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A PA Doctorate in… Psychiatry?

The choice to pursue a doctorate is a deeply personal one. I share my story today in hopes that I will inspire other PAs to pursue their dreams and to believe that they, too, can find success and fulfillment.

Searching for the Right Fit

The first decade of my career was a blur. I bounced around, looking for that specialty that would fulfill the hopes and dreams I had going into this profession. For a time, I did what worked as I started a family. I loved family practice and urgent care, but never felt I had enough time for my patients. An opportunity to work in child and adolescent psychiatry came at just the right time, and I jumped on it, hoping this would be it for me.

Starting a New Chapter in Psychiatry

I began my new position in psychiatry in 2019. What a change this was! Nothing in my life prepared me for the steep learning curve that came with this specialty. Suddenly, I had to become an expert in not only psychiatric diagnoses but also developmental disabilities and even parenting. There is so much more to psychiatry than diagnosis and meds. The behavioral component of this specialty is massive. Learning to identify what was medical vs. behavioral vs. parenting problems in young children who could not communicate well was not easy. Three months in, I wondered if I could ever actually be successful as a psychiatric PA.

A Doctor of Medical Science in Psychiatry

Desperate to learn as much as possible in the fastest timeframe, I looked for every possible CME course and training available. What I needed, however, was a comprehensive education in the basics so that I could build a solid knowledge base. In a matter of days, I came across an announcement that Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions (RMUoHP) was starting a new Psychiatry track for the Doctor of Medical Science degree. I knew that was it! I applied as soon as the application window opened.

The DMSc at RMUoHP

I began the DMSc program in the fall of 2019 and completed it in December 2020. This was one of the absolute best learning experiences I’ve had. The asynchronous online learning style was perfect for me as I juggled work and parenting (and eventually a pandemic, too!). The program allowed me to identify areas of expertise I wanted to build and provided the structure to do so. What I appreciated the most was that as I went through the program, I felt that I was able to learn and master topics at a rate much faster than I ever could have alone.

Not only were the basics covered, but class discussions resulted in the development of high-level critical thinking skills that I now use every day. Psychotherapy was part of the program, and although I do not use these skills as much, I know that other PAs find tremendous value in this for their careers. At the completion of the program, I felt well-prepared for the Certificate of Added Qualifications in Psychiatry (CAQ-Psych). I passed the exam and earned the CAQ.

The Many Ways My Doctorate Paid Off

Recently, I was able to provide feedback to the program on my experience and career since graduation. Reflecting on my career since earning my doctorate was a great exercise, and I hope any PA considering a doctorate will especially read this part. I went into the program hoping to increase my knowledge, but what I actually gained was so much more: confidence, respect, referrals, and fulfillment.

Going into a new specialty was not easy. It’s hard to go from being confident in one field to knowing nearly nothing in another. The education I received and the skills that I built directly increased my confidence in my practice and myself. We often forget that confidence is an essential part of any successful career. Patients know when we are confident. Our confidence eases their worries and builds their trust in us. Confident and educated PAs assert themselves and represent our profession well.

Respect follows confidence. As I developed more experience in psychiatry and practiced collaboratively with other professionals, I realized that my opinions were respected and appreciated. Of course, this should come with practice and experience in general, but I felt that having a comprehensive education (and a doctorate) truly facilitated this process.

There was a clear increase in direct referrals that seemed to coincide with the completion of my doctorate. It was difficult as a new psych PA to build up my caseload. There were many factors that contributed to this, however, I now have many direct referrals coming in every month and have a full schedule every day.

What will having a doctorate do for you?

Earlier, I mentioned fulfillment. It’s important to discuss how a doctorate can contribute to feeling fulfilled. Most of us became PAs because we are caring and have a servant’s heart. The success of our patients fills us, and the gratification is profound when we witness healing and restoration of lives. This is the best part of psychiatry. Seeing a young anxious child overcome their fears and perform at the school play. The heartfelt “thank you” from a parent whose child was aggressive and now loving and well-behaved. The teen with addiction graduates high school against all odds.

These are the stories that fill me as a PA. Helping patients overcome their struggles and achieve their goals is far more fulfilling than I could have imagined. Had I given up on psychiatry, I’m not sure I could have found this. My doctorate gave me the tools to successfully stay on this path and see the long-term outcomes that make this career so fulfilling. Maybe a doctorate for another PA will result in a completely different but equally fulfilling career, and that is what I think this is really all about.

So, what’s next? Having a doctorate qualifies PAs for many new positions and careers. For me, it has opened the door to education. I will soon be starting a new position as a professor, teaching one of the courses I took at RMUoHP. How awesome it will be to help other PAs find the same success and fulfillment that I and many other PAs have found through their doctorate.  

Sheena Lee, DMSc, PA-C, CAQ-PSYCH

Dr. Sheena Lee has practiced clinically as a PA since 2008. She graduated with both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Physician Assistant Science from Saint Francis University. Her early clinical experience includes internal medicine and primary care specialties, but she eventually found her true passion in psychiatry. Dr. Lee was one of the first graduates of the RMUoHP DMSc Psychiatry track in 2020. She also holds a Certificate of Added Qualifications in Psychiatry. In clinical practice, Dr. Lee treats children, adolescents, and adults for a variety of psychiatric conditions. Dr. Lee has a love for learning and academia. She has contributed to the clinical training of multiple PA students, as well as nurse practitioner and medical students throughout her career. In addition, she has guest lectured at several PA programs about psychiatric topics. She is an active member of the American Academy of Physician Assistants and the Association of PAs in Psychiatry, as well as her local state PA organizations in New York and New Jersey. Dr. Lee believes PAs are strongly positioned to step in and meet the psychiatric and mental health needs of their communities. In her free time, Dr. Lee enjoys the outdoors, camping, hiking and fishing. However, her greatest joy in life is raising her three children.

2 thoughts on “A PA Doctorate in… Psychiatry?

  • Hi writer
    What’s the use of this degree If PAs do not have independence.
    Trust me I am ED CAQ and Nephrology CAQ.
    But of no use… all we need is independent practice without this co-sign physician stupid snd idiotic tag… then and only then these degrees would be beneficial.
    My goal is to bd independent of supervising mess to have access to more jobs opportunities for physician associates … just like DOs did..
    Otherwise, to do all these doctorates and CAQs are just useless stupid and reward less..

    • We absolutely do need to be able to regulate our own profession. This is won on a state-by-state basis, doctorate or not. Having a doctorate, however, will surely open doors in this area. I hope all PAs everywhere are actively involved in their state organization making this happen.

      In the meantime, my doctorate (DMS) has made me a better clinician–you can’t put a price on that.


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