Name: Nina Harris
Hometown: California born, Vegas raised
Current city: Fullerton, Ca
Undergraduate major: Business Administration
Physician's assistant school: Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Ca
Take me back a decade, what did you want to be when you grew up? When I was growing up, like most kids I wanted to be a whole lot of things. Most of them involved serving people i.e teacher, psychologist etc. But honestly when I went to university straight from high school, I didn't know what profession I wanted to be in but I had always been interested in psychology and therefore entered university as a psychology major. Although I loved psychology and studying it, I got the impression that in order to have a good paying job in psychology I needed at least a Masters degree or PhD,and at 19 years old and being the first person in my family to go to college, obtaining a Masters degree seemed insurmountable. I basically put limitations on myself. My mindset has since changed. Even after graduation from university I did not know what career I wanted to pursue. At the time I was working in the field which I studied, Business Management in HR department of a big engineering firm but I knew it was temporary.
What do yo do now? I am a Physician Assistant or PA. Once I decided to pursue a career as a PA it was as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders and my life finally started to fall into place. It is my dream career and pursuing it and living it is living my dream.
Tell me about your college application process? How did you decide on a school and major? In high school I was really smart and high school was really easy for me. I was in the top 10% of my class so basically my counselors told me I would get accepted to any school I applied to. I definitely wanted and needed to go to college but my problem was my ambitions at the time were not that high. I was afraid to go too far out of my comfort zone. So I applied to local schools only and not that many really because my family didn't have a lot of money for applications. My high school counselor begged me to apply to different schools but I was really stubborn and didn't listen to her. I did a tour of Cal State University Fullerton and I fell in love with the campus. The same day they had onsite admissions and I got accepted on the spot. That was the end of my application process. I basically chose my initial major based off some classes I had in high school which captured my interest. I entered as a psychology major but somewhere down the line I changed majors a few times and ended up changing and sticking to a Business major because frankly I thought I could make a lot of money with a business degree and it was broad enough that I could venture into different fields. Which did turn out to be true.
What was the hardest part of your undergraduate studies? How did you get through it? The hardest part of undergraduate studies for me was my accounting and economy classes. I had no interest in those subjects. Although I did well in those classes, even set the curve in my accounting class, it was not easy for me. In order to get through I just had to study more for those subjects.
One of the hardest things in undergrad and immediately after is not having career goals. My friends and I would have "mid life crisis" talks periodically from age 20-24 about what we were doing with our lives.
Did you take time off between undergrad and PA school? What did you do? After I graduated with my Bachelors I was working in the HR department of a big engineering firm. I eventually got bored there and I got into retail management. I did that for a couple of years before I started getting bored again and realized I needed to go back to school. My problem was that I felt all the work I was doing day in and out was in vain. It wasn't fulfilling to me or anyone else. When I first decided to pursue my masters degree I started an MBA program but I quickly realized after one quarter that wasn't going to get me what I wanted. I graduated from university at the age of 23 and I started PA school at the age of 29. It took me about 3 of those years to decide I wanted to be a PA and another 2-3 years to complete the science prereqs that I needed to apply for PA school. For most PA schools you have to apply a year ahead of the semester you want to enter. Although I had been introduced to the profession of PA in undergrad, it wasn't until years later that I had the confidence and motivation to pursue it.
When and how did you decide on physician assistant as a career? What other careers did you consider? My first discovery of the PA profession was when I took a career assessment. PA was one of the top career choices chosen for me. At the time I was a junior in college and when I saw the requirements and the thought of having to spend that much more time in college I got discouraged and disregarded it. I just wanted to be done with school. My self limitations were strong. And I didn't think I could achieve the rigors of PA school or the sacrifices it required. A few years later PA came back to me. A certain special person in my life, now my fiance, whom I had never even mentioned to that I wanted to pursue being a PA, said to me one day during one of my mid life crisis rants, that he had heard about PA's and suggested that I look into it cause he thought I would be a good PA. At that point he never knew my thoughts about being a PA and for me that was sign from God. I started doing research and concluded that I would either become a Doctor of Physical Therapy or Physician Assistant. After more research and in person meetings I decided on PA because I felt it was a better fit career for my personality.
One of LATS readers has recently been accepted to dental school, but she messaged me about how she was doubting herself because she was only accepted to one school. She asked me to discuss how I overcome self-doubt. I identified so much in your stories about placing too narrow limitations on yourself. How do you overcome that now? I can't lie. I still have self doubt and find myself giving my self reassurance and affirmations which is how I overcome that now. POSITIVE THINKING. it really is huge and I believe we manifest what we think. When I start to doubt or worry I speak positive affirmations to myself. I push negative thoughts out. I realize my potential, I've learned from my past experiences and mistakes and I know my limitations are basically what I put on myself. Eventually my dominant frame of mind is no longer self doubt but confidence. Prime example... when I was applying to PA school my plans were set and I was thinking the whole time that I was going to get in and I was going to get in the first time. It didn't cross my mind (until weeks into waiting for a response) that I wouldn't get in. And when people asked me what I was going to do if I didn't get accepted I just kept saying I'll cross that bridge when I get there. I rearranged my whole life with regards to getting into PA school, and I hadn't even got accepted yet. When those thoughts did cross my mind I just kept pushing them away and reassuring myself I was a great candidate and they would love me.
