Today I’m sharing my physician assistant job search tips in the hopes that they will save a few of you some heartache, and maybe snag you the job of your dreams.   Yes, I have accepted a physician assistant job.  I will be working in Urgent and Primary Care in Carmichael, California, a suburb of Sacramento.  The job pays very well, and involves my ideal mix of ongoing care and urgent care.  But getting where I am didn’t go much like I expected it to…

Physician Assistant Job Search Tip #1: Don’t Count Those Chickens

After graduating, I searched for physician assistant jobs, but not very hard.

You see, my preceptor (the supervising doctor I had as a student) wanted me to come and work for him, and I was excited to do so – great clinic, great staff, great patients, and a great doc.  But after being gone for about 6 weeks to study for my boards, take them, and get the results, I began getting cryptic emails from him, and it quickly became clear that he was changing plans after bugging me to work for him for nearly 6 months.

He wanted to hire either a physician or an experienced PA so that he could get a little more distance from the clinic.  And, he told me, if he did, he would not be able to hire a second person.  I didn’t think he would handle something like this so poorly, but it seemed clear that he had had a hard time breaking the news to me.  I think that not wanting to have the conversation, he had waited, which only made my situation more dire when he finally stepped up to tell me.  I’m also guessing his wife told him, “Look, if you’re not going to hire him, you need to let him know so he can find something else!”  Finally, he did, but it was too late.  I had squandered precious job hunting time.  So I hit the streets with no idea where I might work, counting on the high demand for PAs to get me through it all.  I began looking – aggressively.

My tip: pursue at least 2 and possibly 3 jobs simultaneously in case the bottom falls out of one – it’s always better to have more options.

Physician Assistant Job Search Tip#2: Recruiters Hire for Problematic Jobs

There are many PA job websites.  Once you express interest in a listing on one of these sites, you will get plenty of attention.  To do so, you provide your email address and they tell the recruiters about you.   Your email inbox floods with job openings from all over the country.  It’s overwhelming at first.  Multiple recruiting agencies will be emailing you about jobs – often the same ones – and asking for you to call them, write them a summary of who you are, let them call you, etc.   They do this because they get paid by the employer if they find the employee.  They know a lot more about publicity than about your or the job in question.

Recruiters are just head hunters, middlemen.  They are often hired to find employees for jobs that have gone unfilled for too long.  This means that many of these jobs are less desirable for reasons like:

  • They’re in a town with a population of 9, in a bleak Midwestern state
  • They involve working for disagreeable doctors/surgeons
  • They involve pain management in a county jail, and other tasks on par with a good root canal
  • They don’t pay well
  • The job is for 1 PA, but the work is for 3.

My tip: ignore nearly all of the recruiting communications.  Focus on jobs that were posted by the employers themselves.  But…

Physician Assistant Job Search Tip #4: Electronic Submissions Are Not Your Friend

Nowadays, employers use electronic submissions to speed the hiring process.  Here’s how they work:

  • You go to the website of the job listing
  • You decide to apply for a position
  • You fill in a few drop-down menus about your experience, location, the color of your underwear, etc.
  • You upload your resume and cover letter
  • In most cases, you never hear anything from this point on.

physician assistant job search 2Why are electronic job applications so lousy?

The software used by these companies or these huge digital job application clearing houses (like CEP America) spits out your resume and cover letter with poor or absent formatting.  This makes everyone’s information look uniform – uniformly bad, that is.  They think that this will strip the applications down to the meat, but all they end up with is a pile of hamburger.  So the only things that rise to the top are 1) where you worked, and 2) how many years you worked.  The employers tend to interview only those candidates whose applications are impressive in these two areas.

I, being skilled in other relevant areas (mental health, EMS, teaching) tend to fall through the cracks of such a system, and so does any newly graduated PA or nontraditional applicant.  If you are applying for a surgery job and you haven’t worked in that exact type of surgery since the Civil War, the employer probably won’t even scan what’s left of your resume.

My tip: do yourself a favor and concentrate on applying to jobs where you can actually send a hard copy of your cover letter and resume.  This way they can read it as you intended, and have to actually do something with it, even if that means trashing it.

