It’s easy to get caught up in the demands of physician assistant requirements.  With all the exams for prerequisite classes, researching PA programs, filling out CASPA applications, chasing down letters or recommendation, and paying the bills any way you can, things can turn into a grind.  Do you feel that way?  I remember how clearly I felt it.

It’s been a while, and I’m feeling a reflective today, so I’ll share a little of my own story.  Sometimes it helps to see that others have been through something like what you are going through.  My story is not perfect, or even typical, but maybe you’ll get something out of it.

I hadn’t considered the field of physician assistant medicine much until I told my primary care physician, Dr. G., that I needed to do something different after being a stay-at-home father of three young children for five years.  Before being a parent, I had enjoyed working as a marriage and family therapist, but it was hard work that didn’t pay well, and it just didn’t seem like the answer.  Dr. G. told me about a PA named Lynn whom he had preceptored, and he suggested that I call her for an “informational interview.”  It was great advice.  Lynn had worked in orthopedic surgery, midwifery, primary care, emergency, and was now a hospitalist.  She was enthusiastic, and reassured me that PA medicine was a field that had allowed her to remain an active parent to her children, earn a tidy income, and do work that she loved.  She spent plenty of time with me on the phone (on two or three different calls), gave me her email address, and even offered to let me shadow her.  I should have taken her up on it, but I’m embarrassed to say that never did. 

After researching the field for a while, I decided to go back to school to become a physician assistant.  In order to apply, I needed to take anatomy, physiology, and microbiology.  To be more competitive, I also decided to take a private EMT Basic course.  I had worked as an EMT some years before, but had let my certification lapse, so I had to start all over.  In all, while parenting, these courses would take me at least two years to complete.  I was excited about the opportunity, I jumped back into school with a vengeance. 

I loved my studies, but quickly realized how much work I was in for.  I took anatomy, and studied in spurts – an hour here, a weekend there.  I was intimidated by the course, but managed to impress my instructor, who eventually became a friend and letter writer for my PA school application.  On my non-school days I stayed home with my three young kids.  During this process, I felt torn between my family and my education.  I studied late at night and during the day for short periods while the kids played on their own.  I was tired all the time, and frequently grumpy and irritable.  I didn’t feel like a very good student or father, but I knew that not following through with this would mean being unhappier and therefore an even worse father, so I kept going. 

The second year of my preparation, I began looking for a health clinic to volunteer with, but had no luck.  I was told by several that they were too busy, or that they couldn’t take me because they couldn’t afford to insure me, and wouldn’t let me get my own insurance.  Finally, I lamented to a friend that this was my dream, but I was stymied.  She talked with a physician friend she knew (who eventually became one of my preceptors) at one of the clinics that had turned me down, and he was able to push through the red tape to get me in to volunteer.  I learned so much in clinic and had a great time doing it. 

sleeping in the car

It was never comfortable…

Soon after, I learned that because it had been years since I had taken physiology, I would need to retake it in order to have a chance of being accepted.  Unfortunately, I found this out in August of the year before I applied, late enough that all of the classes in my area were full with wait lists.  I searched up and down Northern California for an open slot in a physiology class and finally found one in Eureka, CA, a three-hour drive from my home.  Undeterred, I signed up.  On Mondays I had microbiology at my home school, and on Tuesday I left at 4 PM for Eureka.  I studied while driving by listening to a digital voice recorder into which I had dictated notes and questions like, “BLANK is the enzyme that unwinds bacterial DNA…Answer: Topoisomerase II.”  I got to class at 7 PM, finished lab at 10 PM, and then turned around to drive three hours back home.  I took naps by the roadside because I couldn’t stay awake on the long, winding road, and I usually didn’t get home until at least 2 AM.  My diet consisted so “gut bombs,” the cheap burgers you get at gas stations, Coca Cola, and that spicy dried mango you also get at the gas stations.  (Yes, I could have done better with the diet).  Through it all, I was with my kids whenever I wasn’t in class.  I didn’t know if I would get in, and all I kept telling myself was, “This has to work.” 

After completing my prerequisites, I began my CASPA application.  I treated CASPA like a job.  I went to “work” every day at the library for three or four weeks to write and rewrite my essay.  I printed multiple versions of it and tormented everyone I knew with it.   In the end, it said a lot about me, and I was very proud of it. 

When it came to letters of reference, I blew it.  I had one of my references (my anatomy teacher and friend) write one on paper, and I promptly lost it.  I called him at home, apologized profusely, and he wrote it all over again.  (Learn from my mistake, people).

Confession: although I would love to let my readers believe that I got interviews and acceptances to PA to programs all over the country, maybe the truth will prove more useful.  I applied to only three programs, all within 5 hours of my home, and got exactly one interview: UC Davis, my absolute, hands-down first choice.

I interviewed at UC Davis in October, on what I later was told was the second day of interviews.  It was a panel interview with four faculty members, all of whom were kind and responsive.  They told me that they had received a record 1300+ applications that year for 57 seats in the class. 

I thought about those numbers–1300+ and 57–for the entire three-hour drive home, and by the time I arrived, I was furious at myself for “blowing it” so spectacularly.  It had been a good try, but I was prepared for the worst – a long wait to receive a form letter beginning with something like “We receive many applications each year, and although we wish we could accept all of them, regrettably, we cannot.” 

The following morning, while dropping my daughter off at her kindergarten classroom, I got the call from their director of admissions, and it was all I could do not to scream — I had been accepted. 

I hope my story is useful to you in some way.  If you have questions or comments, please don’t hold back.