Leadership Blog

A Guide to the Doctoral Summit – Issues, Importance, and Impact

A diverse group of PA related professionals have been invited to gather in Charlotte, North Carolina on March 14-15 for a Doctoral Summit, during which they will engage, in a variety of ways and from a variety of vantage points, with the question of whether the PA profession should move to a doctorate, instead of a master’s degree, as the entry-level degree.

Currently, the master’s degree is the entry-level degree for PAs. However, the length of time needed to earn the degree and the cost are consistent with several other doctoral degrees of other health professionals. 

If the PA profession were to move to an entry-level doctorate, a graduate would be licensed to practice medicine as a doctorly-prepared PA and would likely see an improvement in perceived parity with other health care disciplines that have successfully made similar transitions such as our nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology colleagues.

Based on the current body of literature, key benefits would include competitive advantages in the job market, leadership advancements, and opportunities for promotion and tenure within our institutions. However, there is also the potential for increased length of study, student debt, and additional limits to workforce diversity at a time when the PA profession is looking at ways to narrow that gap.

Last year the AAPA House of Delegates voted to confirm the master’s degree as the degree for entry into the profession.

Recent PAEA surveys indicate the number of PAs obtaining doctoral degrees is increasing. A multitude of programs have advanced post-professional doctoral degrees such as the Doctor of Medical Science (DMSc), Doctor of Health Science (DHSc), and Doctor of Physician Assistant Studies (DPAS). Additionally, PAs are upskilling or retooling with Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQs), fellowships, and residency programs. This trend demonstrates that the PA profession is seeking ways to meet the changing needs of the health care environment.

The doctoral degree discussion has been ongoing for several years. In 2009, PAEA and the AAPA jointly held a Physician Assistant Clinical Doctorate Summit to examine the issue. During this initial summit, 50 independent representatives from inside and outside of the PA profession came together to develop recommendations.

Following a comprehensive process, the participants recommended endorsing the master’s degree as the terminal degree and supported the offering of postgraduate doctorates. In 2020, during the most recent revision of the position policy related to the entry-level doctoral degree, the PAEA membership voted to further explore the implications of an entry-level doctorate so the Board of Directors decided to fund a Doctoral Summit.

To plan for the Summit, PAEA convened a Steering Committee composed of leaders knowledgeable about the PA field from multiple disciplines. They interviewed a variety of stakeholders from inside and outside the profession identified as relevant to the doctoral degree discussion to gain perspectives and insights.

One of the intangible benefits of undertaking this very comprehensive process at the Summit is that we will all be better informed by this discussion, and the PAEA Board will have the context needed to weigh in on this very critical question. 

Following a successful Doctoral Summit, a summary of the data, gathered research, and the various viewpoints will be provided to the PAEA Board of Directors to inform a future policy statement related to PA doctoral education that will voted on by member programs at our annual business meeting in October 2023.

According to the standard bylaws, any new motions or recommendations must go before members at least 30 days prior to the business meeting.

Members can share their thoughts with other PAEA members in our Professional Learning Communities, explore additional literature on the topic by visiting the Digital Learning Hub, or explore the reading list below.

Nicole B. Burwell, PhD, MSHS, PA-C, is the chair of the Doctoral Summit Steering Committee, in addition to being a member of the PAEA Board of Directors. All of the members of the committee have been invited to the Summit, but some members may not be able to attend.

Additional Resources

Physician Assistant Clinical Doctorate Summit: Final Report and Summary. (2009) Journal of Physician Assistant Education, 20(2), 22-28.

Brown, D., Quincy, B. & Snyder, J. (2021). Physician assistant education community assumptions about an entry-level doctoral degree. Journal of Physician Assistant Education, 32(4), 207-224. doi: 10.1097/JPA.0000000000000385

Cawley, J., Kayingo, G. & Kulo, V. (2023). Whither the PA doctorate? JAAPA, 36(2), 1-6. doi: 10.1097/01.JAA.0000911216.02925.52

Gordes, K., Fleming, S., Kulo, V., Cawley, J., Kibe, L. & Kayingo, G. (2022). An exploration into the physician assistant entry-level doctoral degree: lessons learned from across health professions.  Journal of Physician Assistant Education, 33(1), 24-33. doi: 10.1097/JPA.0000000000000411

Miller, A. & Coplan, B. (2022). Assessing the economics of an entry-level physician assistant doctoral degree Journal of Physician Assistant Education, 3(1), 34-40. doi: 10.1097/JPA.0000000000000400

Sasek, C. (2021). To what degree? Considerations for the pursuit of a doctoral degree by clinical physician assistants. JBJS Journal of Orthopaedics for Physician Assistants, 9(3), doi: 10.2106/JBJS.JOPA.21.00010