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The Doctorate Is In – Interview with David Beck, PA-C

David Beck, PA-C

We regularly get asked about doctorates for PAs, as there is a trend towards this as a terminal degree for the PA profession. Given that other healthcare professionals, such as NPs and PTs, have switched to doctorates for terminal degrees, the question remains about whether this is the future for PAs. To get more information for our readers and ourselves, we had the pleasure of interviewing David Beck, PA-C. He is the Department Chair for the PA program at the University of Pittsburgh and was integral in the creation of their doctorate program. Enjoy our informative interview with David as we tackle the subject of doctorates for PAs.

Hello, and thanks for joining us on The PA Blueprint blog.  Can you start off by introducing yourself and telling us about your current career?

DAVID: “Hello and thanks for having me!  I hold a few roles in my current career, most focused on advancing the mission of the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As Department Chair, I support our students, staff, and faculty in training the next generation of PAs and in the professional development of our Physician Associate (or Physician Assistant) colleagues through our Doctor of PA Studies program and our Advanced Practice Provider Leadership Certificate course.  I also serve as my Associate Dean for Interprofessional Studies for the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences by working with colleagues from other healthcare professions to design, support, and enhance cross-disciplinary training opportunities in the classroom and clinic.”

Do you feel that getting a doctorate degree is going to become the new standard terminal degree for PA-Cs?  Why or why not?

DAVID: “From my understanding of the landscapes of higher education and what I know about the value such training already brings to our fellow PAs who have pursued advanced degrees, I expect a doctoral degree to be a standard degree offered by entry-level training programs for PAs at some point in the next several years.

Much like other healthcare professions that offer doctoral degrees (e.g., physical therapy and pharmacy), I do not foresee an earned doctoral degree to be a requirement for PA practice. However, there are many benefits of advanced training in and demonstration of additional competencies (knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors) that occur when earning a doctoral degree. It is especially true in the areas of quality improvement, study design and implementation, and the analysis and reporting of the clinical and administrative value of PAs.

As the reimbursement, legislative, research, and leadership landscapes of healthcare in the US and beyond continue to shift, PAs are in a better position than ever to analyze our value and participate as qualified leaders who make policy and administrative decisions. Such qualifications come from the demonstration of competencies through practical experience, advanced training, or both, and I believe the advanced training and credentials offered by a doctoral degree already benefit our PA colleagues and would be a significant boost to the early careers of future PAs.”

What doors do you think open for PAs with doctorate degrees?

DAVID: “As we know, many opportunities exist for PAs: providing high-quality care as a clinician, administrative leadership of a team or an appointed officer position in an healthcare practice or system, a formal appointment to a faculty position in higher education, industry service as a medical science liaison or product developer, designing and analyzing the results of research products, entrepreneurship through consulting or coaching, social media influencing, and others I’m sure I missed. It’s clear there are successful PAs in all these realms who do not hold doctoral degrees but have been successful due to their personal knowledge, skills, personal aptitudes, and the hard work it takes to develop themselves as a person and as a professional that yields new and different ways to impact others. 

I think doctoral degrees provide two pieces to this mix. First, doctoral education is an investment in true professional development through the valuable mentorship and guidance of faculty who have the attributes the PA seeks to enhance in themselves. I will never argue that professional development does not also happen through experience (on-the-job and otherwise), certificate and other training programs, or from being fortunate enough to find and engage with one or more mentors in meaningful and consistent ways. However, doctoral programs roll all of this into a planned curricular and experiential package for the PA. I believe a PA seeking to improve themselves as a clinician, educator, researcher, entrepreneur, or leader can greatly benefit from a doctoral degree that has helped them develop the competencies they need to perform in those positions, especially the critical analysis and writing skills that can help the PA continuously improve their work for those they serve and how they demonstrate their value and outcomes through formal reporting and other presentations.

The second piece a doctoral degree adds, to use your language about doors opening, is the “key” to those doors. How well one performs in any of the positions I listed above is up to the individual, their competencies, and systemic factors. A doctoral degree can provide evidence of the PA’s competencies that could make a candidate stand out among others in the selection process and indicate to others that the doctorally-prepared PA is more likely to succeed in the role.”

Do PAs with doctorate degrees earn more income, have more career advancement opportunities or have other advantages when compared to their peers without this degree?

DAVID: “The answer to this question is evolving, but there is evidence that doctoral degrees have positive impacts in these areas and others. The only formal reporting on the impact of doctoral degrees on income that I have seen is through the research by the PA Education Association: The latest reporting on salaries of faculty and program directors demonstrates higher salaries for those with doctoral degrees compared to others. Though this did not discriminate among the doctoral degrees or other variables that might impact the salary of the respondents, this report can be used by PAs in faculty positions to negotiate salaries that are more aligned with their peers across the country. I have not seen other salary reports by other professional organizations or individual investigators address the impact of doctoral degrees on PA income, so I hope there is much more to come in the very near future.

