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Approximately half of all PAs will change specialities during their career

By Alyson Rockhold, PA-C, MPH

Do you want to know my favorite part about being a PA? It’s the flexibility!

Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked in 4 different areas of medicine. Switching specialties keeps me on my toes and provides lots of excitement. I’ve gone from delivering babies to talking to patients with schizophrenia to scrubbing in for surgery. Each new job has stretched me as a PA and given me the opportunity to explore my variable interests.

Sometimes, I switched specialties out of necessity. For example, one time I moved to a new location and there were no job openings in my field. I was grateful for the flexibility to apply to many different PA jobs instead of just one specialty. Being able to cast a wider net made it easier for me to find a job.

The flexibility of the PA profession has given me an enviable career. Will it do the same for you? Let’s look at some common questions about PA’s professional flexibility. Perhaps these answers will help you decide if being a PA is right for you:

How common is it for PAs to change specialties? 

Here’s the basic answer: The American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) says that 50% of PAs will change specialties during their career. And, according to the AAPA’s 2019 Salary Report, roughly seven percent of PAs change specialties each year. So, if you become a PA, there’s a good chance you’ll take advantage of the ability to change specialties.

It is relatively easy for PAs to change specialties because of our broad education and general certification process. Other medical professions, such as NPs and MDs, require specialized certifications for each field of medicine. So, PAs are unique in our ability to change fields without needing a more specialized certification. (Although, some specialty PA certification programs are currently available.)  

What are the pros and cons of a PA changing specialties? 

Pros: 

  • Prevent burnout: When one area of medicine gets boring and tedious, I start dreaming of my next adventure. It’s fun to pursue new interests over time. I like knowing that I am not stuck in my field. This was especially helpful when I was a new graduate. I appreciated the freedom to explore different fields. I knew if I didn’t like one area of medicine, then I could easily change to something else.
  • Work-life balance: There’s a period in life when being on call or working 12-hour shifts can work well. But, once you start having a family, you may need a 9 to 5 lifestyle. As a PA, you could start in the ER in your 20s then settle into an office job in your 30s. 
  • Finances: You might change specialties based on your financial situation. Did you know that a PA’s salary can more than double based on location and specialty? Finding a more lucrative field may be the driving force behind many PA switches.

Cons

  • Weak teamwork: Medicine is a team sport. As PAs, we never work independently. Therefore, every time you switch jobs, you’re breaking up a team. Changing specialties may be a great disappointment to your current supervising physician. And switching too many times can be a red flag on a resume. For example, I’ve had interviewers look at my resume and ask how long I plan to stay in their office. 
  • Lack of experience: If you had cancer, would you go to a provider with 30 years of oncology experience or one who just left their nephrology job in search of greener pastures? In the end, experience is highly valued in any field. 
  • Endless training: Switching specialties can feel like starting over. You’re back to studying and asking a million questions. You may have to go through a training program that mostly consists of new graduates. It can be tough to feel like a student again. 

There definitely is something unique about the flexibility of the PA profession. The ability to switch specialties can make for a very rewarding career. However, PA application experts warn against focusing on this topic too much in applications and interviews. Listing flexibility as your main reason for becoming a PA can make you look flighty and unfocused.