Last week I wrote about why you should shadow a physician assistant if you plan to apply to physician assistant school.  One of our readers emailed me (please do if you have something you’d like to read about) and asked me, “How do you find someone to shadow?”  I gave some ideas off-the-cuff, but I decided a more formal reply was in order…


A student shadowing a physician assistant

Remember how busy clincians are

First Remember…

Doctors and PAs are exceptionally busy. There are patients to see and charts to read and update.  Nurses, insurance companies, labs, office staff, and patients all want things from them (signatures, prescriptions, phone consultations, their time to discuss a new pharmaceutical product, etc.)   It can fatigue them and make them reluctant to take on unnecessary commitments.  This means that if you “cold call” them to ask about shadowing, what they’ll probably hear is: “Hi, doctor.  You don’t know me from Adam, but I want to come slow your day down by following you everywhere and asking questions.  It would help me a lot (though it doesn’t help you).  So when can I start?” There really isn’t much incentive for them to say yes, and saying no is just, well, easier.

So What Do You Do?

Use Your Connections.  Odds are, you know a doctor or PA, or you have a friend or family member who does.  Ask this person to bring it up with them (the clinician).  All they need to say is, “My cousin/friend/neighbor is really interested in becoming a physician assistant.  Is there any possibility he/she could come shadow you sometime?” or “Do you know any doctors or PAs who would be willing to have a student shadow them so they can get a sense of the field?”  When this request comes from someone with whom you already have a relationship, it feels much different.  You’d want to help a friend, wouldn’t you? Using this connection isn’t manipulation at all –it’s networking.

No Connections?  No Problem.

If you don’t have a connection like this, there is one nearly foolproof alternative: ask your own provider.  Schedule a checkup or something similar (don’t fake an illness!)  When your physician/physician assistant meets with you, chat with them a little, and then tell them your situation.  Ask for their suggestions.  In most cases they will offer right then and there if they are open to it; it’s harder for them to turn you down in person.  Besides, it will feel different to them because they know you.

An AlternativeConsider volunteering in international medical programs

If you strike out, consider volunteering.  It’s a great way to get medical exposure in a short period of time.  Emergency rooms provide great learning opportunities.  Also look for private and nonprofit volunteer organizations in your area.  In California we have Rock Medicine (, and other states may have similar organizations.  International organizations are also a great way to get medical experience while taking a vacation.  If you’re a borderline candidate, this could really make your application leap out at a physician assistant school admissions committee.  Check out The International Medical Volunteer Association at for a list of international opportunities.  My favorite is Amigos de las Americas (