Six Reasons You Need To Shadow A PA

Posted By: Paul   |   Shadowing   |   21 Comments

Six Reasons You Need to Shadow a PAShadow a PA

If you are planning to apply to PA Training programs, you should definitely shadow a PA first.  You may have heard about “Job Shadowing,”  or just shadowing. It’s basically an informal arrangement to observe a professional as they go about their work.  Some PA school applicants don’t think it sounds glamorous or serious or whatever, and they don’t ever do it.  Big mistake.

When you apply to PA school, this kind of career exploration is important.  In fact, shadowing a PA is an absolute must.  Here’s why:

  1. To make sure this is the career for you. You’ve probably heard that PAs make good money, get to do some pretty cool stuff, and don’t have the debt and responsibility that doctors do.  All of these are true.  But in all the excitement, sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to the other side – the ways in which a career might not be for us.  Better to find out now, than years and many tuition dollars later.  Need to be top dog?  Don’t like paperwork?  Squeamish about touching other people?  Super shy?  These are all okay — as long as you’re doing something else.  Don’t take my word for it.  Shadow.
  2. To become familiar with the profession. Believe it or not, you probably don’t know (in much detail) what the job of a physician assistant is really like.  Don’t feel bad — most people have no clue what a PA is, let alone what one does.  If you shadow a PA you will know.
  3. To show the admissions committee that you are serious and you have done your homework. When I interviewed for UC Davis Medical School’s PA program, one of the first questions they asked me was, “What is your understanding of what a PA actually does?”  Man, was I glad I had shadowed one (4 hours a week for six months!)  You don’t as much shadowing time as I had, but every little bit helps.  Thankfully, I was able to give a detailed answer that showed that I was serious about physician assistant medicine.
  4. To start networking. It’s a big bad world out there, and lots of people want to be PAs.  Don’t worry – you can do it.  But, you should start networking as soon as you decide you will be applying to PA school.  Medicine is a tight community; doctors and PAs know each other, and they’re always looking for good people to work with.   A little time shadowing could get you a preceptorship (like on-the-job training) during school, or your first job when you graduate.
  5. To start learning medicine. You’d be surprised how much medicine you can learn just by watching.  Disease processes, medications, clinician-patient communication — if you pay attention, you’ll pick up all kinds of things.  Even better if the PA or doc you’re shadowing are open to your questions.
  6. To learn you likes and dislikes in the field of medicine.  If you become a PA, one day you will decide what area you will be your specialty.  It may be something general, like family practice, or something pretty specific, like pediatric surgery.  The more of it you see, the better able you will be to pick and choose.
  7. It’s fun. Shadowing a PA is a nice way to see all the amazing things you will be learning to do, and how you can help people.

If you’re serious about becoming a PA, shadow a PA — you won’t regret it.



  1. Jamesbond January 24, 2011 at 9:25 am - Reply

    I agree that in 2011 it is expected that pa school applicants shadow. that being said shadowing exists because applicants no longer have years of experience working with pa’s as a way of knowing what pa’s do. when I went to pa school the concept of shadowing did not exist. there was no place on the application for it and no one asked about it. they wanted to know how long I had worked with pa’s and what my understanding of the profession was based on that.

    • Paul January 24, 2011 at 2:10 pm - Reply

      Good point. I would agree that schools really want to see more than shadowing; most have a medical experience hours requirement. In my case, UC Davis wanted 2000 hours of direct contact work with patients. The point here is that particularly those who are starting their path toward a PA really should have a shadowing experience. I would go so far as to say that the applicants who blow it off and never shadow are often the ones who never get in – for that and related reasons (like they weren’t so motivated to get in in the first place).

  2. Mercedes214 January 26, 2011 at 4:07 am - Reply

    Shadowing is definitely important, especially as a way to start your networking. I was lucky in my case because, unbeknownst to me, the PA I shadowed happened to be good acquaintances with the PA who read my application and conducted my interview. Needless to say, that was one of the main factors that got me accepted into the school.

  3. Esherman2517 February 8, 2011 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    I want to start shadowing. What is the best way to go about this? How do you recommend asking a PA to let you shadow them? Did you do it with a PA you already knew, or did you contact one randomly?

