Are you ready for paramedic school?

Five questions EMTs should ask themselves before advancing their certification

If you’re thinking about advancing from an EMT to a paramedic, there are a few important components to consider. Becoming a paramedic is a much bigger commitment than becoming an EMT school was, but in return, you’ll learn valuable skills, receive a substantial pay increase, and earn more responsibility in the field of patient care.

1. Will you work while attending paramedic school?

Many EMTs continue to work full-time while earning their paramedic certification. If this is the route you’re taking, have you made arrangements to be able to attend class? Can you afford basic living expenses with possibly a part-time work schedule?

Paramedic students hold a mock disaster drill.
Paramedic students hold a mock disaster drill. (Photo/Marc. A Hermann via MTA New York City Transit)

Some EMS organizations might pay for your paramedic certification if you’ve worked for them for a certain time and maintained a clean record. Read the terms and conditions carefully if you accept their help, as you may have to pay back your tuition if you get fired or leave the company.

2. How much EMS experience do you have?

Many EMS professionals recommend spending six months to a year as a basic EMT before signing up for paramedic school. Some schools, like the renowned paramedic program at UCLA, won't even accept students without proof of previous EMT experience. 

Working as an EMT before paramedic school will give you a stronger base of BLS skills and patient assessment ability, which will come in handy during clinical rotations. Using your clinical hours to learn ALS skills and leadership ability will be a much better use of your time than struggling with the day one problems of new EMTs.

Other students work as EMTs or firefighters while going to paramedic school. It definitely makes sense, and some paramedic programs are even scheduled around the rotated/staggered shifts of a fire or EMS department.

All that said, many paramedics who take the "zero to hero" route end up being very successful EMS professionals. Your early experiences as an EMT and paramedic student will only affect you in the very beginning of your paramedic career. After the first year or two, your career as a medic will depend mostly on your desire to keep up with the profession and grow your base of knowledge.

3. Where are you enrolling?

No matter where you go, all paramedic curriculums must meet the official paramedic education standards outlined by the NREMT. However, it’s absolutely worth looking into what each individual programs in your area can offer.

Some paramedic programs have a higher national registry pass exam rate and post-grad hiring rate. Others will have better instructors or access to better clinical sites. Does the program you’re thinking of include plenty of time for hands-on learning, office hours, and simulations?

You may also consider taking an online paramedic course, especially if you have a full-time job outside of EMS. Some people prefer the face-to-face interaction with a good instructor, but if you are self-motivated, driven, and organized, you will still have hands-on lab days to learn the same skills as anyone else. You are also required to take just as many clinical hours through an online/hybrid program as you would in a traditional class.

Online programs may also be cheaper than paying for a classroom education, while still giving you the arranged practical and clinical experience you need. It’s not for everyone, but it might be for you.

4. How is your life outside of EMS?

Prospective students to look at the full cost of the paramedic program including textbooks, uniforms, and other materials you need to succeed in class. Can you cover this comfortably, or will you need to take out some loans to enroll?

For the next six to eighteen months, the commitment of paramedic school will force you to put all nonessentials on the backburner. Just to pass the class, your weekly schedule may involve:

  • 16 hours of class time
  • 6 hours of studying
  • 8 - 36 hours of clinicals

And that’s not including work, time with family, and whatever else life throws at you. Paramedic school is absolutely not the time to make life-altering decisions such as moving in with a partner, getting married, or having a child. If this isn’t the right time in your life to dedicate hours to study and work for up to the next year and a half, think about waiting until you can.

5. Can you handle the paramedic material?

Paramedic coursework isn’t harder than anything else, but there’s a lot of it. The material also builds on itself, which means that you’re not only responsible for hammering in new concepts but going back in the text and making sure you don’t forget old ones, too. In particular, students report struggling with memorizing dozens of drugs and learning how to read EKGs.

As an EMS student, paramedic school will test the limits of your ability. Since it’s such a large commitment, it’s important to know before going in what’s required by the program and what you can personally deliver, and then to take the steps necessary to close that gap. It’s not going to be easy by any means, but so many of the paramedics that make it through can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.

This article, originally published on Jan. 18, 2017, has been updated. 

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