This topic is likely my most asked about. So many of you are on your own path towards a career in medicine and want to know the steps it took to get here. It wasn’t long ago that I was in the exact same position so I want to break down a list of my most frequently asked questions.
Let’s start from the beginning…
Q: Is Dermatology a competitive specialty for PAs?
A: I would say yes. It is a highly sought after specialty and that makes it slightly more competitive than some others. It tends to offer a nice lifestyle and work-life balance which makes it appealing to many new graduates and experienced PAs. That being said, it’s certainly not impossible to break into the specialty!
Q: What were your undergrad stats before PA school.
A: First let me say that every school’s requirements are different and it’s been 5 years since I applied to school. But, I get this question all the time. My undergrad degree was in Biology and I applied to PA school as soon as the CASPA opened (about 1 month before graduating undergrad). My overall GPA was a 3.6 and my science GPA was a 3.8. I did undergrad research in a Virology lab and obtained clinical experience as a Patient Care Technician (nurses aide) on an inpatient orthopedic floor. I was involved in various extracurriculars such as a sorority, campus wellness committee, Leadership conferences, etc.
You certainly don’t need to meet a certain formula to be accepted into PA school. Know that every program is different and value different characteristics. Be persistent and continue to strengthen your profile. I know a few applicants that did not get accepted until their 3rd year applying.
Q: What’s the best way to gain experience for PA school? Is shadowing the best option?
A: Any way you can! Shadowing is a requirement for most programs so reach out to everyone you can. I get countless DMs and emails about shadowing, and although at this point I do not have students shadowing, I do think this is a perfectly acceptable way to find PAs to shadow. It’s a different world now and I am never offended or annoyed when I get these types of messages on Instagram. Just be respectful, give some background, and kindly ask if there is room for you to shadow even 1 day in clinic. Also, you will need hands-on patient care experience. I was a Patient Care Technician (basically a nursing aid) at a small hospital in Ohio to get this experience. If you can work as an MA in the field you’re interested in, I highly recommend that! If you want to be a Dermatology PA, working as an MA in a derm office before PA school is invaluable.
Q: What should my major be if I want to pursue a PA degree after undergrad?
A: In my PA class there were many different undergraduate degrees represented. My undergraduate major was Biology and I felt that it prepared me very well for PA school. All of the PA school pre-requisites were included in my core major classes so it was nice not to have to take extra. Some other common majors were Kinesiology, Sports Medicine, and Chemistry. But don’t let a major determine whether or not you apply to PA school. As long as you have the necessary core classes your major is less important. If your Bachelor’s degree is in something completely unrelated to science or medicine, use that as a talking point in your personal statement and interviews.
Q: Any advice or tips to survive Didactic year?
A: I could probably write an entire post dedicated to this. Firstly, make friends. My friend group throughout PA school kept me sane. Enjoy your weekends. I probably had more fun in PA school than I did in undergrad to be completely honest. You have to know when it’s time to buckle down and get to work and when you can allow yourself a mental break. Don’t make things harder on yourself. I always say I am a smart studier and a good test taker. I knew how to hone in on what seemed important in a lecture or chapter and if it was down to the wire I didn’t waste time on details I didn’t think would be on the exam. This is huge and honestly makes all the difference. I studied every week day, yes, but I wasn’t killing myself the way some of my classmates were. I was told by my Program Director after graduation that I had the highest board scores of my graduating class, so something must have worked! Lastly, if you can, go to school somewhere warm or at least sunny. I know this seems silly, but growing up and going to college in Ohio and then PA school in Florida; I can honestly tell you the weather made a HUGE difference in my mood and motivation. It is much easier to stay motivated and energized with nice weather than when you are bundled up on a gloomy day and don’t want to leave your house.
Q: How did you land a job in Dermatology and was it your first job as a PA?
A: I knew pretty early on (before PA school) that I wanted to end up in Dermatology ultimately. During my clinical year I did one elective rotation in Cardiothoracic surgery and one in Dermatology (mix of cosmetic and general). I loved my Derm rotation but I also loved surgery and Emergency Medicine. Towards the end of school I heard about an opening in Critical Care from someone who had graduated the year before me. I shadowed and interviewed and decided that it was best to take a job in the ICU out of school to continue to learn. It was much like a residency; all on the job training, crazy hours, working holidays… but I loved it. About two years in I again heard about a position that I could not pass up. I was lucky that someone close to us happened to be friends with an incredible, world-renowned Dermatologist. I interviewed for the position and was extremely grateful to be offered the job. As you can imagine I could never pass up an opportunity like that so I pursued the new position in Cosmetic Dermatology and here we are.
