Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why not be a doctor?

It is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Obviously, since I am pursuing an advanced degree in the medical field (I get a masters over the course of the program in addition to earning the right to sit for the pathologists’ assistant certification exam) I am interested in the medical field and of reasonable intelligence.

And after I graduated with my degree in microbiology I did apply to medical school because, like most graduates who majored in the biological sciences, I had no idea what to do with my degree. My sister was in the middle of her residency at the time and I had worked for a doctor’s office for four years so I was familiar with the industry and thought I would be good at it. However, my GPA* is/was horrible and while they were willing enough to overlook it to interview me I wasn’t accepted. I was told if I could take some more science classes (especially graduate ones) and do well in them that I would be a very strong candidate. I didn’t though. I did retake the first semester of general chemistry, which I needed to do if I was going to do any sort of further education. But I didn’t take grad classes for it… which is telling, I think.

My entire adult working career has been in the medical field (four years in an allergists’ office, now three years in a pathologist practice) and I have seen both the patient care and diagnostic aspects of medicine. I know myself well enough to know I don’t want to deal with patients nor do I want to spend my days behind a desk or a microscope. I like being in a lab setting, I like the challenge of complex specimens, and I like that no one is lying to me about how compliant** they are with taking their medications.

The doctors I work with now rotate weeks on call so even if they started their day at 7 am, they still have to come in some nights at 9 or 10pm when the specimens arrive. And we thought after my sister finished her residency she would get more of her life back, have more freedom with her schedule, etc but that hasn’t happened. Granted, she picked a speciality (OB/GYN) that doesn’t follow a normal 8-5 schedule but you would still think that she would have more flexibility as a full physician.

So I applied to PA school for the first time at the end of 2009 and didn’t get in. They told me to take the GRE and do well (since I’d previously submitted my MCAT scores) and to take more science classes and do well. Summer of 2010 I took graduate level Biochem and made an A, that fall I took the GRE and did well (over 1400). I reapplied at the end of 2010 and here I am just a few months away from starting classes (and ridiculously excited, btw!).

I like and admire physicians. I can work well with them, but I don’t want to be one. I’m old enough now that I don’t want to invest 8+ years in additional training before I can start my career and I have children whose lives I’d actually like to be a part of over the next decade. I’ve been grossing long enough to know I really enjoy it, I like the hands on and immediate nature of the work, and as a PA I can earn an income that places me squarely in the upper-middle class range.

*Cumulatively anyway. I went to college initially while dealing (not very well) with clinical depression, so I didn’t attend classes and I flunked out. I went back four years later and did fairly well (3.3ish) taking predominantly senior level science classes. I have found that while higher learning institutions are willing to overlook the cumulative GPA based on the very abrupt improvement, it does mean that you have to be a fairly strong candidate in every other category.

**Not very. My favorite patients were the ones chain-smoking outside the asthma/allergists office who would then come in and complain that their Advair wasn’t helping.


  1. Hi! Followed the comment you left on my blog(thank you for the advise btw) and found your blog here. I'm really looking forward to reading and following along with your adventures in training to be a PA. Cheers!

  2. I found your blog while trying to soul search myself. I've been prepping for the MCAT, but keep having doubts that that part of medicine is right for me. What I do know is that autopsies and pathology make my heart skip and dance. I look forward to reading more on your journey and congrats on getting there!

  3. Sarah, thanks for your comments. Have you been able to shadow any pathologists/PAs? It might be helpful for you to see how different hospitals/labs divide up the labor. I work at a reference lab right now, and most of our pathologists are just working with the slides. We do have two that handle our autopsies, but in some facilities the PAs are the ones doing them.

    It is nice to know that other people like autopsies/pathology :-D

  4. Hi, I found your blog while looking up information about Duke's Pathologist Assistant interview process. A friend and I visited Duke just today and met with Pam Vollmer to find out more about the program and see the school. We were even able to meet a few of the PA students (you have a neat little office; love the elevator!)

