No one would say working in health care is easy, but it can be invigorating for the right person. You chose it because you enjoy helping people lead healthier lives. Working with patients isn’t a drudgery you have to deal with—it’s arguably your favorite part of being a physician assistant.
Still, you can’t help but wonder what advancement opportunities there are. While you’d never want to give up working with patients, you do crave a little more autonomy. You’re thinking about taking your career from PA to MD.
But first things first. What steps do you need to take to actually transition your career? You’ll need to apply to medical schools, obtain your MD, and complete residency training. Your experience will just be a little different than a student who goes straight from college to medical school. Consider this your quick-start guide.
7 important steps to go from PA to MD
We spoke to Dr. Christin Giordano,* former PA and current Internal Medicine Resident Physician, to gain some firsthand insight. It’s worth noting that while the outline below can be generally helpful for physician assistants looking to become MDs, everyone’s situation will be a little bit different.
1. Do a gut-check
Becoming a physician is a huge undertaking. You need to be sure it’s right for you. Dr. Giordano always planned to become a doctor, but found herself questioning the career choice. While she was gaining shadowing experience during college, she remembered encountering a lot of physicians who felt overburdened by administrative tasks.
Around the same time, Dr. Giordano became more familiar with how much patient care physician assistants handle. She ultimately decided to attend PA school, and then began her career. But the itch to pursue an MD resurfaced when Dr. Giordano met a doctor who had the type of career and work-life balance she had always dreamed of.
"I realized that it was actually possible to do the things that I envisioned as a physician."
“I realized that it was actually possible to do the things that I envisioned as a physician,” she says.
There are things to consider, though. Attending medical school often means adding to existing debt from PA school. Dr. Giordano mentions that you’ll also have to readjust to a tighter budget when you go from full-time employee to full-time student.
“I would say that you should be 100 percent sure, actually be 120 percent sure this is what you want to do with your life,” Dr. Giordano offers.
2. Enlist your employer’s support
Surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family is hugely beneficial when tackling the rigorous path of applying to medical school. Dr. Giordano also suggests that you be honest and upfront about your plans with your supervisor.
“I think having the support of your current employer, who is likely a physician, is extremely important,” she says. “And having them write a letter of recommendation, if they can give a positive one, would really back up your application as well.”
3. Complete any unmet requirements
As you start the medical school application process, you need to make sure you’ve met—or are on track to meet—all the requirements. Coursework deserves particular attention. Every program is a little different, so make sure you investigate class prerequisites on a school-by-school basis.
“I had to take the second semester of organic chemistry, the second semester of physics, biochemistry, and I took an extra class in genetics,” Dr. Giordano says. She adds this would be the same time to take additional classes to boost your science GPA if needed.
"I had to take the second semester of organic chemistry, the second semester of physics, biochemistry, and I took an extra class in genetics."
You also need to fill out information for, study for and take the MCAT, write your personal statement, and secure letters of recommendation. While meeting these requirements is a must for every medical school applicant, it can be a little more difficult for full-time physician assistants. You need to be committed and organized.
“I was going to work at 5 am, going to class in the middle of the day for an hour or two, coming back to work later in the day, and then studying for the MCAT at night,” Dr. Giordano says. “It was a very challenging year.”
4. Submit applications and complete interviews
When it comes time to submit applications, do so promptly. Medical schools have rolling admissions. Waiting until the deadline means many of those seats will already be filled.
“Getting it in early gives you the opportunity to be seen earlier in the process and potentially be offered interviews before other people,” Dr. Giordano reminds.
Does being seen earlier really matter? Know that the competition is stiff, and it’s only getting tougher. Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) shows the number of applicants is growing significantly faster than the number of medical school seats. The good news is having PA experience might make programs take notice.
"I do think having the PA background is relatively unique."
“I do think having the PA background is relatively unique,” Dr. Giordano says. She believes most medical schools consider that an advantage. That experience can also give you some talking points for your interview, which can help you secure your acceptance.
5. Obtain your medical degree
Medical school is essentially divided into two parts: basic sciences instruction and clinical rotations. Your first two years will be mostly classroom lectures and labs. Completing rotations during your final two years give you an introduction to working with patients.
While PA school provides a solid foundation, you should expect to gain a deeper level of knowledge while working toward your MD. That said, physician assistant experience can be helpful.
“You have the advantage of knowing the medical terminology already,” Dr. Giordano explains. Having familiarity with a hospital system can make the transition to clinical rotations a little easier as well.
You’ll also need to begin the licensing exam process as a medical student. You’ll need to take the first two portions of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) over the course of your four years.
6. Complete residency and licensing requirements
You’ll go through the residency application process as you near the end of medical school. After attending interviews, you’ll submit a list that ranks programs in order of preference. Residency programs do the same. After everyone submits their selections, a computer algorithm matches individuals to residency positions.
Residency is also when you’ll complete the final phase of the USMLE and the appropriate board certification exam. It’s a lot of hard work, so do your best to remember why you’re going through such a demanding process.
7. Start practicing as an MD
Once you’ve met licensing requirements in your state, you can begin your career as a medical doctor. Just note that you must keep up with continuing medical education requirements. No matter how you choose to practice, you’ll get to work with patients who rely on your medical expertise. Dr. Giordano believes having time to mature and develop has really helped in this department.
“I think having real-life experiences behind you is extremely important in connecting with your patients and their families,” she says. “Working on developing those things, whether or not you take an unconventional path, is really important.”
Pursuing a career as a physician after working as a PA certainly isn’t for everyone. There are clearly plenty of PAs providing excellent patient care who love their jobs. But for the right person, seeking an MD can be very rewarding.
“It’s not an easy road, but it’s completely worth it.”
“I have no regrets,” Dr. Giordano says. “It’s not an easy road, but it’s completely worth it.”
Realize your MD dreams
While going from PA to MD isn’t the most traditional path, Dr. Giordano and others have proven it’s possible. You may even have some advantages over your fellow medical school applicants. That said, gaining acceptance to a program is no easy feat. And that’s true across the board.
Perhaps you’ve heard that some medical schools are easier to get into, such as newer institutions or international programs. It makes you wonder whether they can provide the quality education you’ll need. You shouldn’t discount those schools just yet. Find out why by reading our article, “What You Should Really Know About the ‘Easiest’ Medical Schools to Get Into.”
*Views are her own and do not express opinions of her employer.
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