What to expect in physician assistant school

What to Expect in Physician Assistant School [A Detailed Overview]

You may have heard “horror stories” about how difficult or demanding PA school can be.

Or maybe you haven’t heard much at all, and you’re just wondering what it will be like.

Either way, you’re in the right place.

Today I’ll share with you a detailed overview of what you can really expect in physician assistant school, with specific examples from my own experience.

Let’s get started.

PA School is Similar to Having a Full-Time Job

Overall, physician assistant school is a fairly similar commitment to having a full-time job.

Not all full-time jobs are created equal, of course.  

I’m referring to something like an 8-5 office job, where you often have a couple hours of additional work to do at home in the evenings.

In reality, you may end up spending a lot more time on certain days than others when you’re in school.  Especially the night before a test!

But I’ve seen people who basically treated it like a full time job, and did almost all of their studying during business hours on weekdays, and they managed to get by.  

Can You Work While You’re in PA School?

On a related note, a common question I hear is whether it’s feasible to work while you’re in PA School.

Overall, I would say PA school is too demanding to have a full-time job on the side, but you may be able to get away with working a few hours at a part-time job.

Personally, I never had a job while I was going to school.  But I did have enough free time for some social activities, so I guess I could have made it work if I really wanted to. 

You’ll need to study a lot more than you did in undergrad

I know there’s a pretty big variation in how much time people spend studying in college. But I’ll use myself as an example.

When I was in undergrad, I probably spent about 2 or 3 hours studying for a typical science test. (That’s in addition to the time I spent attending lectures and taking notes.)

When you go to PA school, you’ll have to multiply that time by about 10.

For example, if you spent 2 hours studying for a test in undergrad, now you’ll need to spend about 20 hours.  That’s because you have to learn A LOT more information, in a compressed amount of time.  

Keep in mind, the 20 hours could include time you spend previewing lectures before classes, or reviewing them the evening after. So it doesn’t have to be all in one sitting. 🙂

You’ll start off in the classroom, for about one year (or a little longer)

Typically, you start off with classroom work for about the first year or year-and-a-half. 

That means you’ll be spending most of your time attending lectures, going to labs, or studying.

Studying in PA school
You’ll need to study about 10x as much as undergrad

During that time, you’ll probably have about 1 or 2 tests every week, so you’ll have plenty of studying to do!

You’ll Start With “basic Sciences”, which are the most demanding

Just like in medical school, the first subjects you’ll be learning about in PA school are referred to as the “basic sciences”.

That mainly includes anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry.  But check your school’s course list if you’re curious about the specifics.  

At my school, we spent 1 quarter (3 months) on these topics.  Yours could be the same, or a little bit longer than that.

(By comparison, they spend about 3 times as long on basic sciences in medical school, partially because they include additional subjects, like histology and embryology.)

Of everything you’ll be learning in PA school, the basic sciences probably take the most time to study for.  That’s because there’s a TON of stuff to memorize!

For example, in anatomy, you’ll be memorizing a million different body parts. In physiology, you’ll be memorizing a bunch of specific processes that happen inside the body. And in biochemistry, you’ll be memorizing a bunch of molecules and diseases related to them.

So be prepared to really put in the time during your first few months at PA School!

One tip I would give if you’re getting ready for PA school is to spend any extra time you have reviewing basic science topics. Anything you can do to get a little more familiar beforehand will make your life a little easier once you get there! 

After basic Sciences, you’ll switch to “clinical” topics

Once you complete the basic science classes, then you get into more practical topics.

Subjects like cardiology, pulmonology, gastroenterology, etc.

In each of these classes, you’ll learn about specific diseases related to a body system, and how to treat them.

Clinical classes can certainly be demanding, and how hard the tests are depends a lot on the specific teacher. But overall, it usually doesn’t take quite as long to study for these tests as it did to memorize all the body parts in anatomy class, or all the molecules in biochemistry class.

So you can probably spend a little bit less time studying.

