Professional development

Competencies #

The Physician Assistant Education Association has outlined competencies important for practice on their website. While the competencies listed apply to a practicing physician assistant, look at the "Essential Skills" section to see abilities you can begin to build now. This list can inform you on the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills to develop in yourself.

Shadowing #

PA programs expect future applicants to explore their career interests through firsthand exposure to healthcare. Shadowing can help you confirm whether you want to become a physician assistant and help you make an informed decision about your future career. Moreover, some PA programs have a minimum requirement for shadowing hours.  

Many students arrange shadowing initially through a family physician assistant or physician. If you do not have any personal contacts with healthcare providers you may wish to send a letter of introduction asking for the opportunity to shadow.  There are many physician assistants on staff at IU Hospital.  For information on setting up shadowing there, consult the information on the IU Health website

The main point of shadowing is to observe. By observing how PA’s, physicians and other healthcare professionals interact with patients and each other, you will learn more about what it actually means to be a PA on a daily basis. 

For more suggestions, consult the shadowing page.

Direct patient care #

All physician assistant programs require or strongly recommend that applicants gain Direct Patient Care experience. Direct Patient Care (DPC) is not the same thing as shadowing/clinical observation. Shadowing is watching; providing care is doing. Direct patient care is providing healthcare of some kind to patients. Schools define direct patient care in different ways, but the most common way it is defined is hands-on patient care. Some programs define it as when you are making a medical decision about a patient or doing something medical to them, like inserting an IV. Just like with researching course requirements, it is important that you carefully research what type of experience each program where you plan to apply will accept as direct patient care.

Many students initially begin to gain direct patient care experience by becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). Students can often become CNA’s through local vocational training programs or sometimes on-site at a longterm care facility that provides training and then hires the CNA to work in the facility. Ivy Tech Community College offers a certification for CNA.

When you apply to PA school you will be asked to provide information on your direct patient care experiences. It is important to record the tasks, procedures, and activities of your DPC; it is not enough to simply clock the DPC hours. Programs require direct patient care experience so that you arrive to the PA program with stronger caregiving skills and become clinically ready sooner than you otherwise would. That does not happen magically. Your growth in caregiving results from reflection on your work and thinking about how to do it better. We strongly recommend that you write about your experiences in direct patient care.

Community service #

Physician assistant programs desire students who are committed to caring for others.   Community service is one such opportunity to demonstrate this commitment.  It matters less whether this service is in a health care setting or not than that you engage in it (please note community service is different than direct patient care).  Community service gives you the opportunity to explore and learn about different populations so that you can be more effective as a PA when you work with these populations again.  Few if any PA programs have a minimum threshold of community service hours but all expect to see it.  Moreover, it is important for you to know that you can and do take responsibility for the welfare of others in your community. 

The Bloomington Volunteer Network can link you with opportunities to get involved.

Keeping a pre-health journal #

A pre-health journal is a useful tool for reflecting on your interests and preparing for the admissions process. You can begin a file on your computer or start keeping a notebook as a journal. Use it to record any thoughts about your interest in medicine. You could write about the experiences that initially sparked your interest in healthcare, or more recent experiences that confirmed a career in medicine is the right fit for you.

Healthcare practice is dependent on self-improvement. You can easily see self-improvement in courses as your grades get better. Self-improvement of interpersonal skills is less obvious. One way you can intentionally improve is through reflection and writing.

You may find that when you sit down to write, you start out with one thought, which leads to another thought and then another, and you find that you have thought about something that you never thought about before. Often you will get more out of activities if you spend some time writing about them and reflecting upon what you have experienced. Reflect on the times you take responsibility for the welfare of someone. This might be in your direct patient care experiences, volunteering, or through helping a classmate. Think about what the person needed and how you met that need. Dig into the experience a little deeper and figure out the interpersonal skills you used to help her or him. Then write it as a brief story and save those stories for when you apply to PA programs.

Keeping a journal of reflections throughout your clinical and volunteering experiences can help you later when it comes time to write your personal statement and prepare for admissions interviews.