amazing collaborative relationships between doctors and their PAs, and I also saw how a knowledgeable, confident PA is able to help their patients independently. As soon as I made this decision, it felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

There was also a personal part of this decision. I’ve always been a hard worker, and even at 19, I was ready to start working. There tends to be a stigma that students right out of undergrad are not “mature” enough to become PAs, but I don’t feel that was the case for me. The thought of spending seven more years of training in medical school and residency just stressed me out. And then to think I may not end up in the specialty I desired because of a test score completely ruled out that option for me.

Looking back, I have no doubts that I would have been able to succeed in medical school. My resident physician husband will tell you he’s glad we didn’t have to compete on tests, but I know that my competitive nature would not have gained me any friends in medical school. My PA school class was a family, and I love the support we were able to give each other without any weight of the competition of Step scores and the Match.

I’ve watched my husband and his classmates struggle through testing seasons, and support each other through failures. And I’m now experiencing the life of a resident’s spouse, which is not always fun and games. Residency is tough. While there are days I wish I had the intense training offered in residency, I am lucky to have an amazing supervising physician who is the best teacher I could ever ask for and I’m a better PA because of her commitment to my training, confidence in my knowledge, and the times she’s pushed me out of my comfort zone.

I can honestly say that I’m happy to go to work, and I’m happy to go home knowing that I have been able to serve my patients. I don’t envy my supervising physicians as they make business decisions about how to keep the practice running and make us more efficient. While they meet over lunch and stay late, I’m home on time without any residual thoughts of the office.

I didn’t necessarily choose PA for the “lateral mobility” that many hopeful PAs will enthusiastically claim as their reason for not becoming a physician. It’s certainly not a downside, but I don’t plan on switching specialties anytime soon. It was a comforting thought when my husband was applying to residencies that with a potential move, I had no concern that I would be able to find a great job, even if it wasn’t in my desired specialty. And when it comes to “work life balance,” I believe that is a choice you make no matter what career you choose, PA or physician.

Three years out from my PA school graduation, I am still confident in my decision. As the job market continues to expand and the patient population continues to understand how PAs fit into their healthcare, I can say that I’m proud to be a member of this profession.

Savanna is currently practicing full-time as a physician assistant in dermatology, while also running The PA Platform, which is a site that provides information about the PA profession and helps hopeful Pre-PA students achieve their goals. She is also a 2017–2018 Doximity Fellow

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