PA vs MD: Meet Sundance – She’s Done Both

Posted By: Paul   |   PA vs MD   |   149 Comments

Debating about PA vs MD?

Many pre-meds ask themselves, “Should I become a PA, or a physician?”  We have complete respect for both fields, and believe that the PA vs MD question is definitely a personal decision.  Knowing this, I interviewed my classmate Sundance; she had the chance to do both.  She explains her decision-making process, as well as how both paths felt.  The results are enlightening…

PA vs MD Student Interview


Sundance had two notes for me to add here:

  1. She misspoke about the hours she kept as a med (MD) student.  It was 8-5, then study till ~midnight, not the 5-5 she mentions in the video (still pretty brutal).
  2. She would be very willing to answer questions about her PA vs MD experience.  Just post them in the comment section at the end of this post, and I’ll have her reply.  If you’d rather ask privately, you can send us a message through the “Contact Us” link at the top of the page.  We’ll be sure she gets it.

The PA vs MD discussion is complicated – we would love to hear your thoughts about it.

149 Comments

  1. beekerleen January 31, 2011 at 1:16 pm - Reply

    You get “weeks” off to study?? Did I take this wrong? That’s definitely not how it works in my program lol, I wish!

    • beekerleen February 1, 2011 at 3:11 am - Reply

      That is a truly awesome concept – I like that idea. I have no doubt no matter how the program does it, it is difficult, I had just never heard of that and wanted to make sure I understood what she was saying.

    • Brad24cottrell February 2, 2011 at 5:34 am - Reply

      Paul, I was curious as to which major I should start off as in order to become a PA or MD? Is it a premed/biology that would take me to the path of then deciding on heading toward PA school or med school?

      • Paul February 2, 2011 at 10:29 pm - Reply

        If your school doesn’t have pre-PA major (and most don’t), I think pre-med or biology are probably good choices. You should check with a few different schools. Some programs like diversity, and take a certain number of people from who have done studies very different from the pre-med curriculum. Probably more important than major is that you have taken the required courses and the quality of your performance overall. I’ll research this and maybe do a piece on it in the future.

        • Brad24cottrell February 3, 2011 at 10:52 pm - Reply

          Thank you so much. I am soon going to be graduation high school and I have run into a couple problems. I am unsure of what I want to do, still. And when I have a career choice in mind I am usually lost on how to get to that career (trying to pick the right major and everything)

  2. Aaron February 1, 2011 at 12:58 am - Reply

    Thank you Paul for bringing this to us! I’ve been a faithful reader since you started this blog, yet never posted. Sundance, thank you so much for such a clear, introspective, and honest interview. At around 7 minutes the talk about balance really hit home with me. Ocassionally I kick around the idea of med school as a goal, instead of PA school. I usually come back to not wanting to cheat my two children out of their fathers time while they’re young, also I have so many interests and hobbies, medicine being just one of them. I am a career changer at 35 years old, and hope to apply to a few schools this coming cycle, UCD being one of them. Thanks to the both of you for taking the time for this.

    • Paul February 1, 2011 at 4:39 am - Reply

      Thanks so much. I’ve passed your comment on to Sundance. As you can see, it’s something that really matters to her. And yes, balance is a very common theme in the PA vs. MD deliberation. When I first heard Sundance’s story, all I could think was: wow the world needs to hear this! Let us know if you have suggestions for content – we aim to please. And let us know how your path unfolds, okay? -P

  3. RoseG. February 1, 2011 at 6:10 am - Reply

    What an insightful and from the heart interview.
    Great job, Paul and Sundance!

    • Paul February 1, 2011 at 11:44 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Rosie. We love you! Your blog is awesome too. Readers: if nutrition and sports/fitness is of interest to you, we highly recommend our commenter, Rose’s blog, Current Nutrition in Sport and Exercise. You can find it at: http://currentnutrition.com. It takes a village (of bloggers). -P

  4. Mercedes214 February 1, 2011 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    Paul,
    I really appreciate you posting this interview of Sundance and her experiences with MD and PA school. Initially, I had gone to college planning on going to med school and had applied but had trouble getting in. I had a lot of confusion as to what to do and took a break from planning for med school to serve in the military. When I heard about the Army looking for PAs, I got curious and realized that that is what I wanted to do so from there, I learned everything there was to know about PAs. I’m happy to say that through a lot of hard work and remedial courses, (I’m in my 30s), I will be starting PA school this summer. I’m so excited to be joining this profession and hope to make a worthy contribution to it. I eagerly look forward to the posts, they are very insightful. Keep doing a great job, this is definitely the best blog I’ve read. And I want to thank Sundance again for sharing with us her experiences.