Q: What tips do you have for someone who would like to break into the field of Dermatology?
A: I get this question multiple times a week. My advice is always the same: anything you can do to get yourself out there. Sign up for all the professional PA organizations you can and attend their dinners and conferences. Attend aesthetic or Dermatology conferences (even if you don’t yet work in the field), sign up for private trainings, cold call offices; you NEVER know who you are going to meet or who might be hiring. Also, create a professional business card for yourself and keep them on hand, you may just run into a Dermatologist at dinner or the grocery store. If you are still in school, try to do as many Dermatology rotations as you can. Perhaps most important is to learn as much as you can NOW. Don’t wait until you have a job interview to start reading up on the latest in the field.
This leads me too…
Q: Did you do a Dermatology rotation and if so was it built into the curriculum?
A: I did do a Dermatology rotation which was about 50% General Dermatology and 50% Cosmetic. It was not built into my curriculum (I haven’t heard of a program who has a designated Derm rotation but that may have changed). Also, I should say here that I think it’s extremely important to keep an open mind on rotations. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into thinking you already know 100% which specialty you want.
Q: What are some tips for making the most of my Dermatology rotation if I think I want to go into Derm?
A: Definitely read as much as you can. I linked some great textbooks below. Show up whenever possible, even if the provider sees patients on the weekends. Get your hands dirty if possible. You will certainly not be allowed to inject, but I was able to perfume some biopsies and other small procedures with the help of my preceptor. Also talk candidly with your preceptor. When you are with someone all day, 5 days a week for 6 weeks you certainly build a relationship. If it seems appropriate ask him/her for their honest opinions of the field, their position, what they would look for in a job if they were interviewing now, etc. Usually they will be more than willing to divulge this information.
Q: Should I start in a different specialty or in general practice before going into Dermatology?
A: For me, it was important to work in a broader field of medicine before specializing. I felt that I owed it to myself to cement the medical knowledge I had learned in PA school before I moved onto something else. I am so happy I worked in Critical Care before specializing and I would never change that. But, if the right opportunity in your dream specialty presents itself right out of school, I would never tell you to pass that up!
Q: How do I break into Derm if every position states “Experience Required”?
A: Personally, I would not even give that “requirement” a second thought. There is absolutely no harm in applying anyways. Once they hear from you they may realize that they would like to pursue you as a candidate regardless of your experience. Also, there are many Physicians out there who like to hire those without formal experience because they can train you how THEY like to practice so it’s a win-win.
Q: For someone in PA school right now, what studying should I do prior to my Dermatology rotation/ What resources do you recommend to learn more about the field?
A: There are a few classic textbooks I always recommend. One which is almost exclusively General Dermatology (here) and 2 that are amazing if your rotation is at all Cosmetic here and here. My favorite way to learn is by reading and creating chapter outlines.
Q: What can I do as an undergrad to help me become a Derm PA?
A: Meet and shadow as many Derm PAs and Dermatologists as possible. Show up on Saturdays/days off and make a great impression. Not only will you make connections that you can contact once you graduate PA school, but all of that Dermatology-specific shadowing will show future employers how passionate you were about the field from the very beginning.
Q: Do Dermatology PAs work weekends?
A: This is highly position specific as in any specialty. I personally do not work weekends at this time but there are plenty of Dermatology and Aesthetic PAs who do. I would say don’t shy away from weekend work, this is often when you can get some of the best experience. Also, you can use weekend availability as a selling point for yourself, especially if you are new to the field.
Q: What was your on the job training like?
A: I was lucky to join a practice that really invests in its providers. From the beginning I was with my SP all day everyday watching her inject and learning about the science of skin care. Slowly I started to inject model patients in front of her and had to “test out” on each and every treatment before seeing my own patients. Then my schedule would open up one day at a time while I was still shadowing my SP the other days and doing my own reading and research.
Q: What are some challenges as a Derm PA compared to a Critical Care PA?
A: Obviously working in Critical Care is considerably higher stress because of the nature of the field. Dermatology, especially Cosmetics, does come with its own set of challenges. Cosmetic patients are paying money out of pocket so there is high expectation associated with that, and rightfully so. Overall, it’s much less stress but I would say that my provider-patient relationship is much more in-depth. I speak to my patients sometimes multiple times on the phone and through email, which I love. In Critical Care there was little follow up. Once out of the unit or the hospital you would likely never see that patient again.
Fewwww that was a lot! I hope this post helped to alleviate some of your questions and concerns about becoming a Dermatology PA or a PA in any specialty for that matter. If you have any others be sure to drop a comment below or DM me on Instagram and I will be happy to answer!