    Reading your blog is giving me a lot wonderful information. I'm a senior in college, but I'm also a returning student. I returned to school last fall after a six year break due to severe depression. I ended up failing two of my classes because I just stopped going and was forced to withdraw from the school. My GPA is now a 3.5. I have really been worrying, though, that those two failed classes could hold me back when applying to a program. Reading this post definitely gives me hope.

  5. Oh hey! I would be the student that you saw in the hall and the PA room :)

    Your overall GPA sounds good, it seems like you've recovered well from failing the two classes six years ago. Hopefully you had a good meeting with Pam and she was able to give you an idea of what they look for in applicants. Good luck!

  6. I am also considering medical school mostly because forensic pathology really interests me but I also don't want to miss out on my family's life (although I don't have kids yet but hope to soon start the procreation process) but what makes me a bit sad is that from what I have gathered a pathA works mostly in grossing rooms and occasionally in the hospital's morgue but not in a medical examiner's office. Is this correct?
    How often do they get to work at least in the hospital morgue? or does it depend on the institution you work at?
    Thanks :]

  7. oh another question, are there any kind of chances for advancements in this profession? Another thing that worries me is always being the assistant and not being able to grow and do the same thing day in day out. I would love to know what you think because I could be totally wrong.

  8. Nadja, for your first question, it absolutely depends on what kind of job you take. We have two PAs in the Duke hospital system that just do autopsies and 5 that just do surgical specimens. Usually the job listings for PA positions list the number of autopsies you can expect to have annually (from a brief look at the job postings currently at the number ranges from around 10 a year up to 300 a year)so if you like autopsies you would apply for the jobs that are autopsy heavy. I used to work in a much smaller hospital system and the PAs did a mix of autopsy and surgical grossing. As far as the medical examiner/coroner's office it varies wildly, since some states don't even require the person holding that position to be a pathologists (or in the case of a coroner a doctor). You can check the wikipedia articles for more information on that. Even the vast majority of pathologists do not handle forensic autopsies on a daily basis since in a given population of people skin biopsies and colonoscopies happen a lot more often than murders ;-)

    For the second question, there are absolutely opportunities for advancement since PAs duties can include supervisory and management duties (you might find it helpful to read What is a PA from the AAPA. However, for the rest of your question, you will always be a Pathologists' Assistant just like Physicians' Assistants are always going to be Physicians' Assistants. It is the title of the position, but it doesn't mean that you are just running and fetching tools for the pathologists or printing cassettes or minor duties. Pathologists' Assistants can function autonomously in the gross or autopsy room.

    Also, in terms of doing the same thing day in and day out... It depends on how you look at it. Every day you will be doing an autopsy or grossing surgical specimens or training pathology residents, so in that way you are absolutely doing the same thing every day. Of course every day you are getting things that are completely different. You might have an above the knee amputation, a massive mastectomy, a fetal autopsy or a gallbladder full of stones that look like tiger eye beads.

    Actually, most jobs boil down to doing basically the same thing day in and day out. Surgeons do surgery all day, musicians play music, waiters wait tables, etc, etc ;-)

  9. I really appreciate your detailed answer :]
    It really helps me a lot since I'm not able to shadow anyone where I live because I couldn't prove it's a requirement for my current course or requirement for grad school. Lame!!

    Good thing skin biopsies and colonoscopies happen more often than murders lol :]
    How has it been for you to study and to take care of our kids? I was reading your introduction post and that was really nice of your dad to help you out :]

  10. Nadja, did you try contacting the AAPA to see if they could give you contacts for shadowing? Some people have definitely had success with that.

    Taking care of the kids has been mostly okay, but it does mean that I have less flexibility with my schedule and less free time than my classmates. What helps immensely is that my children are older and more autonomous than they would have been a few years ago. And having my dad, like you mentioned. I couldn't do this without him! Life would be so much easier if my husband were here (I think I could even manage having a toddler age or younger child if he were with me) of course, but the housing and job market are just not cooperative right now.

    Where are you in the application process?

  11. Thanks for the reply :]
    I'm not near applying at all unfortunately. Still working on my undergrad education but I'm trying to get as much info as I possibly can!