Education for Physician Assistants

This guide breaks down whether it’s worthwhile for you, as a practicing physician assistant, to pursue additional education; the PA specialty certification system; and tips for managing your continuing education requirements.

What are the most common degrees for physician assistants?

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.

Should you pursue more education as a PA?

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.

Benefits of a master’s degree for PAs

Boosting your quality of care. If your program focuses on clinical skills, this is an almost guaranteed outcome.

More senior roles. If your program prioritizes the healthcare system, leadership and advocacy, it could position you for a promotion sooner than you’d otherwise expect.

Higher salary. 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.

How to earn a master’s as PA

If you’re serious about getting your master’s, the main takeaway should be to find a program that aligns with your interests. There are many online programs available that take only 10 to 12 months. Examples of well-known master’s programs for practicing PAs include: A.T. Still UniversityUniversity of Nebraska Medical Center and PACE University. Reach out individually to find out which seems best for you.

Benefits of Doctoral degrees for PAs

Contributing to 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.

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,” Dr. Welsh explains. “It brings value to the table … Most people don’t see us the way we see ourselves.”

Pursuing a specific career path. Many PAs earn doctorates to develop their competency as PA educators, to focus on research, or to gain professional leadership skills, according to the American Academy of PAs.

Job opportunities. Exit surveys of graduates of the University of Lynchburg’s PA doctoral program, the oldest one, show that they tend to see promotions or salary increases. Dr. Welsh also believes a doctorate can help you secure your ideal job in an increasingly competitive workforce.

That said, current data doesn’t reveal much of a salary difference: the average a PA with a doctorate earns between $104,158 and $109,466, according to Salary.com.

How to earn a doctorate as PA

Find program 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.

Pro tip: Talk to a PA with a doctorate to get a sense of whether it’s a good fit for you. Don’t know anyone? Reach out via LinkedIn.

What should you look for in a PA program?

  • Coursework. Make sure it aligns with your interests and career goals.
  • Graduate exit surveys. These will show how students felt about the school and include info on job placement and earnings after graduation.
  • Professors. If you are pursuing a post-graduate degree, the school should have professors with research backgrounds in your interest areas.
  • Cost. Make sure it’s within your budget.

PA Salary based on degree

Per Salary.com.

BS: $103,272 – $108,323

MS or equivalent: $103,905 – $109,139

DMSc or equivalent: $104,158 – $109,466

How does specialty certification for PAs work?

Nursing has a robust and complicated system of specialty certifications, but for PAs, the processed is more streamlined. The National Commission on the Certification of PAs provides Certifications of Added Qualifications (CAQ) in seven specialties:

According to the NCCPA, achieving a CAQ “allows you to be recognized for your commitment to the specialty.” It may also increase your compensation and facilitate professional advancement.

To qualify to sit one of the exams, you must have a current PA-C certification, an unrestricted PA license, relevant CME and one to two years of experience in the specialty. The program costs $350. CAQs are valid for 10 years.

What are the basics of continuing education for PAs?

To maintain your PA license, not only do you need to take a recertification exam every 10 years, but you must also earn 100 CME credits every two years, including at least 50 Category 1 CME credits, per the AAPA.

Most state licensing boards accept the CME requirements for NCCPA certification renewal as enough to renew your license, but some do not. Some states also require a specific number of CME credits on topics like opioids, pain management, HIV/AIDS, controlled substances or pharmacology. You can find specific state stipulations at the AAPA’s website.

Two of the best CME resources for PAs are: the AAPA’s Learning Central, which offers a variety of courses and allows you to access a comprehensive transcript of CME earned with AAPA; and the PA Portfolio, where you can store records of all CME certificates and transcripts.

For more information about CEUs, visit Florence Health’s guide to free and low-cost resources and how to stay organized with CEUs.