The Physician Assistant Graduate: Preparing for the Job Search

Graduating from a physician assistant program is quite an achievement, and you should be proud of your accomplishment. You’ve slaved over textbooks, spent more hours in science labs than you’d ever dreamed you would in your lifetime. You finally made it to the day every student looks forward to: graduation. You have several things to consider in the coming months: preparing for and passing the PANCE, becoming licensed to practice, and setting your sights on where you would like to work.

No matter where you end up working you’re going to spend the majority of time there as you become an established physician assistant in your community, so you’d better love your work environment. Deciding where you want to work is just as important as choosing a PA program and should involve as much research. Perhaps you already have a good idea of where you will work because you focused your area of study on a particular medical specialty; if not, and you are going into family practice or primary care, you will need to investigate hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices to find the right fit for you and your career objectives. Compiling your references and polishing your resume will take time and attention, so invest your time wisely. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, competition for PA jobs over the next 10 years will be fierce, but there will be jobs available. “Employment of physician assistants is expected to grow by 39% from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations.” Develop a job search plan and stick to it; then, get out there and put your best foot forward!


Having a well-organized list of professional references is always beneficial. According to, “A 2009 survey for Human Resource Management shows that 75% of human resources professionals check all interviewees’ references.” References speak to the quality of person you are, your integrity as an individual, and whether or not you are the right person for the job. Individuals with foresight begin compiling a list of references while still in their physician assistant program or possibly years before. References can be obtained from former employers, college professors, athletic coaches, and colleagues. Anyone who can honestly attest to your character and any work-related issues can provide a valuable reference. Having a referee to speak about your moral character and ethics is important for a physician assistant, or anyone in healthcare for that matter. Confidentiality and ethical issues abound in healthcare; it’s important for prospective employers to understand just how upstanding a person you are. Friends often don’t make the best referees unless they are professional colleagues. Friends like you, so they’re only going to sing your praises. Referees, while they may sing your praises, provide a more objective view of your qualities.

The Physician Assistant Graduate: Preparing for the Job Search

Discuss personal attributes and academic achievements you would like your referees to highlight should they be called upon to offer their opinion. Encourage referees to mention how they know you, how long they’ve known you, and the many good attributes you possess.

It is important to speak with those you plan to list as referees first. Get their permission to put them on your reference list and offer to provide them with a copy of your resume or curriculum vitae. You don’t want them to be surprised if/when they receive a call from a possible employer.

It is often advised to not list referees on a resume or state that they are “available upon request.” This is assumed and does not need to be stated; however, referees should be listed on your curriculum vitae (CV). These are often listed on a separate page entitled “References.”

Networking with other physician assistants and doctors in your area can provide helpful references. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Bob Daugherty, who heads U.S. recruiting for Pricewaterhouse Coopers, says the best references are ones from people who work for the organization you’re looking to join…at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, more than 40% of hires with experience come through employee referrals. If you don’t already have connections at a firm you’re targeting, seek out references from people in your network.”

Once someone has agreed to represent you as a professional referee, it’s nice to send a written thank you note expressing your gratitude. The referee has to take time from his or her day to speak with an employer about your positive attributes. This reference may be the one thing that puts you ahead of someone else applying for the same position; thank your referee for taking the time to help you with your job search.

Make no mistake, references are important. You want to recruit referees who know you well and know how you handle yourself in different situations. A strong recommendation from a qualified person can mean the difference between being employed as a physician assistant or missing out on a precious opportunity.

Job Interviews

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

This quote should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind when going to a job interview. You can have the most impressive academic record and resume in the bunch, but if you’re not personable, or if you come across as cold and unapproachable, the doctor or hospital doing the interviewing probably won’t invite you to join the staff. It takes much more than an impressive resume to get a job.

There are a few “givens” when going on an interview: dress appropriately and neatly, arrive on time, and don’t chew gum or smoke; however, there is job interview advice more pertinent to a physician assistant.

