When vetting PA programs, the opportunity to earn a degree or certificate in addition to the expected master's degree can be appealing to prospective students.
Providing more education or additional credentials can make a program enticing. However, before assuming this makes a program better than another option, you must first understand the basics of what to expect with PA school degrees and certifications.
And, then, you have to reflect on whether any additional training or academic award is right for you.
The core PA degrees
As a condition of accreditation, all PA programs will be required to award master's degrees to graduates who matriculate into the program after 2020.
You might be thinking, “Don't all PA programs already offer master's degrees?”
The vast majority do, but, historically, this hasn’t always been true. In the past, PA programs could be certificate programs or offer associate or bachelor's degrees.
As the PA profession has grown and more programs have been established, a master's degree became the standard. However, according to accreditation requirements, only programs accredited from 2013 on had to be developed as master's level programs.
Programs accredited before 2013 that do not yet award master's degrees to their graduates have until 2020 to make the swap.
So, in very short order, you'll get a master's degree upon completion of any PA program you might attend.
Commonly, these degrees have PA-centric titles: Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS), Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS), Master of Physician Assistant Practice (MPAP), or Master of Physician Assistant (MPA).
Other master's degrees you might encounter a bit less frequently include Master of Science (MS), Master of Medical Science (MMS/MMSc) or Master of Science in Medicine (MSM), Master of Health Science (MHS) or Master of Science in HealthScience (MSHS).
So — which combination of initials is best? They're all equal. No degree title is more difficult or easier to obtain than the next. None is more valued by an employer over another.
And because every PA program is held to the same accreditation standards, the work you do to earn any of these degrees would be the same as the next.
The “extra” academic awards
While the basic core PA degrees are similar program to program, more variety can be found in other academic awards that might be granted.
The best-known combination is when a program offers a master's degree for completion of the PA program along with a Master of Public Health (MPH).
Typically, the work to earn an MPH is done consecutively with your PA training and involves completing an MPH over three semesters leading up to the start of a PA program. A smaller group of students usually starts the MPH track and completes the course work needed for that degree before joining a larger PA school class for the two-ish years of the PA program.
Certifications, on the other hand, are earned concurrently — as you complete your PA training. Skills-based certifications, like Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) or bedside ultrasound, might be built into a PA program so that students meet requirements or have necessary skills for clinical rotations.
One initiative of the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) is to promote medication-assisted training (MAT) for PA students to increase patient access to effective opioid use disorder treatment. MAT waiver training and subsequent certification allows graduating PA students to be eligible to prescribe buprenorphine, a medication used to help people reduce or stop opiate use.
Nearly one-third of programs now require MAT waiver training, and the majority (59.3%) are planning on implementing this by next May.
Other certifications may be more academically oriented and can cover a wide range of topics. As a PA student, you may even have options for choosing among different certifications of interest.
These certifications might include additional education in areas such as behavioral medicine, palliative care, integrative medicine, or research.
There are other scenarios where additional degrees are possible for future or current PAs. While most PA programs require that students earn a bachelor's degree before enrollment, some programs are accelerated and offer both a bachelor's and master's degree over 5 or so years.
If you search for additional PA training, you'll also find certifications in leadership or management and even some doctoral programs available for practicing PAs looking to advance their education.
However, to consider academic awards that can be achieved in addition to the standard master's degree, we'll focus on how a prospective PA student might weigh opportunities within the professional phase of training — what most of us think of when we imagine "PA school."
Assessing utility of additional training
Gaining more in-depth knowledge in a subject that can help your future patients is a worthwhile endeavor.
However, obtaining additional certifications or degrees while training to become a PA can come with an added cost of time, money, or both.
Rarely will training beyond what's required to graduate PA school result in a significant competitive advantage in your first PA job hunt or a higher salary as a practicing PA.
That's not to say it doesn't make sense to pursue the extra degree or certification in some cases. But, if you want to make a wise decision, you first have to consider your goals for your future career.
If you're drawn to a program because they offer some certification or degree beyond the master's degree you need, it’s important to contemplate how you hope to use that training in the future.
Not everyone needs an MPH, but if you plan to incorporate health policy work into your career, it might make sense for you. If your experience to date has laid the groundwork for a future in public health or epidemiology, the additional knowledge gained through earning your MPH degree will be an asset.
However, be very careful here about casting a vision for your future that's based on hypothetical experience.
Some prospective PA students will justify that they could transition from clinical work to a more administrative role later in their career and that an MPH would be helpful to make this change.
But, as the PAEA Student Report shows on an annual basis, even the limited clinical experience you have in PA school can shift your attitude towards what specialties you find desirable and undesirable between starting PA school and graduating in about two short years.
If your short time in PA school has such potential to alter your plans, imagine how experience as a practicing PA could shift your future goals and change the trajectory of your career to send you to places you didn't expect to go.
If you're a career changer, you've probably had professional experience that will better equip you to envision your long-term PA career goals. You'll likely feel a bit more certain of what additional education might complement your PA training.
However, even if you've had decades to hone your strengths and determine your future goals, you may still want to let experience as a PA chart your course for what comes next.
As a practicing PA, you can find opportunities to further your education or skills in areas that can help you to shape the direction of your future career. Gaining experience along the way might clarify how exactly you hope to evolve in your role, whether it's continuing in clinical care, entering the education realm, or transitioning into an administrative role.
A side bonus is that if you are working as a PA, your employer may pay your tuition or offer reimbursement for you to get an additional degree, certificate, or training.
Sometimes, it's not the extra academic award that draws you to a program. Instead, you might be interested in a PA program that happens to offer a degree or certificate you weren't necessarily seeking out.
If a PA program is a great choice for you and you want to apply regardless of the opportunity for an extra academic award, go ahead. Just remember to avoid the temptation to justify your choice (especially when doing so means spending extra time and money) when you don't have a clear future direction.
So, in summary, growing your knowledge, especially in ways that will help you better care for and serve patients, is always a good thing.
But, when further education or training is connected to earning extra certifications or degrees, being intentional with your decisions is key to making wise choices.
Examine your long-term career goals and consider the likelihood of these evolving. Your PA career may take you to unexpected places as you gain more experience. Or, you might be sure that you've already achieved the experience needed to chart your course from the get-go.
Whatever you choose, be sure you're considering the big picture and making decisions based not on what might help any future PA, but purposefully selecting those that are right for you.
Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. ARC-PA Standards Degree Deadline Issue. http://www.arc-pa.org/documents/Degree%20issue10.2011fnl.pdf
Majewski, C. Assessing a Year of Successes and Challenges: PAEA’s MAT Initiative. https://paeaonline.org/assessing-a-year-of-successes-and-challenges-paeas-mat-initiative/
Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Program Report 33: Data from the 2017 Program Survey, Washington, DC: PAEA; 2018. doi: 10.17538/PR33.2018