Monday, May 23, 2016

Student Success Story: Hayley Coyle, UVA '15

What led to your initial interest in the physician assistant career and what motivated you to pursue it? 

At the end of my senior year I participated in a 3-week internship program through my high school. Deciding to challenge myself and try something I knew very little about, I signed up to intern in the Neonatal ICU at my neighborhood hospital. While my sponsor was a nurse practitioner, I spent many hours shadowing nurses, physicians, and physician assistants. Before the internship, I had never heard of the PA profession, but after lengthy conversations with many different healthcare professionals, the PA professional appealed to me most. This internship convinced me I wanted to pursue a career in healthcare and excited me to learn more about the PA profession. After doing more research and speaking with PAs outside of the hospital, I had no doubt that PA was the right career path for me.

What did you major in and why did you choose this area of study? 

I was a psychology major! I fell in love with psychology during my AP psychology class in high school, thanks to a wonderfully engaging teacher. I knew then it was something I wanted to pursue in college, but I also wanted to keep my options open. My first year I explored a variety of different subjects but found that I looked forward to my psychology courses most. Psychology is a great major for pre-PA students because the material is extremely relevant to healthcare. An added bonus is that many psychology courses are pre-requisites for PA programs. However, PA programs do not require a specific undergraduate major. So - as long as you can finish all your pre-requisites while majoring in something you love, go for it! 

What activities did you participate in at UVA? 

I was involved with Future Physician Assistant Society (FPAS), Greek Life, Peer Health Educators, Sustained Dialogue, Madison House, UIP, Pancakes for Parkinson's, UPC, and FYLE.  

Did you take a bridge year before starting PA school? If so, what did you do during that time and how did it help to prepare you for your next step? 

Yes! I would HIGHLY recommend at least one bridge year for any pre-PA student. I used my bridge year to finish up remaining pre-requisites, apply to PA school, and gain more clinical hours. I consider it an invaluable year. A week after graduation I began a summer A&P course, which was the last of my pre-requisites. While taking the course, I Had time to work on my PA applications as well.

In August, I began working full-time as a medical assistant in a dermatology office. PA programs have varying requirements for patient care hours an applicant must have prior to matriculation. While I accrued around 600 hours by graduation, working full time allowed me to gain more than 1,500 hours total, which greatly strengthened my application. It is also important to remember PA school interviews are in the fall and can often times last all day. It was relatively easy for me to take off work for interviews (especially thanks to my wonderful boss), but it would have been much harder to prepare/travel for interviews during fourth year. A bridge year allowed me to really focus on my applications and interview preparation without many other distractions!

What distinguished your bridge year experience from other options you might have pursued?

I loved my job as a medical assistant, and working as a medical assistant is one of the best ways to gain hands-on experience and relevant knowledge. To be a medical assistant you do not have to complete a certification course beforehand (in most cases). This was great because I was able to start working as soon as I finished with classes. Additionally, my hours were very normal. I never worked nights or weekends, unlike many of my friends who worked as medical scribes or EMTs. Furthermore, my role allowed me more autonomy and time interacting with patients than many other bridge year options. It was extremely informative while allowing me to gain hundreds of hands-on hours. I am amazed how much I learned about dermatology in just a few months.

How did you prepare for the PA school application process? 

Pre-requisites: Preparation is KEY, and starting early helps immensely. First year, I began a list of programs I was interested in. I mapped out the pre-requisite courses I would need to satisfy each program's requirements and also which semester I planned to take them. I periodically revised my school list throughout college and checked for any pre-requisite changes. I found it helpful to keep everything organized in one document.

Patient Care Hours + Professional Contacts = Career Exploration: I kept a running log of patient care hours I accumulated and a similar log with the names of PAs I shadowed or talked to with any notes. I reached out to various PAs for shadowing opportunities or even just to talk with about their experiences. Think about networking and making/strengthening connections early, as you will need at least three individuals to write your letters of reference!

Online Profession and Application Research: I did research online, read articles about the profession, and signed up for PA Education Association (PAEA) emails. PAEA is great because they occasionally have virtual fairs where representatives from many programs are available online for Q&A. Even if you don't have questions, I recommend participating in virtual fairs to hear questions others ask and make note of them for future reference. As application time drew closer, I further familiarized myself with CASPA - the centralized application. It helped me to make a timeline with deadlines for each program so I wasn't overwhelmed when the application opened.

Have you been accepted to a PA program thus far? If so, where do you plan to attend? 

I was accepted to multiple programs, but plan to attend Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, SC!

What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career as a PA? 
  • Stay organized! It really pays off in the end. 
  • Seek out as many opportunities as possible to shadow or gain patient care experience. Reaching out to friends and family is a great way to start - then just work your networking magic from there!
  • Join FPAS (Future PAs Society) if you haven't yet. 
  • Breathe. Don't let stress get the best of you. It can be scary looking at the long list of pre-requisites and hour requirements, but take things day by day. It is not easy, but you will get everything done if you set your mind to it and work hard. 
  • Remember there is no right or wrong way to be pre-PA. Some of my future classmates are coming straight from undergrad, some took a bridge year (or bridge years), and many even had full careers before deciding they wanted to pursue a PA career. 
In what ways did UVA Pre-Health Advising support you in your journey? What was most helpful?
I visited UVA pre-health advisors numerous times throughout college for advice and guidance.
  • My first year I met with an advisor to talk about a timeline for courses and to begin developing my resume. 
  • I signed up for the "Pre-Health Pulse" newsletter, which contains many helpful links, blog posts, advice, and upcoming workshops. 
  • I found it very helpful to meet with the advisors at least once a semester to ask questions about PA school and pre-requisites and/or go over my resume. 
The health advisors have a wealth of resources... take advantage of their open office hours! Many of the questions you have are likely ones they have already been asked by previous students!