Research

How to Find Your Research Footing

By Brent BueskingAugust 11, 2020

Education Forum poster session. Photo credit: PAEA

Interested in conducting research but unsure what a career path as a PA researcher might look like?

PA faculty are often expected to do research, but many PAs who are transitioning from clinical practice lack research experience and can struggle to find their footing. In this article, we follow the journeys of two experienced PA scholars who have leveraged PAEA resources to build successful research careers.  

Northern Arizona University’s Bettie Coplan, PhD, PA-C, who used PAEA resources and programs to build her research skills and portfolio, is a role model for aspiring researchers. Coplan attended a research grant writing workshop at the PAEA Education Forum less than a month after she accepted her first faculty position. She said the workshop helped solidify her interest in research and provided a venue for connecting with researchers and potential mentors. Her first foray into PAEA research support was when she and James Stoehr, PhD, successfully applied for the 2017 STAR Award. This program gave Coplan and Stoehr the opportunity to include 10 questions about PA programs’ holistic admissions practices in PAEA’s 2017 Program Survey. The results of their work will be published in a forthcoming issue of JPAE. Coplan built on her success by next applying for the AAPA-PAEA Research Fellowship in 2018, which she utilized to complete her PhD dissertation. She plans to present her research titled “How Organizational Culture Influences Holistic Admissions: A Multiple Case Study,” at the Beyond Flexner Conference in April 2021 and has a manuscript under review. Her experience as a research fellow led her to join a group of researchers that wrote a discussion paper, “Burnout and Job and Career Satisfaction in the Physician Assistant Profession: A Review of the Literature,” for the National Academy of Medicine.

Don’t Be Intimidated

Currently, Coplan is partnering with Anthony Miller, MEd, PA-C, on another PAEA-funded project, this time researching the entry-level PA doctoral degree. Coplan said their project uses data from a variety of sources to examine the additional cost of a doctoral degree for students, estimate a likely range of costs for an entry-level PA doctorate, and investigate associations between having a doctorate and being involved in leadership. Coplan and Miller think their work will nicely complement some of the work of other research teams who received the grant.

Coplan recognizes that most PA faculty do not have substantial research training, so statistics and academic research can be particularly intimidating. Early in her career, she received some good advice from an established PA researcher, who told her “You don’t have to know how to do all the stats to do research.” Coplan has passed along this advice, reassuring colleagues that many researchers consult with statisticians and learn over time. She also encourages early career researchers to take advantage of PAEA research offerings including presentations and workshops at the PAEA Education Forum.

Find a Mentor or Partner

Virginia Valentin, DrPH, PA-C, of the University of Utah, has also navigated a winding road from junior scholar to a leader in PA research. Valentin was a recipient of PAEA research support as part of the first cohort of AAPA-PAEA Research Fellows, studying the impact of state scope of practice on the number of PAs in a state and migration of PA graduates. Her research found that state scope-of-practice laws do not impact the number of PA programs or PA graduates in a state but do impact the number of practicing PAs in a state. She presented her findings at the 2018 AAPA Conference and at the 2018 PAEA Education Forum, and an article about the study will be published in the December issue of JPAE. Valentin was able to continue this line of research into the impact of scope of practice laws on PA wages as a recipient of the 2018 Don Pedersen Award.

In reflecting on her growth as a researcher, Valentin noted that PAEA grants are an excellent opportunity to develop skills that will help you write proposals for larger grants, such as her successful application for a $1.5 million HRSA training grant. She emphasized that grant writing is an important skill that helps you frame your work and provides you with due dates and an expected outcome. In the end, she said that the experience gained from these grants increases the likelihood of project completion and publication, which is especially helpful when you are applying for promotion or academic tenure. Valentin also noted that most of PAEA’s funding opportunities require a mentor, which is critical to success. “My path has not been planned and has been built upon the path laid by many PA researchers before me. Due to their work and their mentorship, I have been able to build my own research path.” Now a seasoned scholar and recently appointed division chief of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Utah, Valentin pays it forward by serving in research leadership and mentorship positions herself, volunteering on the PAEA Research Mission Advancement Commission (RMAC) and mentoring an AAPA-PAEA Research Fellow, Kari Bernard, PhD, PA-C.

Valentin acknowledges that as a PA educator you do not have to be a full-time researcher but emphasized that PAs need to build their own body of research on PA education and workforce issues so that PA research is not limited to articles on physicians and other health professions. “Please link arms with another PA colleague and take at least a small step down the path of research,” she said. “I think you will be glad you did.”  

PAEA Research Opportunities

RMAC Interim Chair Rick Dehn, MPA, PA-C, echoed both Coplan and Valentin. Dehn views mentorship as the most valuable factor for success, explaining that even though the PAEA research community is relatively small, it can be very helpful to new researchers. He refers researchers to PAEA offerings that help aspiring authors and researchers find a mentor, such as the “Research & Publishing Made Easier” workshops at the PAEA Education Forum and the PAEA Research Professional Learning Community. Dehn recommends that researchers attend a workshop for aspiring researchers or authors at PAEA or AAPA or conferences, contact one of the journal editors directly, or contact a PA researcher who has published in their area of interest.

PAEA encourages members to take advantage of its resources and leverage its network of experienced PA faculty researchers. Currently, two research grant opportunities are accepting applications:

  • The Don Pedersen Research Grants Program is a great opportunity for faculty just getting their feet wet in research. The program focuses on faculty development in research on PA education and PA workforce issues. Grants of up to $7,000 may be awarded, with a total possible allotment of $21,000. Applications must be submitted by Sunday, November 1.
  • The Faculty-Generated Research Grant (FGRG) Program provides a substantial investment of up to $50,000 for a study that meaningfully expands the existing body of knowledge on PA education and/or the PA profession. Letters of intent (LOI) must be submitted by Monday, September 7. Finalists will then be invited to submit a more comprehensive full proposal for funding consideration.

Do you have questions about how to get more involved in PA research and build your scholarly portfolio? Don’t hesitate to contact PAEA Research at research@PAEAonline.org.

Brent Buesking

Brent is PAEA's program coordinator for research.