Renee Langstaff had been working as a physical therapist for five years before she realized she wanted to pursue a master's degree in physician assistant studies. "I found myself going to my patient's chart and wanting to know why they needed heart surgery, and what kind of surgery was it, and what meds they were on," explains Langstaff. "I just felt this need to know more. I realized that I was more suited to be a [physician assistant] because of my interest in those things."
Langstaff entered a MSPA program at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania in 1996, bracing herself for two years of rigorous study. "For me, it wasn't the level of the material that's so difficult, it was more the volume and the pace," she explains. "Trying to get through PA school at times feels like you're trying to drink from a fire hydrant."
Langstaff currently works as a clinical physician assistant at Jefferson University Methodist Hospital in Philadelphia. Working in the cardiac care unit, she manages multiple patients with critical heart conditions, working with a team of doctors and critical care specialists. "It's a great career for people who have a powerful interest in medicine, but maybe they don't want to go through the training to become a physician," she says. "You're sacrificing autonomy of course; The doctor takes the lead. But what you get back is more reasonable hours and, I think, a more livable lifestyle."
Ask the expert
Elizabeth A. J. Salzer is the director of physician assistant studies at LIU Brooklyn.
What major should a person pursue if they want to enter a graduate-level physician assistant program?
As long as the prerequisites are taken, I don't think it's important what the student's major was. There's a great deal to be said for a strong liberal arts background: history, literature, computer science, etc. That makes a student, in my view, more well-rounded and ultimately a better practitioner.
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What kind of students should consider an MSPA?
Someone who is fascinated by medicine -- the human body and disease processes. And you have to have a strong compassion for people. However, people often make the mistake of applying for an MSPA program because they want to help people, but they don't have a passion for medicine and science. Also, you're not the final decision-maker as a PA, so you absolutely need to be a great team worker.