    • Paul February 1, 2011 at 11:40 pm - Reply

      Wow, thanks – we’re so glad to hear you’re finding IPAT worthwhile. And SUPER CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU. It’s a huge job preparing for and getting into PA school. Please let us know how things go. We’d love to get more discussions going, and I think we’re reaching the point where that might happen – we seem to be getting more comments every day. All it takes is a few people who care enough to give their thoughts! -P

    • Sundance Med February 12, 2011 at 5:26 am - Reply

      Hello Mercedes214,

      My congratulations on your acceptance!

      I am super thrilled for you. For what it is worth, I think PA school and the “30’s” are a nice fit. 🙂

      I have no doubt you will be able to do all that you set out to do as a PA. Keep those sights high! I look forward to practicing with you, where ever you are.

      Sundance

  5. Scarlet February 2, 2011 at 6:01 am - Reply

    This was absolutely awesome!! Thank you so much! I can relate to Sundance when she referred to what the ego craves when it comes to titles. I come from a family of haitian immigrants. I started college in the criminal investigations field but at the same time I had a major interest in the medical field. Ever since I was very young my parents always seen me as the “golden child”, the child to deliver and change the whole family’s dynamic and that is major weight to carry. And due to this expectation, I’m hard on myself and my ego only expects the best from myself.

    I am now 22 and by my passion and prayer I got into a 2 year Surgical technologist program. I was granted an interview with the president and surgeons of the program and was accepted the same day with absolutely no medical background because when I expressed what my passion, reasons and plans were, they signed and accepted me in that very moment. I couldn’t tell you how many tears flowed that day. God is so good. I graduate this year in August with my associates’ (since my other credits couldn’t transfer)and start my rotations in October. This program is extremely intense and I love it.

    But I’ve been looking into the PA position since my first semester. I’ve contacted many schools and their PA’s for advice and I know 1 PA personally but this video gave me the assurance I was seeking and thirsting for. I was planning on visiting Haiti to aid in surgeries and educate them on ways of prophylaxis and in any other way I can as a CST(Certified Surg Tech). But I feel that with experience as a CST and even more education and having the position as a PA, I would be able to travel with Doctors Abroad and have the ability and freedom to do more. And it’ll be gratifying to be able to obtain more relation with my patients.

    Education for me is insatiable. I look forward to learning for as long as I can and now I know that becoming a PA is definitely a sure thing. If later down the line I want to be an MD, then so be it. But this video taught me to not focus so much on my ego and wanting to obtain such a high status because of what society praises but to focus on what works for and satisfies me: which is being capable and have the power, so to speak, to have more “lee-way” in helping people as much as I can as well as changing my family’s dynamics.

    I was the first and only high school graduate in my immediate family and I plan on being the first college grad. My parents works so hard for so little and deserve to retire and be happy and proud of what they’ve created, as soon as I can take care of them. And my younger brother looks up to me so much. My family is counting on me. I can’t thank the both of you enough for this video. Thank you so much.

    • Paul February 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm - Reply

      Yes. The attachment to the title of Dr. is big for a lot of us. But Sundance did the smart thing and actually talked with doctors and PAs. Their answers were a little surprising. Maybe the title is less important to you once you have it, but I have to guess it works something like this: most people look up to doctors and put them on a pedestal, then when you become one, you realize how silly that is. Doctors are just as human as the rest of us. And if that’s so, being a PA isn’t any worse than being a doctor – it’s just different.

    • Sundance Med February 12, 2011 at 5:34 am - Reply

      Hello Scarlet,

      What a beautiful story! You are an inspiration.

      May I just say that your passion for global health and medical service work are close to my heart. I had the privileged of doing some work in Kenya as a medical student, working with HIV positive women and children, and that was it! I came home with new found clarity, “this is why I am in medical school”.

      The ability to do global health has remained one of my criteria in making the swap to the PA profession. It is my plan to find a job that, as part of my hiring contract, allows me a couple months a year to practice medicine in other parts of the world.

      I am excited to think of all the wonderful things you are going to do with your life. More power to you.

      Thank you for your story.

      Sundance

      • Kelsey May 9, 2013 at 11:18 pm - Reply

        Hi Sundance and the rest of the forum,
        Thanks for the interview!
        I am also trying to decide between MD and PA. I understand the obvious emphasis on patient care, but I personally am also interested in bigger picture situations, such as increasing women’s access to healthcare and family planning, on both domestic (U.S.) and international levels. Is there a difference in a MD or PA’s ability to:
        1. work globally (I noticed you mentioned that was important to you, however, I have generally found that PAs are not recognized abroad)
        2. become involved with social organizations, non-profits or politics? (Would a PA be recognized with equal authority as a doctor?)
        Or do neither generally venture outside the scope of patient care, in which case, what would you recommend then?
        Thank you for your insight!