On a local level, I am aware of health systems that have “career ladders” or other systems of organizing the criteria for promotions and salary increases for PAs. Though not required for advancement in the cases I have seen, having a doctoral degree and completing a scholarly, quality improvement project (and, in some cases, its publication) can help a PA more rapidly advance their title and income than they would otherwise. This was a driving force of the Doctor of PA Studies program we offer at the University of Pittsburgh as we award the doctoral degree and mentor our PA colleagues through high-impact quality improvement projects that can impact those they care for while also helping them demonstrate their greater value to their employer. 

Regarding career advancement, there is evidence – anecdotal and data – of the professional successes of PAs with doctoral degrees. To provide some examples, doctorally-prepared PAs hold senior leadership positions in each of the four most established professional organizations for PAs (AAPA, ARC-PA, NCCPA, and PAEA), journal articles and national presentations are being increasingly authored by doctorally-prepared PAs, doctorally-prepared PAs are leading funded research projects, and an increasing number of doctorally-prepared PAs are being selected for clinical, academic, administrative, and private sector leadership positions.”

What variables should a PA consider before applying to a doctorate program?  What qualities should they be looking for in such a program?

DAVID: “To have the greatest impact, a PA should consider are what competencies they want to advance through professional development through the curriculum and mentorship a doctoral program can provide. This list should include personal interests, what is valued by their current or future employers, and what will help them better serve their populations as clinicians, academics, administrators, or entrepreneurs. 

Once the list is decided, the PA can start matching the types of degrees and programs that best match the development of those competencies by reviewing information about the available programs through their publications (websites, pamphlets, etc.) and contacting the admissions and enrollment advisors of programs the PA thinks might be a match. Through subsequent communications, the program representatives and the PA can determine if the program is the right match for the PA (and vice versa) as well as the PA’s qualifications as an applicant. Also, programs are likely to publish or discuss the outcomes of their students and graduates so prospective applicants can determine if the program aligns with what they are seeking.

Once the PA has narrowed down their field of options, they should consider a doctoral program as an investment and consider the “return on investment.” Obviously, a main factor in making this decision is its financial impact: the cost of tuition, tuition assistance benefits that may be offered by one’s employer (and the terms of such benefits), and the projected income impact of holding the doctoral degree. So, the “right” doctoral degree and program will provide an affordable path to successfully developing those competencies and yielding the “return” the PA wants.  

Before moving on from this question, I want to point out the importance of matching the PA’s needs for mentorship and support with their doctoral program. Doctoral education is a great opportunity to connect with faculty mentors who guide the PA’s learning and their dissertation project, so the PA knowing what support they want and need is a helpful variable in making this decision. For example, some might want to maximize independence as they pursue their academic goals while others may want as much support as possible if they have not been in an academic setting for a long time or know they have certain social or learning needs that will require support from the program to ensure their success. Researching how the faculty and staff of a doctoral program support student success is critical to having the best experience possible and “getting what you pay for.””

Tell us about what stands out about your Doctor of PA Studies program at The University of Pittsburgh

DAVID: “I really appreciate the opportunity to share this as I believe we have built a very strong program for all the right reasons. First, our primary focus is on the student mentoring and success I mentioned above: We have a solid team of doctorally-prepared full-time and adjunct faculty with a broad array of experiences and a high-touch, readily available approach to supporting our students as they learn in their coursework and as they apply those lessons to their dissertation projects. We have found a solid mix of leveraging the PA’s daily practice as a clinician, academic, administrator, or entrepreneur into our coursework so our “internship” experiences are immediately beneficial through feedback and insights of faculty and classmates, as well as by helping the PA develop a dissertation project rooted in the principles of quality improvement and applicable to the PA’s place of practice. We aspire to make all aspects of the program as applicable as possible to the current and future practice of the PA, and I believe we are very successful in this. 

The other area that really stands out about our program is how we intentionally designed the program to deliver the greatest and quickest return on investment possible to the PA. It has been our driving force to deliver a relevant and useful degree that helps advance the careers and incomes of our PA colleagues while being as responsible as possible about the cost of the program, and I am both proud of this mission and of our success in achieving it. As I constantly review the degrees and programs available to PAs who want to develop their competencies and diversify their options for employment, our efforts to keep our tuition costs low while maintaining a high-quality learning experience stand out among our peers and make us a very attractive and affordable option for a PA looking to advance their skills in quality improvement, designing and implementing projects that benefit their patients and practices, and authorship of manuscripts for journal articles and presentations. Achieving all this in a program that leads to a doctoral degree, that has a short time-to-degree (completed in as little as one year), and that is designed to have the quickest and biggest financial return on investment possible – based on our analysis and application of the real “career ladders” used by PA employers – may seem too good to be true but I can assure you it’s very much our dream come true.”

Thank you so much to David for taking the time to answer our questions and shedding more light on the topic of doctorates for PAs. We appreciate your time and dedication to the PA profession. We know our audience will enjoy this interview just as much as we did!

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