For most students in the top physician assistant degree programs, the end goal is a career as a physician assistant. Although some PAs will later go to medical school, this isn’t a typical path. There are some definite benefits to already having the medical background of a PA when it comes to handling the challenges that medical school will throw your way, but there are also a lot of downsides that make this unique path the right choice for only a select few students.
Strong Preparation, But Considerable Downsides
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Practicing PAs already complete a lot of science and medicine coursework during their didactic year of school, the first year of a graduate physician assistant program that emphasizes learning in the classroom. Established physician assistants also have experience in the field that many medical school students don’t have, at least not directly. This background knowledge can certainly make the first-year medical curriculum easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s automatically the right choice for you.
Like PA school, medical school traditionally starts with a curriculum based in classroom study and laboratory learning and then progresses to clinical rotations. While your hands-on experience practicing medicine may give you an edge in the depth of your understanding of classroom and laboratory topics of study, you likely won’t have a direct use for your skills until you get to your third year of medical school, when you begin clinical rotations. In the meantime, you may feel bored with the lack of real clinical experience available to you. Additionally, although grasping the content of your medical school courses may be easier for you with a PA background, it still won’t be easy. Medical school comes with an intense workload that you must complete, even if you already know a lot of the material.
If you’re looking at PA school as an easier or faster way to get through medical school, you’re likely to be disappointed. Master’s programs in physician assistant studies are difficult, time-consuming and expensive, just like medical school.
Does a PA Who Goes to Medical School Bypass Any Classes or Requirements?
Since you’ve already got clinical experience under your belt – hopefully, from your PA program and your time actually practicing medicine – it may not make sense for you to start your medical education completely from scratch. However, PAs considering going to medical school should know that it’s not a matter of completing only one more year of school.
Some medical schools do offer special accelerated degree programs designed for experienced PAs. However, these programs still take three years to complete, according to The Houston Chronicle. The curriculum of an accelerated physician assistant program might start with classroom and laboratory study, then incorporate one or two clinical clerkships over the summer, followed by a second year that combines additional classroom studies with the start of the more intensive clinical curriculum.
You’re not saving yourself any time by going to PA school before you go to medical school. In fact, you’re spending more time and money on your education by earning both degrees than you would have done going straight for your Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) in the first place. You’re now looking at five to six combined years of graduate school, instead of the usual four years that it takes to complete medical school.
You’re also taking on a lot more debt this way, having paid or borrowed the full cost of your PA program plus three years of even more expensive medical school study.
Why You Should – and Shouldn’t – Go to Medical School as a PA
Some students mistakenly think of physician assistant as either a step toward becoming a doctor or a backup plan, but neither is true. Physician assistant is its own distinct profession, and it attracts aspiring practitioners who really want the satisfaction of providing direct patient care without a lot of the administrative headaches of that come with being a doctor. If you truly wish to be a doctor, then you should skip PA school and start looking at medical schools instead.
That said, there are some times when a licensed, practicing PA might start to consider going to medical school. You can certainly do this, because what you learned to become a PA is also likely to fulfill the prerequisite coursework and foundational requirements of medical school. As a PA applying to medical school, you would have a patient care background that may appeal to an admissions team and be a uniquely interesting candidate for them to consider, since this situation isn’t particularly common.
That said, whether you should go to medical school depends on why you want to be a doctor. If it’s purely for the prestige and you’re happy with your work and your earning potential, then going to medical school probably isn’t worth it.
If you’re motivated mainly by salary, it’s important to think carefully about the opportunity cost. PAs earn a six-figure median salary and, in some areas, can expect to begin their career with a starting salary in the high $80,000 range. Going back to school means taking four years off of work and taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt, then starting over as a resident during your first year out of medical school. The average wage for first-year residents is around $60,000, according to the American Medical Association, and it will be some time before you begin earning “doctor money.” Additionally, while doctors make quite a bit more than PAs, they also work a lot more – often, 60 or even 80 hours per week, while a full-time physician assistant will usually work closer to 40 hours.
The time when it most makes sense for a PA to go to medical school is if, after spending some time in the profession, they lament the lack of autonomy that comes with having to answer to a supervisory physician. If that extra autonomy would be worth the time and financial costs of going to medical school, as well as the time spent on administrative duties reserved for doctors, then becoming a doctor could be what you need to feel truly satisfied with your career.
If you’re thinking about medical school simply because you want to advance your education or your career, consider a different kind of doctorate, like a clinical Doctor of Physician Assistant Studies or the leadership-focused Doctor of Medical Science degree.