Is a Doctoral Degree Right for You?

For the PA profession, a master’s degree is the terminal degree. In academia, however, the doctorate is the degree of currency. A study by Kibe, et al, found that in 1996, only about 12% of PA educators had doctoral degrees (excluding physicians), but by 2015, approximately 26% of PA educators had earned a doctorate, including 44% of program directors. Of those educators with doctoral degrees, the majority had a PhD, followed by a DHSc and an EdD.1 At times it can feel like everyone is getting one, so you may be asking yourself — should I also be pursuing a doctoral degree?

Benefits of a doctoral degree for PA educators

Development of research, education, and leadership skills:
During PA school, we are taught a lot, but not how to be a researcher or educator, or how to directly develop leadership skills. These skills, one could argue, are critical for PA educators and can be developed during the educational process of obtaining a doctoral degree, which in turn help can shape your career path and provide further opportunities in PA education and academia.

Expanded role opportunities:
Within most institutions, a doctoral degree is necessary to hold various roles, such as director of graduate studies, department chair, or division chief. Also, a study by Kayingo and Cawley found that one-third of PA faculty positions advertise as doctoral degree required or preferred.2

Increased compensation:
The 2018 PAEA Faculty and Directors Report 3 shows that faculty with a doctoral degree earned on average $104,831 a year, while faculty with a master’s degree earned $93,228. Program directors with a doctoral degree earned $134,293 on average, while those with a master’s degree earned $122,344.

Increased rank or promotion:
The majority of PA educators are assistant professors. While there are many reasons for this, the lack of a doctoral degree likely plays a part. At some institutions, you cannot be promoted to associate professor without a doctorate. It is also common to require a doctorate to serve on various committees such as the University Senate or School of Medicine Curriculum Committee. Service in these capacities can have an impact on future promotion opportunities.

Professional parity in academia:
Regardless of your perspective on the PA profession and our role in health care, in academia, the PhD is the degree that is given the highest respect. If the PA profession wants to be considered equal in the academic setting, we have to play the game by their rules.

Types of doctoral degrees

The alphabet soup of doctoral degree options for PA educators can be a bit overwhelming, but there are essentially two types. Generally, one would estimate a research doctorate (i.e., PhD or DrPH) to take four to six years to complete, while a clinical doctorate (i.e., DHSc or DMSc) will take approximately two years. The type of degree to pursue is important as they each have different requirements, provide different skills, and, depending on the institution where you are employed, different value.

PhD – Doctor of Philosophy
DrPH – Doctor of Public Health
EdD – Doctor of Education
DHSc – Doctor of Health Science
DBH – Doctor of Behavioral Health
DHEd – Doctor of Health Education
DMSc – Doctor of Medical Science

Questions to consider

What is your motive?
Do you hope to gain a skill set? Are you wanting to open doors for future employment opportunities? Are you trying to move down a specific career path (i.e., administration)? It is okay to say that you need a doctoral degree for future employment opportunities but be honest with yourself about why you want to do this. Spend some time thinking about your motivation — even consider writing it out.

What is available to you?
Let’s be clear, you are not going to be a traditional full-time doctoral student. So, you need to consider which doctoral degrees are available to you. Do some research to understand what degree types are available at your institution and perhaps other institutions nearby. You need to be realistic. A university one hour away may not sound too far until you consider that you could be driving there for five years. In addition, do some research about online programs, as this might be your best option, depending on your circumstances. Most importantly, you are doing this in your free time, so really consider what you want to be learning about on Sunday afternoon.

How much time will it take?
Once you start to consider specific degrees, you need to understand the time commitment. Is the program offered part-time? Will your PA program give you protected time? How much time will you spend away if the program is not in your home town, for example? Finally, how many years will it take to complete? Meet with a graduate counselor and iron out these details to ensure the program is feasible. Keep in mind, this is a marathon and not a sprint. A doctoral degree will take years so don’t expect to complete it quickly.

What support do you have?
You did not get through PA school alone, and earning a doctorate is no different. It is important to assess who your support network will be in this next step of your education journey. Is your family on board? If you have children, what is your plan for finding studying time? Does your program and institution support you? There is a difference between support on paper and real support. Have a conversation with your program director and/or division chief, department chair, or dean. Get verbal and written support from them. Perhaps even more important, you need to find a champion — maybe someone who has already completed their doctorate and will advocate for you and encourage you. Ideally this person is in your program, although this is not required. This path you are about to take is a long one but with support you can do it.

How much will it cost?
Student loan debt is a serious concern and one that should not be taken lightly. Make it a top priority to try to find the program with the least cost to you. Many institutions offer a significant reduction in tuition for faculty members. Determine what your institution offers and take advantage of these opportunities. While there is a return on this educational investment, it is important to do the math for yourself and determine if the financial investment is worth it to you and your family.

What financial support options are available?
Once you select a program, be sure to ask for financial support. First, meet with your division chief, department chair, or dean and determine if there are any discounts or financial assistance available from your specific department. It never hurts to ask. Some institutions will provide additional assistance to encourage you to complete a doctorate. This can come in the form of scholarships, internal grants, and/or allowing you to use your CME account for tuition. Then look externally. Training grants are offered through the National Institutes of Health, National Science Fund, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. There are also support opportunities in the PA community including the Breitman-Dorn Research Fellowship and the AAPA-PAEA Research Fellowship.

The decision to begin a doctoral degree is a complex one. There are many benefits but also inherent costs. There will never be enough time, enough support, or enough money, but if you have the drive to do it — go for it!

  1. Kibe LW, Kayingo G, Cawley JF. Reviving the PA doctorate debate: a look at PA faculty trends. Abstract presented at the AAPA conference in Las Vegas, NV, May 2017.
  2. Kayingo G, Kibe LW, Cawley JF. Demand and opportunities for doctorally prepared PA faculty. Abstract presented at the AAPA conference in Las Vegas, NV, May 2017.