    • Paul February 8, 2011 at 5:51 pm - Reply

      Hi – that’s a great question. I’m going to give you a few thoughts and then go away and try to put together a post on the subject. Maybe another reader has some thoughts about it and would be willing to comment too…

      Shadowing is personal, so I think using “inside channels” is best, kind of like networking – using your connections. Do you know any physicians or PAs personally? Does your friend, spouse, coworker? Having these people bring it up for you can give you an in. Doctors are super busy, as you know, and are barraged with people who need their help and time (pharm reps, patients, community members, etc.) Many of the people who want things from them are faceless. If you are faceless – if they don’t know a little about you– it’s easier to not care about you. If they know you, even a tiny bit, they are much more likely to help.
      In my case, I told my own doc that I was interested in PA school and he gave me the name of a PA who he had preceptored when she was a student. I called her and said, “Dr. so-and-so said you preceptored under him and he thought you would be a good person to speak with about learning about the profession. She was so nice to me that I didn’t have to ask about shadowing – she offered.

      I didn’t really know any docs, but my wife works for the schools, and knew one of the physicians in the community because he had spoken on children’s health topics. When talking to him one day, she told him that I was applying and was really wanting a chance to shadow. He just said, “Have him send in a resume so I know a little about him, and I’ll give him a call.” It didn’t take long after that.

      In my experience, PAs are a little more approachable than docs in this area. Maybe because they aren’t quite so busy, maybe because they can empathize with a pre-pa student. It’s a smaller field, so they get less requests for it than docs. Use connections if you have them, and even if you don’t, don’t be afraid to call/email them to ask. But be as personable as you can. Be eager and positive. People love to help those who admire their work.

      Volunteering can also be a good way to start. Volunteer in a clinic or ER and make sure that everyone there knows that you are working toward PA school. Introduce yourself by calling yourself a pre-PA student.

      I would avoid any form of flattery (unless it’s totally genuine), as well as written letters – they are as IMPERSONAL as you can get. Anyway, doctors have too much to read as it is. Often their mail is screened by someone at the office, and believe me – these folks care about you even less.

      As I said, you’ve given me a nice post topic, so thanks. I’ll try to have that up later this week.

  4. […] recent posts, we’ve talked about why you need to shadow a physician assistant, and how to find a physician assistant to shadow.  When it’s time to actually make it […]

  5. Farah Veerjee January 16, 2013 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    I’m looking to shadow and PA and my uncle’s doctor has PA’s in his office. My uncle said he would pass my resume along, but I wasn’t sure what important information should be included on my resume. I assume it’s not like a resume for a regular job. I’ve already finished my undergrad and a master’s degree and my work experience isn’t necessarily science related. Any suggestions?

    • Paul January 20, 2013 at 10:42 am - Reply

      I would get the PA’s name and write a (cover) letter to include with it. In careers, a good rule of thumb is that you never, ever give out a resume by itself – it should always have a cover letter with it. The resume tells them about your experiences, but the cover letter tells them about your intentions, and allows them to hear your voice.

      In your letter, explain how helpful it would be to be able to shadow him/her for a day to learn about the field. Make saying yes easy by being very flexible about it. Don’t ask to shadow for more than one day [if things go well you can ask for more time in person, but for now, you just want to get your foot in the door].
      Communicate your excitement. Keep it brief, and say you are attaching your resume. Let them know you’ll be calling on X date to followup unless they hear from you first. Provide email, phone, and address in case they want to contact you.

      Good luck!

  6. jonathan January 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm - Reply

    I am currently in a career-changing transition. I have a BA in Communications and am a Certified Health Coach and currently working as a Physical Therapy Aide while taking my science pre-reqs. I thought Physical Therapy would be a little more exciting, however, it bores me, which I never thought it would till I began working there. I’ve spoken to my brother who is pre-med now and he feels that becoming a PA would be best for me. I definitely feel that I need to shadow a PA but do you have any thoughts about the nature of the work? Is it exciting, boring, rewarding, fun, sad…all of the above? Thank You..

    • Paul February 4, 2013 at 5:05 pm - Reply

      I can tell from your post that you haven’t yet spent much time on the site. That’s okay – not to worry.

      There are many articles here that should make it clear to you that 1) the future of the PA profession is very, very bright, and 2) this is a fabulous career.

      Here’s just one article to get you started:

      Ten Awesome Things I Did My First Year of PA School

      Welcome, and enjoy!

