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The Physician Associate Course: a Student's Perspective

If you're wanting to hear about the PA course from a student's perspective then you've come to the right place! Since I haven't been a student for 3 years, I knew I wasn't the right person for the job. So let me introduce you to Hannah, a second year PA student who has kindly agreed to give you her view of the PA course.

Hi there! My name is Hannah and I’m a second year physician associate student at the University of Manchester. I’m now in the final stretch of the course and thought now was a great time to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly course and at the same time give all of you an insight in to the life of a PA student! Just a disclaimer before we get in to things – all the PA courses across the UK are run in slightly different ways so this is all specific to the University of Manchester course.

Some background on myself first – before starting the course I graduated a BSc (Hons) in Immunology from the University of Glasgow in 2018, and the only work experience I had was in the service industry. So, if anyone is worried about having little/no clinical experience please use myself as an example – you will be fine.

The PA course at UoM

As I mentioned before, every PA course is run a little bit differently. At Manchester Uni blocks of teaching are broken up by blocks of clinical placement. This was one of the reasons I chose to apply to the course at UoM, as you get clinical experience from week 18 of 1st year and aren’t just stuck in lecture theatres for a whole year. Obviously this has it downsides too – we weren’t always guaranteed the relevant teaching before heading out on a placement block as everyone went to different clinical settings. For example, the people who went to GP on their first placement had not received teaching on ENT or paediatrics, both of which you see loads of in GP. At first this can be daunting, but the learning curve on placement is so steep that it was never an issue and the staff on placement are usually more than happy to teach you.

Having come straight from completing my undergrad I felt very comfortable with the “sitting in a lecture theatre and learning” part of the course. The one bit that really scared me though were the clinical skills. Nowadays if you ask me to take blood I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid and would be happy to do it, but back at the beginning of the course I was terrified. It wasn’t an issue with blood or anything like that, I was just so scared that I was going to hurt the patient and I wouldn’t be able to do it. But this is where the beauty of the diversity of people’s backgrounds on the course comes in – there were people in my year that had been HCAs for years and could take blood in their sleep, but when it came to sitting through the academic side of the course they struggled because it had been 5-10 years since they were last in an academic setting. So you’re able to help each other out, they run through all the different tips and tricks on how to take blood and you go through how you take lecture notes and revise with them! To this day some of the best friendships I have made on this course have come from these interactions. Moments like these also help to remind you that everyone is going to struggle with some aspect of the course, and that you are not alone if you don’t understand or can’t do something. Finding your people (good old Grey’s reference) is probably one of the most important things on the course – the people you can turn to when you have absolutely no idea what’s going on or when you’re really struggling and are contemplating your whole decision to start the course (because this will happen at some point). These friends will be there for you no matter what because they’re sitting in that boat with you.

MSc vs. PGDip

When I applied to the course, you could decide whether you wanted to do the course as a PGDip (post-graduate diploma) or MSc (Masters). It was completely up to us to decide and had no impact on the teaching or placements we received, but picking the MSc meant we have to complete a portfolio of written coursework. I chose to do the MSc for funding reasons so alongside my placement and exam commitments, I now also have to complete a dissertation and some other smaller pieces of written work.

I’m not going to lie it’s definitely difficult balancing my time with coursework, full-time placement and exam prep but it can be done (I have to keep telling myself that). Like with everything on this course, you have be (or become) disciplined with your time management.


One of the hardest parts of the course for me was revision. Now I know everyone struggles with revising, it’s not exactly the most exciting thing to do, but I realised I had to start revising in a completely new way from how I revised for my undergrad. Obviously everyone is different, but for me writing out and re-reading my notes wasn’t going to cut it for this course. I was really lucky that the year above us were happy to let us know how they did it and what resources they used. They recommended loads of great online and book resources, like the Oxford Medical Handbook for when you’re on placement (its a great size and fits in scrub top pockets!) and PassMedicine for MCQ prep. 

I found that when preparing for MCQ papers using question banks like PassMedicine was the most effective way of revision as it gets you used to the language used in the questions, and thinking through problems in a certain way. OSCE prep was where my group of friends were priceless - we were meeting up on the weekends leading up to our exams and running through all the examinations that could possibly come up until we were sick of our own voices. One thing I did keep from my undergrad style of studying were flashcards - these were great to squeeze in some revision on the tram commute into placement.

Revising during placement was maybe the hardest thing to do. I was in the hospital from 8:30-16:40 Monday to Friday, and when I got home I was exhausted and the last thing I wanted to do was sit down and revise but I knew it had to be done so I had to figure out a way to get through it. I know I work better in the morning so I decided to go into the library in the hospital an hour early every day so I could squeeze in some MCQ prep. I also organised to stay later a few days with some students who were also on placement at the same hospital so we could run through some OSCE stations. Like anything to do with the PA course, you have to manage your time so carefully to make sure you make the most of every day without burning out. 

Impact of COVID on the course

It would be impossible to write anything about the last 2 years without bring up COVID. I started my second year in February and after an initial teaching block in uni I went off to start a trauma and orthopaedic surgery placement. After 3 days the uni pulled us all out of clinical placements, and the following Monday lockdown was announced. As with everyone else across the UK at the time we had no idea what this meant for us and the course. Now we know that it meant 4 months of lectures over Zoom before being allowed back to completely re-designed clinical placements for the rest of the year.

We all thought teaching over Zoom would be a breeze – who doesn’t want to wake up 10 minutes before a lecture and get to sit through it in your PJs? However, we soon found out it gets old very quickly. Your concentration and attention span are non-existent compared to attending a lecture delivered in-person, the headaches you get from staring at a screen all day are awful, and your work ethic completely disappears. Despite all these issues, we pushed on and got through.

Then came placements during COVID. Placements are without a doubt my favourite part of the course and I couldn’t wait to get back to them. We knew there was going to be less patient contact and that teaching opportunities might be less frequent but we were just excited to be getting back to some sort of “normal”. I’ve now been back on placement since mid-August and on the whole it’s been good! Obviously some specialties have been affected more than others so some of my rotations have been better than others, but even on the ones that have been impacted the most by COVID I’ve still had some learning opportunities.

I’m now in my last 6 weeks of placement before sitting university and national exams in January (sorry, where did these 2 years go?!) and although my second year has been completely changed I’m so happy we’ve been able to stay on placement. We’ve been able to experience the “new normal” of the NHS, with more telephone and video call consultations, which will hopefully prepare us for when we start working as qualified PAs in 20201.

Hopefully that's provided some useful insight into student life for you!

If you're wanting more gems from Hannah follow her on instagram @thescottishpa_student

As always, if you like what you're reading feel free to leave a comment or share on social media.


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