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Physician Assistants in Research

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Dear Current Physician Assistants,


I am currently considering a career as a Physician Assistant. I am particularly interested in the Physician Assistant and Master of Public Health Dual Degree programs. I am currently a Clinical Research Coordinator at the National Institutes of Health. I seek to continue my career in research and public health. I hope that my training from a Physician Assistant and Masters in Public Health dual degree program will provide me with new and improved skills which I can use to be a greater asset in the medical community and perform high quality public health research.


I have been attempting to do research on the Physician Assistant’s role in public health and health care research. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find very much information regarding PA’s role in research. Do you have any suggestions as to where I might be able to find and speak with PAs who are involved in research?


What are the potentials for PAs who would like to be involved in health care and public health research after completion of their training? I seek to become a Medical Investigator, Associate Investigator or Principal Investigator and conduct research to improve the health of underserved communities.


Please let me know where I can find more information regarding these issues. I would like to have better understanding of my potentials and prospects before I enroll in a PA graduate program. Please let me know if someone with my interests and ambitions would be more successful becoming a physician or nurse practitioner.


Thank you for all your help. It is greatly appreciated.




Verónica Y. Schmidt

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Guest Paula

I might be all wet behind the ears on my response. Get a PhD in public health research and then use those research skills in the way you mention. It's my understanding that to be a PI you should have a PhD, and it is a difficult thing for PA's to break into without the PhD. PA or MD/PhD might be better if you must have a medical degree and want research. Do you have lots of time and money?


Nova Southeast University (I think) has a dual degree PA/DPH or PA/DHSc. What I'm saying is don't settle for Masters.

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tinylilron - Thanks for starting this thread! I am also interested in the PA's role in research, and would be interested in hearing from practicing PAs who conduct/participate in research.

As far as your degree options, Wake Forest Univeristy has a dual PA/PhD program - so you could look into that program if you want to be a PI in your future career.

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Well, roughly 30% of my time is dedicated to research currently (and if the grant gets the nod in September, it will be 40%) so I think I can answer some of your questions, but not necessarily those dedicated to public health as this is not my area of focus.


First, yes you can serve as a PI or Co-PI on any research with your PA education. That being said almost every PA I know that is heavily involved in research has additional credentials. I have an MS (sports medicine) as well as a DHSc in Organizational Behaviour. My research focuses on mathematical modeling, workforce behavior, and simulations. Particularly looking at interprofessional dynamics and how medical teams behave and function, in other words, how can we build a better medical team? Currently, in addition to a bunch of papers submitted (3 accepted this year for publication, and 2 others in review, along with several others in various stages of writing) I am part of a team completing an ethnography study in the operating rooms which is funded. My grant proposal would study shared decision making models and how PAs and NPs view and use these models, and how it compares to MDs.


I think that there is a lot of potential for PAs in the research arena, but that being said....there are a lot of roadblocks too. Many physicians and institutions view PAs as CLINICAL providers and are reluctant to "break the mold" if you will. The opportunities in research are greater for MDs than PAs. You therefore have to be willing to be persistent to create the type of position that you want.


Many, actually all of the PAs (save one) that I know that are involved heavily in research are in teaching positions. Even in academic medical centers, almost all PAs are clinical. In fact, I was once told, that one of the functions of the PA was to "lighten the clinical load so that the physicians could do more research". It's hard to change that mentality, but I strongly encourage more PAs to develop their own research agendas and to complete some studies....even small, non funded ones.....it will only benefit the whole profession.


As far as public health, you may want to contact Richard Muma at Wichita State who is not only a PA but holds an MPH and a PhD in public health and is the chair of their Department of Public Health Sciences. He would know far better about the public health research opportunities that you are asking about.

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PA school trains a clinician, not a researcher. The ability to apply for grants, design trials, conduct a literature review, and style an academic paper are skills most PA's do not have unless they sought out some other experience. Maybe they absorbed the skills while at an academic center or serving as PA faculty somewhere. Most obtained another degree. Even MD schools do not prepare individuals for this. Most MDs I know that have gone into academics have spent extra residency time learning how to research, and maybe have an additional degree. The benefit an MD has in obtaining another degree is that they already have the doctoral designation. Many academic posts and grants will require a doctoral degree .... Not all, but most..and as of right now it is rare that a PA academic position would require a doctoral degree.


If you want to do public health research a primary PA academic position will unlikely suit you. Since we have so many tiny PA programs throughout the US the faculty at each program spend most of their time on administrative tasks and not conducting research for the profession or medicine on a whole.


Be careful about the dual degree program PA/MPH ..... superficially this might be what you want .... but at the end of the day the dual program usually is a general MPH degree and not one focused on research methodology. And even if the MPH is focused on research methodology it is still hard to obtain the skills without the mentorship and advanced methods of a doctoral program.


Feel free to contact me with questions ...... I am a PA/public health guy but my area of public health work is not really what you are interested in. I also have presented research in my area of study and could share those experiences with you.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I have had a couple of positions in clinical research as a PA, but these were "staff" positions that used clinical skills rather than principal investigator positions. I fortunately did have the opportunity to contribute in a significant way to the body of medical research, primarily because these were either 1) important national clinical trials, or 2) the primary investigator was a well-known, prominent scientific investigator--i.e. M.D., Ph.D. full endowed professorship etc. (as well as my supervising physician).


If you don't want to play a supportive/staff role, then it would behoove you to get your own doctor-level degree, either M.D. or Ph.D. You could go M.D. route with M.P.H. degree in epidemiology--or you could get a Ph.D. in addition to the P.A. degree. The P.A. degree and clinical background is a tremendous asset, but it won't win academic accolades or funding.

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