What's the difference between a nurse, nurse practitioner, physician's assistant, and physician? The easiest way to think of this is hierarchy or chain of command although in medicine we like to focus on health care teams. In this simplistic chain of command you have nurses on the bottom (by no means are they inferior), NP's and PA's in the middle on the same level as each other but took different paths to get there, and physician on the top. NP and PA are known as mid level providers. Although the laws for each states governing the two professions varies, generally speaking the NP or PA is and extender of the physician. I know California law best because that is where I reside so that's what I can speak best about. In California a PA can generally do anything in the scope of practice of the Physician she works for except perform major surgeries without the presence of the physician. NPs and PAs both examine, prescribe medications, do minor surgeries, diagnose and treat patients. Nurses do not prescribe or diagnose patients. PAs cannot open their own practice without the partnership of a physician.
Talk to me about the application process for PA school. What makes a strong applicant? The application process for applying to PA school can be very tedious. The most difficult thing in my opinion is making sure you have completed all of the requirements for the schools you want to go to and apply to. Unfortunately all PA schools don't have the same requirements. What I always advise Pre-PA Students is to choose your top 3 or so schools and do all the prereqs catering to those schools. Then apply to other schools if you meet the requirements. Some people apply to many schools and some people only apply to one or two. It really depends on how flexible you are i.e. are you willing to relocate for school.
A good applicant really varies on the schools you want to go to but generally speaking a well rounded individual is highly competitive. A high GPA especially in the sciences. That doesn't mean you have to be a science major but since all schools require some basic science prereqs i.e. Anatomy and Physiology, Chemistry etc you should aim to get as many As as possible. Also some schools calculate an overall GPA and a science GPA separately. Someone who has volunteer experience, rather in the medical field or not. Some schools require previous medical experience or patient care hours. My top schools did not require it. Some applicants get those hours by working as medical assistant, phlebotomist, nurse, EMT, etc. Once you have all the basics, in my opinion it becomes a numbers game and the key to standing out to get an interview is your personal statement. Then nail the interview. As a person who has assisted in interviewing applicants, I can say from experience that I've seen some great applicants not get accepted because they completed failed the interview. Either they let their nerves get the best of them, they sounded inauthentic, or they don't display in the interview that they have any experiences that show they can handle the rigors of PA school and most importantly the responsibility of being a medical provider. So interview skills are also important.
Did you have to do residency training? There are residency programs available but they are not required in order to practice. Doing a residency program is said to gain about double the experience in half the time. I did not do a residency program.
How did you decide on what area of medicine to practice? When did you decide? Can you change your mind? It wasn't until I did a rotation in Urgent Care that I realized I wanted to do UC. It was a combination of the scope of practice as well as the flexibility in hours and scheduling. I was also juggling between pediatrics, family Medicine, dermatology - both medical and cosmetic - and maybe even Psych. In Urgent Care, I pretty much see all of those specialties to some degree. And I realize with my personality I need the variety. I get bored too easily when I'm doing the same thing too long. Also I love the hours in UC. I can work 3-4 days a week and have a full time schedule. I get days off during the week. I get as many weekends off as I have on. I can take 4 or 5 consecutive days off and never have to use PTO. I just adjust my schedule on the front end and the back end. If I need to take more time off it's not a big deal with scheduling and all the patients don't have to be rescheduled so it makes it less stressful. I really value not working Monday through Friday and having some mid week breaks.
In my opinion,I believe one of the most attractive things about becoming a PA is that you can change specialties at any time without having to re do any formal education. You just need a Physician who is willing to train you in the areas you may lack.
Was finding a job difficult? I live in Southern California, finding a job was not hard at all. I had job offers before I passed my boards. The hard part is finding the job that is right for you. Multiple things factor into that. In UC a lot of the clinics run with solo provider, as a new grad are you comfortable with that? Maybe you need/want more supervision. Some jobs, the physician is with you at all times or only part time. Fringe benefits are more important now than when I first started practicing. So those are just a couple of examples that may factor into what job is a good fit. Obviously these things change depending on the area of the country you are in.
life outside of medicine:
What's your favorite city that you've lived in? Where do you see yourself ultimately? My favorite city that I have lived in is Sydney Australia. I want to live in another state or even country for a while, but ultimately, I see myself in California, I think. It's still debatable. I think about leaving all the time, but I realize besides the cost of living, Southern Cali is a great place to live.
