5 Steps to Demystify the Research Process for PA Educators

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

I began my academic career in 1991, without any previous experience in education. Although I began completing my advanced degrees shortly thereafter, fourteen years passed before I published my first research article. The task seemed overwhelming when I started out, and it may appear that way to new PA faculty.


It is not uncommon for new PA faculty to find conducting and publishing educational research daunting. PA faculty face a unique challenge of transitioning from the clinician model to the role of an academic. In many institutions, the expectation is to not only meet the workload requirements, but also generate scholarship. How can new PA faculty find time to start a research agenda when they are teaching and advising students, serving on specific program committees, and learning a brand-new language and culture?


We understand the research process can be overwhelming and difficult for PA faculty. This is one reason why Martin & Massey, LLC has developed a workshop dedicated to faculty development.


Conducting a literature review, obtaining IRB approval, and examining and interpreting the data is a difficult task, especially when completed on one’s own. With the right support, PA faculty can prepare for the research process with confidence. Let’s demystify the research process by examining the various steps involved:



1. Formulate a Research Question

The classroom is a fertile laboratory with daily opportunities to study the phenomenon of learning within a PA Program. The first step of the research process is to begin conceptualizing a simple question to study, soon formulating it into a research question. Write down possible questions, consider them thoroughly, and finally settle on one main question. For instance, ask yourself how the instructional model impacts students learning and knowledge base over time.


If you find yourself struggling to establish a clear research question, consider turning to your institution for help. Most colleges and universities have Centers for Teaching and Learning Excellence. If your institution has one, you can make an appointment to use their assistance in a brainstorming session.




2. Seek Out a Mentor

In many PA programs, new PA faculty lack a research mentor to assist with the process of generating a research question that can be converted into a scholarly project. It is helpful and highly recommended to find a mentor who has experience conducting and publishing research. If possible, ask your program director or one of your fellow faculty members in your program to be involved. Most experienced educators are happy to help new PA faculty early in their careers. Offer the opportunity for your mentor to be one of the co-presenters or contributing authors.



3. Conduct a Literature Review

Once the research question has been formulated, ask your university/college librarian to conduct a literature search. There is a possibility that the same question has been asked within PA education, or it may be a new question; it is important to obtain information about the existing literature before moving forward with the research idea and question.


4. Conceptualize Your Research Design

Take time to clearly conceptualize your research design, plotting a mental course for its path:

  • Consider the target audience who will read the research results while keeping the end goal in mind. Set goals, ensuring they are attainable.

  • Decide if you’d like to follow a specific group over time to document the impact of an educational intervention or, if you are applying a new teaching methodology, compare the results between groups. PA programs are rich with outcome data.

  • Reflect also on the relationships between variables and how one variable might predict another.

  • Look ahead to the time next year when you will begin the study.

  • Remember to submit an application to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at your institution. Call a member of the IRB at your institution and ask that they review the application before submission. Without IRB approval, the results of your research involving human subjects cannot be published.

Think of these smaller projects in terms of a continuum. The evolution of a research project can begin with presenting a poster at a regional or national meeting, leading to a submission of the research article for publication in an appropriate journal. You may even choose to expand the project to involve more than one program, creating opportunities for larger numbers of participants and comparison groups.



5. Obtain Assistance with the Statistical Analysis and Interpretation of Data

The validity of the statistical analysis will be reviewed through the peer process after the research results have been submitted. Since it is common for PA educators to have never received advanced training in statistics, it is wise to ask one of the statistics professors at the university to help review and analyze the data. This can be a win-win situation for you and statistics professors seeking scholarship opportunities. Consider offering them co-authorship on any posters or articles generated from the research project. (Personally, I have included a statistician as a contributing author on every article published during my career.)


In many ways the self-study report required by ARC-PA is much like a research project. The interventions involved with the continuous quality assurance process are, in essence, simple applications of research. The measurement of outcome data as the result of modifications provides opportunities for scholarly inquiry. By embedding your scholarly inquiry process within the program’s fabric, you can contribute to the program’s achievement of excellence.

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