A Look at Online PA Master’s Programs in 2018

When researching different physician assistant jobs, Dave Cosenza realized that earning a master’s degree would qualify him for more positions.

But he also knew that taking off from work for a full-time, on-campus program would result in lost income. His solution: pursue a physician assistant postgraduate degree online through the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which allows him to complete coursework around his own schedule, even far away from campus.

Open to practicing physician assistants, the virtual program allows Cosenza and his classmates to take courses in subjects including research, medical ethics and health care policy.

“It allows me to work and go at my own pace, whether I want to take seven or eight credits or just three or four credits a semester,” says the 46-year-old Connecticut resident, who expects to graduate next year.

[Discover what to ask about online program course scheduling options.]

Consenza isn’t alone. Some universities now offer master’s programs online for practicing physician assistants who already have a bachelor’s degree. That’s happening as employer demand for PAs is projected to rise 30 percent between 2014 and 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the past, PAs typically just needed an undergraduate education, says Denise Rizzolo, program director for the PA master’s completion program at the Pace University College of Health Professions. But today, experts say, a master’s is the industry standard.

Experts say these online completion programs enable PAs with college degrees to earn a master’s, preparing them for more advanced roles. Some states also now require practicing PAs to complete that level of education, Rizzolo says.

At this time, there are few accredited online programs that provide initial PA training, experts say; that curriculum involves a lot of face-to-face interaction in a clinical setting. Because master’s completion students generally already have on-site, real-world experience, a fully in-person education may not be as essential at that stage, though there may still be clinical or similar requirements, depending on a student’s concentration.

PAs often work odd hours, and students generally live across time zones, says Rizzolo. Many courses in online master’s programs are therefore self-paced, or asynchronous. While there are set deadlines, students can typically complete coursework whenever they wish during the week.

[Explore how to decide between live and self-paced online courses.]

That doesn’t mean courses aren’t as challenging as those on a physical campus, school officials say.

“It is time-consuming for them,” says Bert Simon, department chair of PA studies at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences—Mesa, a health sciences university in Arizona offering an online master’s for PAs. “Even though it’s flexible, it still is a commitment.” Online students at ATSU should expect 10 to 20 hours of coursework a week, he adds.

Given the range of subjects that PA master’s programs may cover, the types of assignments generally vary, experts say. Cosenza says he regularly completes research papers and open-book exams.

Students may also participate in discussion boards. In one online course at Pace University, says Rizzolo, students were asked in a forum about what changes in technology are having the greatest impact on their health care practices. They responded to the original question and then to each other, starting a dialogue.

Group work may also be assigned. Michael Huckabee, director of the division of PA education at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says that in an online clinical inquiry and writing course, students post a peer-reviewed article on a topic of their choice at the beginning of the term and then continue posting related studies every two weeks to explore the subject in greater depth. Students review two other classmates’ articles, in the process answering questions and starting discussions.

[Learn the do’s, don’ts of online group work.]

“They start having to sort out their opinions, sharing with their peers in a respectable way: Is this an opinion I’m basing on evidence? Or is this an opinion I’m basing on my own previous experience as a PA?” he says.

Like many on-campus programs, online PA schools may also allow master’s students to specialize. At the University of Nebraska Medical Center, students may focus on clinical medicine – which involves interacting directly with patients – or education.

When choosing an online PA program, experts suggest ensuring it has proper accreditation and is flexible for working professionals. For instance, Huckabee says, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, “We can kind of allow them to step out and re-enter and achieve their goals” as desired.

His advice to prospective students who are also juggling full-time jobs and other responsibilities: “Find a program that understands that and can help you and support you.”