“Why do you want to be a PA?”
Seems easy, right? It’s because you like science and want to help people.
But there’s a problem with that response - it applies to every healthcare profession, and even some jobs outside of the healthcare setting like a clinical research coordinator.
In a sense, there’s a question behind the “Why PA?” question: “Have you educated yourself on how a career as a PA differs from that of an MD, DO, NP, RN or another healthcare professional?”
In other words, you basically need to answer “why not doctor?” and “why not nurse?” It might sound annoying, especially if you’ve already been bombarded by this question from your friends, family, professors, and mentors.
But addressing these questions behind the question is the only way to write a compelling, convincing answer.
Let’s go over three key strategies that will remove all doubt in the admissions committees’ minds that being a PA is singularly the right career for you.
Let’s start with a strategy called “Confirm by Contrast,” which works exactly how it sounds - you confirm PA by contrasting it with other paths you could have taken.
That begs the question - what exactly are the differences between a PA and other healthcare careers?
Doctors must work hard for their independence. They spend four years studying for their undergraduate degree from medical school and another two years earning their medical degree. New graduates then face between three and seven years of residency before they can obtain their license to practice medicine or surgery.
Qualifications vary from state to state, but most physician assistants become licensed after completing a four-year degree followed by a 25-month accredited physician assistant program and then a one-year clinical rotation. During these one- to two-month rotations, PAs are exposed to a range of specialties, including pediatrics and emergency medicine. Finally, students earn national certification and the license they need to work in the field. That means you can become a physician assistant after around seven years of higher study – half the time some doctors take to earn their qualifications. If you're already in med school, the undergraduate degree you earned to get there means you can apply for the physician assistant program right away.
Some individuals find that the work environment of a physician assistant is more suited to their personality. While doctors and physician assistants perform many of the same duties, PAs have a greater focus on patient care. They don't need to worry about budgets and bureaucracy, so a greater percentage of their time is taken up by the work that drew them to medicine in the first place.
Doctors train hard to get the skills they need to work in the specialty of their choice. But once they're there, they're pretty locked in. An orthopaedic surgeon who decides he'd rather work in pediatrics will need to spend several years receiving additional education before making the switch. However, once you obtain your physician assistant license, you have the qualifications you need to work in any medical specialty you like. That means you can transition from obstetrics to oncology without heading back to the classroom.
It can be tough juggling a personal life with the demands of being a doctor. These professionals often spend time analyzing a practice's revenue and expenditure once patients have gone home, and they're required to be on call after hours. PAs keep more regular schedules. They can work their required shifts and clock out without having too much spill over to their off-duty hours.
There is one obvious reason why most applicants do not want to become a nurse practitioner, but one main reason is, “I’m not a nurse.” You must become a nurse before you become a nurse practitioner. Becoming a nurse is a two to three- year commitment of time and money, then it will take another two years to attend NP school. In fact, the trend with NP’s now is to obtain a PhD. The NP route would take a huge investment of time and money.
PAs train as generalists and can practice in nearly any field with a collaborating physician. PAs can switch specialties without the need for new certification or education other than on the job training, and nearly 50% of them do so during their careers. NPs train in either primary care or acute care. NPs also have the flexibility to work in a variety of specialties, as long as the specialty falls within the area (primary or acute) and population for which they trained. If an NP wishes to switch roles or patient populations, additional formal education is required along with licensure for the new role or population.
With these differences in mind, let’s look at how you can use the “confirm by contrast” strategy to answer “Why PA?” in your Personal Statement:
Although my current CNA role allows me to connect with patients, I want to play a larger role in their care. I want to work on the frontlines for patients who experience social, geographical, and economic barriers to care. As mid-level providers, PAs ensure that the gaps between patient and provider are bridged. While shadowing PAs and MDs, I have found that PAs have a greater focus on patient care and fewer bureaucratic tasks. In addition, the workflow and teamwork of a PA are more suited to my personality. Beyond the balance of autonomy and collaboration, becoming a PA will offer the flexibility of switching specialties. Perhaps most importantly, 10 years from now, I don’t want to be starting my career. I want to be established and have a family, giving my kids the extra attention I did not receive during childhood.
This strategy directly addresses the question within the question, thereby removing doubt in the minds of admissions committees and showing them that you are making this decision based on thorough exposure and reflection.
This strategy overlaps a bit with the previous one, since many of the practical reasons for choosing a PA naturally arise through its comparison to other paths.
Oftentimes, someone’s career motivations can be entirely driven by passion, but that doesn’t quite work when answering “Why PA?”
The practical considerations for choosing the career - such as work/life balance or a shorter training timeline - simply cannot be ignored in your explanation. If you don’t bring them up, it will be quite difficult to distinguish it from other options.
However, you don’t want your “Why PA?” answer to sound so practical that it gets misinterpreted as “being a doctor is too hard” or “I don’t want to spend seven years of my life in medical school and residency.”
That’s why I’m a big proponent of the “practicality meets passion” strategy, where you try to show the PA career as the best of both worlds. This strategy creates a sense of totality and has great rhetorical power in convincing the reader.
As I wrestled with which path to take, I felt behind the curve given my previous career. If I chose medical school, I would not complete my training until age 37, which did not align with my desire to serve patients more readily. I secured a job as an MA in orthopaedics and worked alongside an incredible PA. While assisting the PA, I have come to appreciate his autonomy and scope of responsibility. Other than not performing surgeries on his own, he is nearly indistinguishable from the physicians. He uses his knowledge to diagnose and treat, yet he can also spend more time with patients as their advocate. I plan on being present for my patients in the same way and providing the personal level of care that a PA can offer. The PA practice most aligns with my timeline and goals, while also fulfilling the personal connection and lasting impact I want to achieve as a medical professional.
As you can see, this strategy fuses logic and emotion (logos and pathos for all you rhetoricians out there). If you attack “Why PA?” from multiple angles like this, it will be harder for admissions committees to cast doubt on the clarity of your vision.
Most “Why PA?” reasons I see are selfless:
I want to become a PA to protect the underserved and help them restore control over their health.
Not bad, but it ignores a crucial component: how being a PA will fulfill and stimulate YOU. Few PAs spend their entire career being selfless, so your “Why PA?” will seem unrealistic unless complemented by your own self-interest.
Becoming a PA will allow me to protect the underserved and help them restore control over their health, which I see as the most fascinating and fulfilling way to pay back the lifesaving efforts of clinicians in my immigrant community.
Just by adding the “fascinating and fulfilling” part, we can better see the fulfillment that you’ll derive from the career. Those aren’t particularly selfish ideas, but there’s more personal relevance behind the motivations. So add a little selfishness to your “Why PA?” to see if it makes it more convincing.
Obviously, you don’t want it to be entirely selfish, but that’s rarely a problem in applicants’ essays. If it is a problem, then that person probably shouldn’t be a PA.
As much as I appreciated my role in finance, I realized that I longed to help people in a more personally stimulating way. I asked myself, what do I never get bored of? Health, medicine, and wellness. When do I feel happiest? When I’ve nurtured someone or solved a problem. What are my innate qualities? Kindness, empathy, and curiosity. Where would all of these things combine to best serve others? As a clinician. Coaching and financial advising are great ways to help people, but being a PA would let me empower them in a more foundational way, within a career of lifelong learning where my expertise will never plateau.
Obviously, these aren’t the ONLY strategies for answering the “Why PA?” question, but I have found them to be tried and true. Feel free to borrow their ideas and make them your own.
Have any questions? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll respond to you personally as soon as I can.
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