Preparing For The Job Search

Ah, the culmination of all those years of school and hard work and planning: a paying job as a physician assistant. It is time to start planning again. Preparing for a job search fresh out of physician assistant school first means deciding who and where you want to be. What kind of career do you want as a physician assistant? Private practice? Surgical suite? Rural area? Inner-city clinic? Where to live? These are critical questions to help focus a job search, and each answer may lead to a different search path.

For example, a physician assistant interested in working with the armed forces may look to their scholarship program to become ready to serve as a commissioned officer. A physician assistant interested in surgery might start focusing the job search even before starting school with a specialized program choice. From there, the PA would want to cultivate a network in the surgical field, approaching this network for job suggestions toward the end of physician assistant school. This PA should also utilize the job bank at the American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants website.

A physician assistant interested in underserved populations and rural-area work should contact the health department in the state where they wish to work as well as the Indian Health Service. Those pursuing private practice will find good resources at their school placement office and the AAPA website. Those heading for private practice should cultivate contacts in the field and relationships with private practitioners during clinical rotations.

A job search involves first evaluating the career desired and then building a plan to find it. The plan includes identifying job opportunities, cultivating positive professional references, constructing an accurate and compelling resume, and practicing for job interviews. Resources can be found at national and state professional associations as well as in physician assistant school placement offices and even on major Internet job sites.


Preparing For The Job Search

Strong work references are an important supplement to a job application and interview. Fortunately, in the course of working toward physician assistant certification, there are many opportunities to obtain references. Students have patient care experience prior to enrolling. By obtaining a written letter of reference when leaving a position for school, students will always have an available reference with no need to worry how well their associates remember their work two years later. It is also helpful to keep in touch with past employers. This contact maintains a positive relationship, keeps references current, and may mean learning about potential job opportunities.

Clinical rotations during physician assistant school also provide an opportunity to impress. Supervising medical doctors and physician assistants that give strong positive feedback should be asked for a reference. While you may not need a file full of references, it never hurts to have them on hand. As supervisors are unlikely to immediately process the reference, it is appropriate to follow up a verbal request with a polite note asking for the reference. If the reference is critical to an application, notice should be given of a pending deadline.

Some supervisors, because they are busy or reluctant to write, may ask workers to write their own references that they will then sign. While a student may not ever see a reference without providing the text, such references are not particularly useful. A future employer may match the writing style to your own and wonder about the validity of the sample. Or a potential employer may call the reference for additional information and be concerned if the reference can’t match the information in the letter or remember specific details about the candidate.

Not all references need be in writing. Most employers prefer to call applicant references to ask specific questions and get additional information. They can use a written reference as a basis for their call or simply start with a reference’s name and contact information. Provide a reference’s position, place of employment, work phone number, and e-mail address. Only professional phone numbers and e-mail addresses should be used unless express permission for another contact is given. References appreciate an e-mail or phone message to let them know a call is imminent. Candidates should not hesitate to offer brief information about the expected caller and position so the reference checker can focus his or her remarks.

While teachers, particularly ones with current contacts in the field, can be useful, most employers prefer references related to practical, clinical patient work. The best references will be medical professionals who have observed substantial technical skill, observed positive and effective client and staff interaction, and experienced a candidate’s work ethic and winning personality.

Job Interviews

Interviews with potential employers are important to the job search process for physician assistant school students. Today’s Internet has made it easy for applicants and employers alike to do their homework prior to meeting. Having been invited to interview, applicants should learn as much as they can about a potential employer by researching the hospital, practice, or business and speaking to common associates. Something as simple as finding a picture of the interviewer on the company website can ease discomfort by identifying the person you’re about to meet. While candidates needn’t necessarily explore the financial situation of a practice prior to interviewing, they should gain a good sense of practice location and size, practice needs, expected clientele, services, and practice philosophy.

Candidates should be aware that employers commonly conduct an Internet search on applicants. Wise applicants will search their own name and clean up any nonprofessional blog statements, Facebook pictures, or inaccuracies that are found.

Applicants should arrive for interviews slightly early or on time, in professional dress, and mindful that anyone met may participate in the hiring decision. Cordiality and professionalism set up a successful interview and pave the way for good peer relations if hired.

Direct eye contact and a firm handshake are a good start. All questions should be answered directly, but some questions may require some thought for a proper answer. Candidates might say, “I’m going to take a moment to consider that,” so the interviewer will be patient. Interview questions might range from technical questions to questions designed to ascertain if the candidate is a good match for the position and the practice. A candidate’s personality and practice fit are as important as the skills the candidate offers. While standard interview techniques of playing up strengths and minimizing weaknesses are important, it is equally important not to embellish or lie. Doing so may lose a job offer or may result in being fired once hired.

The interview is also an ideal opportunity for an applicant to assess the practice and ensure a good fit. Is it a pleasant environment? Does the staff appear competent and friendly? Does the facility meet current medical standards? If not, what will need to be addressed? Can you see yourself going to work there every day? What are the precise expectations and responsibilities of a physician assistant at this practice? How is continuing education addressed? How does the supervising physician’s personality and philosophy mesh with yours? Candidates should ask questions to gain the information needed to make a career decision and to show an interest in the practice. The first question is, “Does the practice want me?” but the second question is, “Do I want this practice?” Candidates who want the job should say so clearly.


Students should have a prepared resume for their job search during physician assistant school. While a resume alone won’t get a job, it is an important introduction as well as a reminder to potential employers. Often, an employer’s first impression will come from a resume. No matter how experienced and how lengthy a work background, applicants should endeavor to keep their resume to one uncrowded page. There are exceptions, however. If an applicant has substantial research experience and/or has published findings and articles, a longer curriculum vitae is appropriate, particularly if that background relates to the current area of interest.

Resumes should include an applicant’s name, contact information including e-mail address, educational background, work experience, and professional memberships and associations. References are not generally listed on a resume though the phrase “References upon request” is sometimes placed at the bottom of the page. A curriculum vitae includes this information as well as research and published works. Unless personal interests and achievements are particularly noteworthy, they will not add to the merit of a resume.

Having an electronic copy of a resume available to send quickly to potential employers is helpful. Resumes sent by mail should include a cover letter stating interest in the position and highlighting strengths relative to the requirements of the opening. Salary requirements should not be included in a resume or cover letter unless specifically requested. For electronically sent resumes, the e-mail itself is often the cover letter and should be treated with the same professionalism.

While resumes sent by mail or delivered by hand need not be professionally printed, they should be printed on a quality paper and not regular copy paper. While white is traditional, resumes on lightly colored papers such as ivory, gray, or light blue can make a resume stand out from the crowd. Bolder colors would not be appropriate professional choices. Print should generally be in a 12-point font, larger for name and contact information, and in an easy-to-read typeface. Printing resumes individually for each job application allows the opportunity to modify the resume to the job, emphasizing background particular to the job’s needs. For example, special educational background or volunteer experience might be added if relevant to a particular job. Alternatively, the additional information can be provided in an accompanying cover letter.

For legal reasons, some employers may ask applicants to complete job applications even when resumes are accepted. Candidates should be careful to be accurate, as any mistakes may cause later employment problems. Some employers will allow candidates to attach a resume and note the attachment, but all sections not covered in the resume must still be completed, particularly the section noting the veracity of the supplied information and the applicant’s signature.

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