      • Jonathan February 4, 2013 at 7:22 pm - Reply

        Thank you for anwering my question. After reading your article this seems to be a gret choice. I took your advice and I called a PA to shadow. I’ll keep you updated. Thanks again..

  7. Jennifer November 18, 2013 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    What are some ways to get an opportunity to shadow a physician assistant?

    • Paul November 28, 2013 at 4:37 pm - Reply

      There are lots of ways to go about it, some more promising than others. I suggest you start with your own physician. Just ask if he/she knows a provider (the word for PAs, Drs, and NPs) who might be open to being shadowed. If your physician is, he/she will tell you so at that point. If not, they might be a great lead that will allow you to write/email a provider and say “Dr. So-and-so suggested that I contact you in relation to my search for a provider to shadow.”

  8. Jessamyn April 23, 2014 at 9:52 am - Reply

    At what point in the journey to getting into PA school does one start shadowing? I earned my BA 3 years ago with the intention of becoming a Psychologist. Life laughed at me, and now I want to become a PA. This summer I go back to school to start working on the prerequisites, and volunteering at the hospital. But when should I start looking for shadowing opportunities? Are there certain classes or knowledge base I should have before hand? All of my current medical knowledge comes from my own experience as a patient.

    • Paul April 24, 2014 at 10:42 pm - Reply

      Not at all – shadowing is the way to get your feet wet, so it’s fine to do early in the process. I also encourage it early so that you don’t put a bunch of time into prepping to apply and then decide that PA won’t be your cup of tea.

  9. Nick May 7, 2014 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this awesome website, Paul. I am in my mid 30s looking for a career change. I currently work in a lab. I am taking my pre-reqs now at a community college that has a PA program, but I won’t be able to finish and apply for another 2-3 years, when I will be in late 30s. Do you think it is best to shadow a PA closer to when I will be applying as opposed to shadowing from now?

    Do you think age would weigh down my application? I am concerned about it because I would hate to waste all my time & money finishing the pre-reqs only to find out that PA programs think am too old.

    In your experience, how independently can a PA work (other than a surgical PA perhaps) once s/he has some experience? Does a PA get yelled at a lot by the docs (happens a lot to lab techs, which is one of the reasons I want a career change in addition to seeking a more exciting career where I can actually see & talk to patients)? Even if I shadow a PA, this is a question that I would unlikely get an answer to prolly. If you never faced this kind of thing, do you know any PAs who have faced such incidents? Does a PA working in a hospital get more autonomy than in private practice?

    Thank you so much!

    • Paul May 11, 2014 at 10:54 am - Reply

      I always recommend shadowing early. It will get you familiar with the career and help to assure you that you want to go for it. Mid 30’s is a little older than average (~27), but some schools like that. At your age, think less about your age and more about becoming a strong candidate.

      PAs work independently in most settings. Commonly they speak with their MD when the feel the need only. In many cases if the PA is experienced and has a good working relationship with his or her supervising doc, they might seek out each others’ advice (doc might ask PA for opinion). In hospitals it goes both ways. Surgery is done only under a surgeon’s supervision (usually they are first assist), but on the floors do most of the rounding for the surgeon and report to the surgeon only as needed.

      There are docs who yell at PAs, and they tend to be the docs who yell at everyone and no one cares to work with. By and large, the PA/MD relationship is collegial and respectful. If I had a doc who treated me that way, I would have a frank talk with him/her about how I wanted to be communicated with. If they couldn’t abide by my fairly simple requirements, I would just work elsewhere.

      “No one can make you inferior without your consent.” -Eleanor Rooseveldt

  10. Cc February 14, 2015 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    I am currently in my second year of college majoring in Biology. I am 19 years old, and I was wondering if I am still a little young? Should I start shadowing as soon as possible? Also, what are some ways I can gain hands on experience for PA school, since most schools require hands on experience? Thank You!

    • Paul February 28, 2015 at 8:47 pm - Reply

      I tell students this all the time: wait to get your HCE. The most important thing, by far, at this point is your grades. Anything that can take you away from your studies may be interesting, but if your grades suffer, you will have handicapped yourself. Get your bachelors with excellent grades and THEN do your health care experience.

      That said, if you still want to ignore my advice (because some people still can’t resist digging in to health care) you might volunteer A LITTLE at your college’s student health center.

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