        • Paul May 14, 2013 at 10:38 pm - Reply

          MDs can work abroad more easily. But it’s still a hassle for them in many countries. Thankfully, US medical training is well respected abroad and most nations will allow it. PAs are gaining steam overseas (australia, for example), but as you remarked, they aren’t a common thing abroad.

          Social organizations, nonprofits, and politics: as a PA you can definitely do these things. Your authority will never be equal to an MD – your mandate is that you work under an MD! But people tend to trust those who are skilled and experienced. If you become a PA and you are able to impress people, to some extent they will look beyond your degree. Keep in mind that doctors have a hard time “getting to” the three things you mentioned here – they get out of med school heavily in debt and have little time to donate to causes unless they are okay being poor for a long time for the cause.

          Both work outside of patient care. If you are sure you will be working overseas, I would say go to med school (and expect to probably be in debt for a long time, and doing what you love).

  6. Aquarian_wit February 3, 2011 at 2:53 am - Reply

    What a wonderful video! I really enjoyed this and think that Sundance really speaks the same story for all of us in our passion for patient care! 🙂 Thank you Paul for doing this!

    • Paul February 3, 2011 at 5:38 am - Reply

      It really matters to her, and it seems clear how lost that message can get in medicine. Follow your passion, you know? Thanks for the shout out. -P

  7. undergrad February 3, 2011 at 6:58 am - Reply

    Wow this was truly inspiring and eye-opening for me. I’ve been struggling for a long time (about 2 1/2 years) as to what direction I want to go with in my life: PA or med school. People say I still have time but I still feel like I’m not getting any closer to making a decision. This has definitely helped though with my considerations. Can I ask if there are any other comparisons of the PA school schedule vs. that of med school? Is Sundance feeling she is slammed more frequently with tests in PA school or that the work is much more rushed? I feel people say, because PA school is like med school condensed into two years, the pace and lifestyle is hectic so it may be better or more worthwhile to have it spread out over four years instead? Also, are there PA’s who feel like their education and preparation to work in the medical field may be not as thorough as MD’s, especially those who may not have necessarily worked years as a EMT/CNA already and racked up all those HCE hours?

    • Paul February 3, 2011 at 7:24 am - Reply

      Thanks for your praise, and I’ll put your question to Sundance. Though I’ve never been a MD med student myself, I can speak to this a little — I my dad was a doc, my sister is a med student, and I’ve talked with a bunch of them here at Davis. Their curriculum is more detailed, and longer than PA school’s. But they have similar gripes to PA students: they thought there would be more lecture and instruction, and instead find that they teach themselves much or most of it from texts; they wish they had time to read much more of the material than they actually do; they often feel they retain very little while in school, and instead try to hold on to the concepts more than than the details, like a bear waiting to seize a fish that jumps from a rushing river. If I had to guess, I’d say that despite having twice as long for school, they feel even more rushed and inundated with material than PA students. But Sundance shared with me that as a PA she feels that although she is learning less about histology and genetics and such, she has actually LEARNED more about concepts that matter to her most (physical examination skills, patient care, etc.). So it seems to be a trade-off. But we’ll wait and see what she says – I’ll invite her back too! -P

    • Sundance Med February 12, 2011 at 5:19 am - Reply

      Hello Undergrad,

      Sundance here. Sorry it has taken so long for me to get to your question, it is such a good one!! And, aw man, do I wish I had a one-liner for you.

      If I understand it right, your question is a broad one, but there is one thing I think I am hearing you ask, and that is, which would be a harder path, considering you might not have medicine in your back ground. I will say up front that this is a very personal decision. And for me, it had a lot to do with not only WHO I am, but WHERE i am in my life.

      When I was posturing for medical school application, I was young (ish), slightly crazy, down for the all-nighters, single/dating, and with not much else in the way of prospects. I knew I was shooting high, but I had a “what the heck” attitude about it. Because my path was so long to get into med school, by my second year I found myself married (happily), tired (honestly), and then — she-BANG — pregnant! In second year of medical school, the hump is still ahead of you: third year is classically “hell”, where you are up in the hospital at 4am, and done perhaps sometime, or not. And then internship year — the first year of your residency (which all doctors that see patients must do), you are at the lower levels of hell, taking call, running all the patients, and not getting paid much. During these periods especially, it is quite impossible to have any energy for lifel outside of training. Shall we say that it was all quite daunting.

