Tough Competition for "Hot" Career
Only 40 out of more than 800 applicants were accepted last May for admission into what has become one of the most competitive graduate programs in the country. "Top students sometimes apply for admission two, three, even four times," says Ruth Fixelle, PA-C, director of the Master's degree Physician Assistant (PA) Program in Piscataway and a 1978 graduate.
The PA program is run by UMDNJ's School of Health Related Professions in collaboration with Rutgers University. It was named one of the top 10 such programs in the country in US News and World Report's 1998 survey.
How did a profession that was relatively unknown just a decade ago develop into one of the "hottest" health careers of the '90s? Starting salaries in the $50,000 to $75,000 range, a far shorter time commitment than medical school (residencies are not required), and a high level of job satisfaction are certainly key, says the director. She also points out that work schedules are fairly predictable and most PAs do not have to be concerned about the business end of practicing, which can be enormously time consuming.
The first PA program was opened at Duke University in North Carolina in 1968 to provide instruction to medical corpsmen returning from the Vietnam War, who already had developed many of the necessary skills, but had none of the academic background required for the job. UMDNJ accepted its first class of 20 in 1975 into what was then a bachelor's degree program. It was converted into a graduate program in 1994.
Interestingly, it was not until 1992 that New Jersey became the forty-ninth state in the country to pass legislation allowing PAs to practice within its borders. "We were educating some of the best," comments the program's director, "but they had to leave the state in order to work."
Fixelle says the training is rigorous, with PA students sharing some of the medical students' first year classes. UMDNJ's program is three years post-baccalaureate. Time is divided equally between classes in the basic and clinical sciences, and clerkships. Biological science majors at Rutgers University's Livingston College can apply to enter the "three plus three program," which eliminates the fourth undergraduate year for those who are accepted.
The director explains that more than 30 percent of current graduates are hired to work in ERs of major medical centers. Many others choose primary care or surgery, where they can serve as first assistants in the operating room, and can specialize in such areas as orthopedics, cardiac and neurosurgery. General responsibilities of PAs include taking histories, doing physicals, ordering and interpreting laboratory and other diagnostic tests, planning treatment, and performing any procedure that the supervising physician has "credentialed" them to do.
Graduates have reported on the program's biennial survey that while their schooling was "hell," they are happy and well-prepared for their jobs. PAs trained in surgery command the highest pay, says Fixelle, with those in pediatrics and family practice at the lower end of the scale.
If you're thinking of this field, keep your marks high, but also learn to communicate well. "Applicants with 4.0 averages and a thorough grounding in the biological sciences have been turned down," Fixelle says. "The interview is critical." The University has recently opened a second Master's degree Physician Assistant program in collaboration with Seton Hall University. Classes are held in South Orange and Newark.
Fall 1998 Table of Contents