If you struggle with the career decision of PA vs MD or PA vs NP or even PA vs Starbucks Barista (a job I’ve long fantasized about) you’ve probably wondered once or twice:

“Will Being a Physician Assistant Satisfy Me?”

It’s a tough question to answer with any certainty, because to do so would mean predicting the future, and that’s just out.  So rather than trying to sell you on the PA field** (hey, why wouldn’t I – I’m in it, and I’m fired up about it), let me invite you to look at the question differently…

There is evidence that when faced with a tough, potentially irreversible decision–particularly the kind where each different choice involves a sacrifice–we tend to be happiest with whatever we choose, compared to the alternatives that we don’t.

Wait, what?

That’s right: we tend to prefer the things we choose over the things we don’t, particularly when we can’t go back and choose again.

My evidence here comes psychologists like Dan Gilbert.  Gilbert and his cadre of researchers have experimentally demonstrated (repeatedly), that the more options we have, the more likely we are to end up unhappy with the one we end up selecting.   Hard to believe, I know.  Click here to watch the TED Talks video explaining his findings; they’re truly amazing.  The point here is that we tend to overrate the importance of the outcomes of our choices.  And unfortunately, in our society, we are constantly evaluating tough decisions with the opposite mindset – believing that more options will make us happier, and unhappiness is often the result.

So returning to our question:

Will becoming a physician assistant satisfy you? 

According to Gilbert, if you choose it, yes, it probably will.

Will becoming a doctor or a nurse practitioner satisfy you?  If you choose one of those options, it probably will.

Thankfully, it’s choice that you probably won’t go back and “do over” again – there’s too much time, money, and work involved.  And according to Gilbert, when we can’t “do over” a decision, we are more likely to end up happy with it.  This doesn’t mean that we’re fooling ourselves into liking it.  In any way that can be measured experimentally, we are happy with it.

In case you doubt me, conduct your own research.  Ask a few doctors and physician assistants you come across: “Do you wish you had chosen a different career path?”  You may hear a few yeses, but the vast majority will tell you the same thing: “No.  I’m so glad that I chose this path.”

The reasons they give for being satisfied will sound convincing:

  • The physicians will probably tell you that they love being physicians because they make good money and get to be the ultimate authorities.
  • The nurse practitioners will tell you that they love being nurse practitioners because they love the nursing model because it is holistic and allows them to develop relationships with their patients.
  • The physician assistants will probably tell you that they love being physician assistants because they can do much the same work as physicians while having more life balance, and they don’t need to shoulder the responsibility of being an ultimate authority.

There may be other reasons too, but according to Gilbert and many other positive psychology researchers, these reasons — the ones we credit with helping us decide — may have little or no connection to why we end up happy.  What matters is what the research demonstrates: these professionals haven’t talked themselves into liking something that they find unsatisfying; they are truly happy with how their decision turned out.

The moral: don’t obsess.  Make the best decision you know how, and whatever it is, pursue it with passion.

* Okay, I will say that most PAs are very satisfied with their jobs.  Read about that in our 10 misconceptions article