One big caveat:

Some of my classmates actually struggled a lot more once we got into the clinical topics. That’s because learning basic sciences was fairly straightforward, but learning diseases and treatment became a bit more conceptual at times.  That transition was a big challenge for some people, so don’t take it lightly.  

At my school, we did about 3 months of basic sciences, and then the next 12 months or so were mainly spent on clinical classes (along with a few other easier classes).  

The final year (or so) of PA school: Clinical Rotations

Once you’re done with all your classroom work (which ranges from 1 to 1.5 years in duration), you’ll spend the last year or so of physician assistant school doing clinical rotations.

This is where the rubber meets the road, as they say.

In other words, it’s time to start putting some of the things you’ve learned into real-world practice.

There’s a big variation in how “hands on” your rotations will be too, depending on the supervising physician or other preceptor that you’re working with. But overall, it will be time to see if you can use what you’ve learned in school to actually take care of patients.

So do your best to get involved, because the more you do the more you’ll learn and remember! 

Core rotations vs electives

At most schools, there will be several rotations that every student has to do, as well as about 2 months of “electives”.

Required rotations usually include things like family practice, internal medicine, general surgery, OB-GYN, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and psychiatry.  

For the electives, you basically choose any specialty you’re interested in.  That could be something completely new (like dermatology), or you could spend an extra month repeating one of the core rotations (like emergency medicine) if you were really interested in it and wanted to get some extra experience.

In my case, I did 1 month of Cardiology as an elective because I thought it would be useful to learn more about.  

After that, I was fortunate enough that I got to go on a medical mission in Guatemala for my second elective.  One of our PA faculty went each year, and about 5 of us went with her that time.

medical mission elective clinical rotation in PA school
On a medical mission in Guatemala

As a bonus, the medical mission lasted 2 weeks, so we had a little extra time for other things that month.

Where will you do your rotations?

Most likely, your school will offer to place you at specific clinics and hospitals in the local area, for your rotations.

Some schools also give you the option to try and set up your own rotations in another city,  like if you wanted to go back home and be closer to family.

In my case, I did most of my rotations in Las Vegas (where I went to PA School), because it is easier to let the school set up most of them, and more convenient not to move.  But I took the extra effort to set up a month of family practice back in Missouri where I was from, so I could be closer to family around Christmas time

Overall, there are pros and cons to trying to set up your own rotations versus letting the school do it for you. And you may or may not have a choice about that, so check with your school. 

End of rotation exams

Typically, at the end of each month’s rotation you’ll have an exam on that specialty. For example, if you just finished a month of emergency medicine, you’ll take a test all about emergency medicine.

To prepare for the exam, it’s a good idea to look up topics you saw each day during your rotation. And try to spend an hour or two reading through a general review book each evening.  

How Hard are Rotations?

The intensity of clinical rotations varies a lot. 

Some months you’ll be super busy, working long hours and even taking calls.  My general surgery rotation was kind of like that.  

But you’ll probably have other months that are more “cush”, with a lot more free time. For example, my psychiatry rotation was actually quite easy, since we only went in from about 9 a.m. until 2 or 3 p.m. each day.  And we were basically just shadowing, so that also made it feel easier.  I still learned a lot, but just to give you an idea.  

(How demanding your rotations are may give you a little insight into how much time you’ll spend working if you go into a similar specialty.)

Final thoughts

If you’ve been wondering what to expect in physician assistant school, hopefully this overview has provided you with some useful insights.

Some of the specific details will vary from school to school, but the general structure tends to be pretty similar.

One major wrinkle nowadays is that there are more online programs, so there’s a greater possibility to be location independent while attending physician assistant school.

In most cases, PA school will still keep you busy enough that you don’t have a lot of extra time for other things, like holding down a job on the side. But it’ll give you a little more flexibility overall.

Regardless of where you go to school, you’ll need to be a hard-worker (one of the key qualities of PA’s).  

If there’s anything else you wanted to know about what to expect in PA school, feel free to drop me a line by going to my contact page. 🙂

Best of luck! 

PS:  Pretty soon I’ll be publishing another post about how to survive physician assistant school, so stay tuned for that.