Physician Assistant Job Search Tip #5: Word of Mouth Trumps All

The best jobs are found through real people, and this is particularly true for physician assistant jobs.  We’ve talked about networking as it relates to finding good letters of recommendation for PA school, and networking for jobs is very similar.  If you’re lucky, the same people you networked with about letters of recommendation for PA school will be great resources for you when you are job hunting.  My own job came when I left the following voice mail  for my dear friend, Sundance:

“Okay, Sunny, I really need a dose of you today.  I’ve been applying everywhere under the sun, and I’ve heard literally nothing.  I’ve submitted 12 resumes for different openings, and I’ve heard nothing – not a sausage.  I’m getting discouraged, and I can’t believe with all the openings I’m seeing, a guy like me can’t find a job.  Call me, babe.”

Later that evening Sundance responds via voice mail:

“Pauly!  I’m so sorry you’re discouraged, but don’t be.  I think I have a lead on a job for you.  I just interviewed for a job with my former preceptor clinic, and I can’t take it [it’s full time, and she’s expecting a second baby].  I told them all about you – I sang your praises, actually – and they sounded excited to meet you.  I think it could be a great fit.  Why don’t you call them?  Here’s Deena’s number…”

And the rest is history.

I strongly recommend that you put the word out to:

  • Family (I got connected to a hospital HR director through my sister, but got a job before using that connection “for coffee.”)
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Fellow students
  • Your faculty (turns out I will be working in a clinic where our program’s Clinical Director once worked)
  • Your health care providers (doctor/PA/NP/Dentist/whatever)
  • Facebook?  Hey, why not?

My tip: you never know which connection is going to pay off, so you need to use them all.

physician assistant job searchPhysician Assistant Job Search Tip #6: Know Your Worth

After my interview, I rolled up my sleeves and spent an hour shadowing the doc so that we could get a feel for each others working style.  The next day he had me shadow the other PA.  Both went well, and the next thing I know, they want me to spend the next week training, 10-6 every day.  Okay, I thought, as far as they’re concerned, I’m hired.  But we still hadn’t talked about compensation.  Some would say that this should be done up front, but I disagree.  Sunny had told me the hourly range they shared with her, so I waited on it.  Timing is everything.

As the week moved on, we got to Thursday, and numbers hadn’t come up at all.  I was ready to talk turkey, so I went to Deena’s office and opened with:

“So if I were to come and work for you, what would that look like?

“But Paul, you’re hired.  You’re hired!” [I think my use of the word if scared her.  They really liked me, and they really needed me]

“Deena, I’m really looking forward to working here, but we haven’t talked about a some important things, and until we do, I can’t consider it a done deal.  Can we talk about compensation?  I mean, I don’t even know if you have a health plan, let alone what you hope to pay me.”

So we talked.  As usual for such talks, she talked about everything other than my wage.  It even degenerated into small talk.  Finally, I had been patient, but I couldn’t take it anymore.

I swallowed hard and put it out there.  “So, I guess the only thing left on the table is my hourly rate.”

“Ok,” she replied.  “What do you need?”

You should know here that I was ready to do battle.  I know that I’m a valuable hire.  I prepared for this conversation by spending some time thinking about what I would bring to the table that your typical new grad wouldn’t.   Do this!  Write down all the ways that you are more than minimally qualified.  These will be your arguments for why you deserve more than the bottom number that is proposed.  In my case, for example, I have a master’s degree in a different but very relevant field (mental health).  I had other reasons too, but before I could get out more than “Well, I’m aware of the range that was prop…” she interrupted me.

“You know, ” she said, “I’m authorized to offer you up to XYZ without talking to Dr. C, and I think we can do that.”  [XYZ = the top of the hourly rate range I was given!]

“If you would be willing to pay me XYZ per hour, I would love to come and work for you.”

And that was that.

My Recommendations for Physician Assistant Salary Negotiations:

  • Do your homework and know the approximate range you will be negotiating.
  • Be patient.  If they like you, then more time makes them want you more.  Hold your tongue about salary as if it didn’t matter.  Then, when there isn’t much left to decide, calmly ask about it in a way that indicates that this will be the last thing that determines if you will take the job.
  • When it’s time, open the topic, but let them do the talking.  It’s been said that in any negotiation, the one who puts out a number first is the one who loses.
  • Have three numbers in your mind: 1) the absolute minimum that you will accept.  Be willing to turn down the job if this number doesn’t come through.  2) what you think is fair and reasonable, and 3) your over-the-moon best salary that you can reasonably imagine.
  • If you are forced to give a number, provide a range between #2 and #3 above.
  • Believe that you are worth good money – you are!

If you’re about to start your own physician assistant job search, we would love to get your feedback.  What worked for you?  What mistakes do you wish you could take back?  What success did you have?