Guide to Physical Therapy Degree Programs
If becoming a physical therapist is your career goal, get ready to hit the books — hard. Fully credentialed physical therapists will need some heavy graduate education along with a state licensure in order to practice. Traditionally, there have been three main graduate-level degrees in physical therapy:
- Master of Physical Therapy (MPT)
- Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT)
- Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree
However, because DPTs are so heavily preferred due to their longer study and research period, the two master's programs are being phased out nationwide. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is requiring schools to offer the DPT by 2015 in order to maintain their accreditation, and the MPT/MSPT programs should be nonexistent by 2017.
How long does it take to get a DPT?
Getting a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree typically take three years of full-time study beyond the bachelor's degree level, according to the APTA, though some institutions do offer combined bachelor/DPT programs that typically knock a year off of the total time spent in school. The University of Findlay in Ohio also offers a slightly shorter "bridge" program for working physical therapy assistants who want to transition into becoming licensed physical therapists.
At the doctoral level, students can expect to complete a mix of science, physiology, biomechanics, anatomy and kinesiology courses — along with a strong dose of clinical work. Students can complete a generalized DPT curriculum or concentrate their studies in an area like geriatrics, orthopedics or sports.
Due to the hands-on nature of the degree and the hefty lab component required, the vast majority of DPT programs require students to physically go to campus for most classes, though a few select institutions offer online transitional DPT curriculums for practicing physical therapists who are moving from the master's to the doctoral level. Some schools may also allow students to take certain individual courses in an online format. Students generally attend school full-time while completing their degree, but many institutions offer part-time and weekend learning options as well.
Accreditation and licensure
To become fully licensed in the U.S., students must graduate from a school that's accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) — this is nonnegotiable, according to the APTA, so it's crucial that students choose an approved program before beginning their studies. Check out this list of accredited PT programs to find out which schools near you are available. For students who received a PT degree in another country, CAPTE only accredits three programs. They are:
- University of Toronto (Canada)
- University of Western Ontario (Canada)
- The Robert Gordon University (Scotland)
Once they've received their degree, aspiring PTs must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination and fulfill additional licensing requirements, which vary significantly from state to state. A list of state licensing authorities and their contact information is available on website for the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), which oversees physical therapy licensure.
According to the FSBPT, 29 states currently require students to pass a jurisprudence exam (a test on the state's rules and laws) to become a licensed physical therapist, and 27 require physical therapy assistants to complete the same. With license in hand, new physical therapists can move directly into the workforce, apply for a clinical residency or fellowship program or enter a specialist certification program through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS).
Before making a decision, know that oftentimes it pays to specialize, and employers may very well help pick up those tuition tabs. A survey by ABPTS showed that about half of employers would be willing to financially help licensed therapists obtain a specialization, and nearly 40 percent said that a new certification would be grounds for a salary increase. The APTA reports that the median salary for all licensed therapists in 2013 was $85,000 per year. By contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2013, the median salary for all physical therapists in the U.S. was just $81,030.
Once they've got a degree, physical therapists can potentially find work in a number of different places. These might include:
- Home health care companies
- Rehabilitation centers
- Nursing homes
- Assisted living facilities
- Physician offices
- Occupational therapy groups
- Research centers
- Training facilities
- Specialty clinics
Becoming a physical therapist is a lengthy process, so if a traditional physical therapy track isn't your thing, you can consider go into occupational therapy, which only requires a masters degree to break into, or become a physical therapy assistant with a two-year associate's degree and appropriate licensing, according to the BLS.
Employers' View of Specialist Certification, American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties,
Specialist Certification, American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties,
About the National Physical Therapy Examination, American Physical Therapy Association,
Physical Therapist (PT) Careers Overview, American Physical Therapy Association,
Physical Therapist (PT) Education Overview, American Physical Therapy Association,
Who Are Physical Therapists?, American Physical Therapy Association,
CAPTE Accredited Physical Therapist Education Programs, Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education,
Information for Foreign Educated Physical Therapists, Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education,
Jurisprudence Exam, The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy,
Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013: Physical Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
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