      So that is the “life” part of the decision. Then there is the “personality” part, which is best fit for your personality.

      If you like to know every fact, down to its core; the what, why, how much, etc. the non-abridged version, and you don’t mind being held to that standard in all things, that would point you toward med school (in my opinion). If you don’t mind being thrown in to the mix, and can carry the “I don’t know but I will try my best” card, with a good attitude in stressful situations, knowing your learning curve will be steep, then PA might be best.

      Factors in the 2 years vs 4+3< years too. I know it is hard to see into our own future, but, for what it is worth, I believe that if I had done med school in my 20's, like normal people do, I would have finished and would be happy to be a doctor. For me, now, PA is the best road.

      I can't wait to be with patients, and now I don't have to

      🙂

      Hope this helps!

  8. Ianswift43 February 20, 2011 at 5:24 am - Reply

    Hello Sundance: Just viewed your PA interview w. Paul…..most excellent! I was particularily taken with your ability to envision what medical path you now chose to follow, and to articulate your position so clearly and wisely. Not an easy choice to make when faced with these great forks in the road! But you seem to have solved the dilemma, the uncertainty you were presented with, and in doing so, found the solution which allows you to be that trained caregiver within the medical arena, as well as be that wife and a mother which carries great significance too. And keep your dreams and aspirations alive and thriving!
    And your video stands as a testament as well for other students of medicine who can now find inspiration in your own personal outlook, and thereby trust themselves to making those choices that are indeed the ones that shall be right for them! As you have done for yourself! Good show! And then stir in some of that Sunny Sundance persona and a winning smile, a touch of humor, to boot, and……..voila! An engaging and stimulating presentation!
    Cheers, Ian (Swift)

  9. X_PA_to_MD March 25, 2011 at 1:35 am - Reply

    I am actually coming at it from a different angle. I am a currently practicing PA making good money (six figures) who graduated in my 20’s, now in my 30’s with a wife and kids. Currently, I am hitting the proverbial wall. I have worked in gen surg, UC/FP, and now in observational medicine (cardiology). It is a personal decision and if you think there is more balance, it really depends on the field. PAs on EM work as much as the docs. PAs in surgical fields work as much as the docs. Unless you are in primary care, there generally is not a great life balance effect for PA vs. MD. But, that is just how I have seen it.

    • Paul March 26, 2011 at 5:37 pm - Reply

      What can I say – this path doesn’t fit everybody. What do you enjoy doing most? Wall or not, before you go to med school, you should be sure that that thing that makes you get up in the morning is there as a physician. For some it is, for some it’s not. You also have to figure in whether that one or more positive things you get out of it are outweighed by the downsides of being a doc. You’re further along the path than I am, but if I were in your shoes, I might take Sundance’s approach and do some interviewing of doctors. Ask them about what they love and hate about their work. It’s a little campy, but have you seen City Slickers, with Billy Crystal? In the end, he decided to recommit himself to what he was already doing, but to do it better and appreciate the things about it that he hadn’t previously. No judgment on you – I’m sure you’re a great PA. But if the field isn’t thrilling you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that MD will. Just my two cents. Keep us posted. We’d love to hear what you turn up. Drop us a line on the new forum, maybe! -P

  10. Barry Wong April 4, 2011 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    THANK YOU Paul and Sundance for creating this video! Your interview put into words the thoughts that are racing through my mind. I’m so glad I found this site and I’m sure it will help me make my decision of whether to become a physician or PA.

    I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and recently graduated with an undergraduate degree. Like Sundance, I was so ready to devote myself to medicine and become a physician. Promoting and maintaining the health of patients was SO honorable and desirable a goal to me. Things like hobbies and time spent with friends/family I was willing to give up.

    As I wait for my province’s medical school to tell me if I’m accepted to their program or not, I find myself thinking if I made the right choice. This totally shocks me! I never have these kind of thoughts! After getting closer to my girlfriend though, I’m starting to realize there are things other than being a physician I want. It makes me feel less selfish to hear that others have these thoughts as well.

    Your video has made me realize that being a PA is another way to benefit patients as well. Perhaps it would allow me to achieve the balance I so desire (and my girlfriend already has lol ). Please keep us posted with your adventures as PA students, and eventually wonderful PAs!

    Also, maybe it’s early to ask you, but what the relationship is like between nurses and physician assistants? Do they get along? Is there any animosity between them because of differences in pay, or responsibility?

    Thanks again,
    Barry

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