  • Research the doctor, hospital, or healthcare organization to which you are applying. Have specific examples or tidbits of information you can discuss during your interview. The fact that you took the time to delve into the background of the organization will impress the interviewer and show him or her just how serious you are about working for the group.
  • Practice the interview beforehand. Have a friend or colleague pretend to be the interviewer and walk through possible interview scenarios. Practice body language. Many experienced interviewers/employers gain more information from what you’re not saying than what you are saying. Practicing the interview can help reduce any anxiety you may be experiencing.
  • Have a number of examples ready to illustrate healthcare-related circumstances that put you in a positive light. For example, be able to describe how you maintained your calm demeanor during an onslaught of trauma patients in the emergency department during your rotation in PA school or your ability to quickly and accurately assess and triage patients. Any kind of strength you can point out to a prospective employer is advantageous as long as you do it respectfully and with some humility.
  • Be prepared to discuss current issues and concerns in healthcare. It would not be out of the question for a doctor or hospital administrator to test your knowledge of health care legislation and where you see the future of healthcare in this country. Having a well-formed opinion on some of the current issues will convey a concern for your patients’ welfare and a dedication to the profession itself.
  • Arm yourself with questions about the doctor and his or her practice or the hospital or healthcare organization. Interviewing goes both ways. It’s your time to ask questions, too.
  • Be prepared to answer the question “Why didn’t you go for the MD?” This is a common question from healthcare professionals as well as patients and lay people. Have a confident, well-formed answer ready.

Finally, take a deep breath and relax. If you follow the suggestions above and prepare for the interview, you will succeed.


Your resume or curriculum vitae is often the introductory communication between you and a prospective employer, so it’s important to have a positive impact. What’s the difference between a resume and curriculum vitae (CV)? “The primary differences are the length, what is included and what each is used for. A resume is a one or two page summary of your skills, experience and education…a curriculum vitae is longer, and includes a summary of your educational and academic backgrounds as well as teaching and research experience, publications, presentations, awards, honors, affiliations and other details” (Doyle, n.d.).

Your resume should give an employer a quick glance into your academic and work history.

You can find different resume templates on the Internet or seek assistance from your school’s career counseling office to get you started on developing an attention-getting resume. The following basic information should be included in your resume: name, address, and contact information; education history; employment history (with dates of employment and any titles you may have held); responsibilities of your previous jobs; the professional license you hold (PA-C); a short objective (stating your career goals); and any publication credits and professional affiliations. Items not to be included are jobs of short duration, any job you had 20+ years ago, and personal information that infringes upon privacy and/or human rights (such as age, weight, race, etc.). Do not provide your social security number and do not include references; you can provide these if and when they are requested. The same rule does not apply if you are composing a CV; referees are listed on a separate page in this document.

A good tip is to list the most important information in your resume first. This could be your education, your career objectives, or your work experience. Any piece of information you believe is going to have the biggest impact should be the first thing an employer reads. It is often a good idea to have someone else proofread your resume. An objective eye can find simple spelling errors and grammatical mistakes and suggest changes to strengthen content. If all else fails and you struggle with composing a succinct resume that will impress future employers, professional resume services are available to help you.


We often hear the term “internship” but what exactly does this term mean? “An internship is a work-related learning experience for individuals who wish to develop hands-on work experience in a certain occupational field. Most internships are temporary assignments that last approximately three months to a year” (Erdogan, n.d.). Some interns are paid while others are not. Internships for physician assistants are often granted while the PA is still in school to provide real life experience for the student. Students usually work at the hospitals and health care clinics associated with their PA programs. The Mayo Clinic offers many opportunities for PA internships around the country. Participants must be enrolled in a Mayo-Clinic affiliated PA program. At the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, for example, the “Mayo School of Health Sciences admits three to four students in its Physician Assistant Internship…this ensures you will receive a comprehensive educational experience with close one-on-one instruction.” The benefits of an internship are far reaching. First and foremost, you receive hands-on, real life clinical experience while working alongside the doctors and other healthcare professionals with whom you will someday work. Second, internships allow you to get your foot in the door. If you prove yourself as an intern, administrators and doctors will remember you and will be more likely to hire you full-time after graduation. Internships allow you to network with other PAs and doctors and hospital administrators. Third, as an intern you will get to apply what you’ve learned in the classroom to patients in a clinical setting.

Internships are beneficial to employers as well. The Career Center at Pepperdine University outlines these advantages:

  • Employers gain innovative staff assistance at low cost.
  • Employers have the opportunity to impact the lives of students.
  • Internships are a flexible method for helping meet short and long term goals.
  • Internships project a favorable image in the community
  • Internships provide a vehicle to screen potential employees.

Securing an internship is as competitive as landing a job as a physician assistant, but doing so can help you get that job in the long run. Internships are a great way to make professional connections while gaining invaluable experience. Study hard and perfect your clinical skills and any hospital or doctor’s office will welcome you as a respected member of the team.

Last Updated: 05/12/2014


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