As the PA workforce grows year over year, so, too, do the options for what to do with a physician assistant’s training and education. More PAs are developing robust careers outside clinical practice, whether they’re taking on a leadership role at a hospital, teaching at a university or lobbying for healthcare access.
The options become even more wide-ranging for PAs with advanced degrees. But this path certainly isn’t for everyone. There are pros and cons to each choice that extend beyond the time and money it takes to go back to school. Consider these factors when thinking about additional education.
Physician Assistant education: Where do we stand?
The majority of today’s PA workforce — about 75.5 percent in 2018 — has a master’s degree, according to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Roughly 19.3 percent of PAs have a bachelor’s, usually focused on science or medicine, and then obtained PA certification afterwards. A total of 2.6 percent have either an associate’s degree and certification, or only certification.
Within the past five to 10 years, the profession has pushed for post-graduate education as the standard, says Jeremy Welsh, DHSc, JD, PA-C, EM-CAQ, DFAAPA, Dean of the School of PA at the University of Lynchburg. Roughly 1.8 percent of PAs have a doctorate.
If you’re part of the small group that has less than a master’s, you shouldn’t automatically assume to need to go back to school. For example, if you’re planning to retire in the near future, you might not reap as many benefits. Earlier on in your career, the decision may be less straightforward.
Is More Education Worthwhile?
According to Dr. Welsh, some of the top benefits to mull over include: job opportunities and salary, contributing to the profession overall and delving into your own interests.
Master’s degree for PAs
This is the most obvious next step, if you’re part of the 19 percent with an undergrad degree. There are many online programs available that take only 10 to 12 months. You can expect these programs to contribute positively to the quality of care you provide on a daily basis, and they will position you to take on more senior roles.
For example, Dr. Welsh recalls he pursued more education because, after practicing as an emergency medicine PA, he found himself in an administrative role surrounded by colleagues with post-grad degrees.
“It didn’t mean that I understood medicine less,” he says. “It just meant I was the least-educated person. I realized it meant something to other providers and admins, and a large number of patients cared about that, too. When I got a master’s degree, people wanted my opinion.”
Dr. Welsh adds: “Will it change the way you manage hypertension? Not necessarily. It depends on what degree you get.” Some schools focus on clinical skills while others prioritize the healthcare system, leadership and advocacy. Many PAs even pursue MBAs or MHAs.
Because the time commitment will depend on your program, it may simplify your decision to think about pay. According to Salary.com, the average, annual earnings for a PA with a bachelor’s is between $103,272 and $108,323. For those with a master’s or MBA, it’s slightly higher, $103,905 to $109,139.
If you’re serious about getting your master’s, the main takeaway should be to find a program that aligns with your interests. Examples of well-known master’s programs for practicing PAs include: A.T. Still University, University of Nebraska Medical Center and PACE University. Reach out individually to find out which seems best for you.
Doctoral degree for PAs
If you’re considering a doctorate, Dr. Welsh advises against pursuing one only because it may increase your pay. (Salary.com bears this out: the average a PA with a doctorate earns between $104,158 and $109,466.)
Dr. Welsh believes the importance of a PA doctoral option is rooted in professional parity. About 2 percent of nurse practitioners have a DNP; physicians are MDs; and therapists, physical and otherwise, can all become doctors. Only recently did this option arise for physician assistants.
Therefore, one of the biggest benefits, as Dr. Welsh sees it, is advancing the PA profession. You may already have a deep understanding of medicine and patient care, but “having a doctorate is important to most industries in the U.S. and across the globe,” he explains. “It brings value to the table … Most people don’t see us the way we see ourselves.”
If you’re more interested in how the degree would benefit you individually, Dr. Welsh notes that exit surveys of University of Lynchburg’s graduates show that they tend to see promotions or salary increases. He also believes it can help you find your ideal job in an increasingly competitive workforce.
Similar to with master’s programs, your approach should prioritize finding one that matches your career goals. Some focus on research while others, like University of Lynchburg’s, teach healthcare law and how to run your own practice among other topics. (Catering to PAs who work full-time, its 12-month program costs $25,000.) There are around seven doctoral programs in the U.S. designed for PAs. Some of them are very new, like A. T. Still University’s, which just matriculated its first cohort.
More important than which degree you choose, if any, is your oath, as a healthcare provider, to be a “life-long learner,” Dr. Welsh says. “And that’s not just doing the bare minimum of getting recertified.”
2018 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants, National Commission for the Certification of Physician Assistants.
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