What does work-life balance look like to you and how do you maintain it during intern year? Fitness has always been a part of my life. No matter where I am in life or how busy I get, working out and staying active has always been a priority for me. Working in Urgent Care gives me a good work life balance. As I mentioned I can work 3-4 days, 8-12 hr shifts and have a full time schedule yet have more days off. That's huge for me. I've also found creative ways to travel which I love to do. During clinical year I arranged to do one of my one month rotations in Hawaii. That gave me the opportunity to complete my rotation and take a new adventure. It was like a working vacation. I've also done a study abroad program for one year (that was in undergrad) and most recently I did a medical missions trip in Cambodia, while in Asia I also visited Thailand and Shanghai
Also having quality friends. I've been fortunate I have a lot of amazing, inspiring, and supportive girl friends in my life and I have a fiance now who has been supportive through all my studies and absences.
You're super fit. We'll have to discuss this in more detail later, but in general, how often do you work out? What's your diet like? Have you always been very healthy? THANK YOU! As far as working out, My work out frequency changes. depends on whats happening in my life and what my schedule looks like but I aim for 3-5 times per week. I try to stay closer to 4. Some days I do hour long work outs. Some days I do 12-28 min HIIT (high intensity intervals) training. When I was super busy (in PA school) I did mostly 12 min HIIT training work outs 3-4 times per week and I remained really fit. Now I change it up more cause I have more free time so I do Body Pump and Turbo Kick Boxing along with other types of work outs. Those work outs are usually an hour long.
The key for me is consistency, staying active, and eating healthy most of the time. I try to eat healthy 70-80% of the time. I TRY to stay away from packaged processed foods and lean more towards fresh foods. If I want to buy something in a package and it has a list of ingredients super long and I don't know what those ingredients are I put it back. I have a sweet tooth and love ice cream but generally I try to eat a healthy diet and drinks a lot of water. I cook most of my meals at home. I use coconut and olive oil. I don't fry my foods. I don't drink soda. I try to stick with whole grains, brown rice, lots of fruits and vegetables. I don't buy junk food snacks for the house just to keep around. If I have snacks like that in the house I eat them just to eat them cause they are there. So if I crave something I buy just enough to satisfy my craving. Usually if I am at home and I crave something the fact that it's not easily available prevents me from eating it and I'll choose the apple instead. But if the craving is strong and I do end up at the store for that ice cream I'll buy a pint of ice cream vs buying the half gallon even though its cheaper.
I've always been health conscious but I didn't always know what I was doing. I didn't grow up in a health conscious household so I learned over time. With accessibility of information these days its easier but can be overwhelming. Some things can be contradicting. Some things are obvious though. I cringe now at some of the staples I used to have in my diet like top ramen, hot dogs, lunch meat, lots of packaged food, and sweet cereals for breakfast.
You don't come from a health conscious family, yet you've always had an interest in health. why is that? in high school I was an athlete, I think that was my basis but even before that I took pride in my physical appearance. But there was a time in high school where I had body dysmorphia - I saw myself as fat when I was no where near it. I was obsessed with losing weight when I had no weight to be lost. I wouldn't purge, binge or anything but I was super conscious about my food intake or I would buy the latest weight loss supplements. Then I went to college and earned my "freshmen 15." One day I saw a picture of myself that I did not like. I immediately began to do something about it. I had some knowledge from my track and field days so I started off with what I knew already. Over the years I've educated myself on balanced diet, real food and exercise. The changes didn't all happen at once but gradually over time until I came to a point where I looked back and realized how many changes I have made and it didn't even hurt. But ultimately the drive was/is internal from my own self conscious and insecurities. But I turned those insecurities into positive thing. Healthy life style and balance. And I actually enjoy working out which I don't believe a lot of people can say.
What does your ideal career look like? Honestly I feel like I am in my dream career. But if I could change anything it would be that I would get paid to travel to less developed countries and practice medicine. Instead I pay to do it.
What does your ideal life outside of medicine look like? I love to travel. I've been to a small list of international places but there are so many countries and places I want to visit. I also want to get married and have a couple of kids before I get too old lol. Also fitness has always been and always will be a big part of my life. One day I might become a certified personal trainer or fitness instructor.
Where do you see yourself in five years? In 5 years hopefully I'll have visited at least 2-3 more countries, gotten married and have 1-2 kids.
What sacrifices have you made for your career? I've sacrificed a lot of quality time with some of the people I love in order to pursue my career. During PA school I turned down a lot of family and friend functions because I had to study. I also put off having my own kids to pursue my career. For the most part I feel I did a pretty good job keeping a balance and not having any regrets.