Online Physical Therapy Degree Programs

Physical therapists help people rehabilitate after injuries and illnesses and assist with treatment or management of chronic conditions. Employment of physical therapists is expected to skyrocket in the next several years, with the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting 36 percent job growth between 2012 and 2022 and 73,500 total new jobs in the field — plus, annual wages for physical therapists averaged more than double the national mean in certain states.

The growing trend toward digital distance education has contributed to an increase in the number of online schools in physical therapy, which can help career-changers or working professionals find room in their schedules for a continued education. Laboratory sections tend to be difficult to reproduce in the virtual environment, but schools that offer a physical therapy degree online may maintain satellite learning centers or have flexible scheduling measures that allow students to work around their existing responsibilities.

Here's a table that shows the number of schools offering various types of physical therapy degree, both online and on campus:

Region No. of schools with PT assistant programs No. of online schools in PT assisting No. of schools offering a PT degree No. of schools offering a PT degree online No. of schools offering pre-PT programs
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 30 0 26 1 4
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 14 0 9 1 5
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 48 3 21 4 4
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 33 2 24 3 5
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 95 1 58 6 13
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 62 1 38 2 5
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 45 0 49 5 2
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 18 0 19 4 2
Total (all 50 states) 345 7 244 26 40

Schools that offer a pre-physical therapy degree online are especially rare, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), with just two listed in the entire U.S. in 2015.

Entry-level physical therapy programs

Campus-based and online schools in physical therapy assisting and pre-PT training can help you get your foot in the door of the physical therapy profession. Each degree is different, and different schools may set different curriculum requirements, but here's some general information that most preliminary PT degrees have in common:

  • Certificate programs - The most entry-level of all careers in the physical therapy field is physical therapy aide, which may require candidates to have a certificate or other non-degree award before they can be employed. Most physical therapy aide certificates take between four and twelve weeks to complete, depending on the program, and can be found at certain online schools in physical therapy.
  • Associate degree - Accredited college training for physical therapy assistants typically comes in the form of an associate degree, which can take anywhere from 18 months to more than 2 years to complete. Most associate degrees in physical therapy cover such subjects as kinesiology, basic patient care, medical terminology, orthopedics, therapeutic modalities and exercise therapy.
  • Bachelor's degree - Physical therapy degrees at the bachelor's level are often structured as a health sciences degree with a physical therapy emphasis, a bachelor's degree in physical therapy assisting or a pre-PT degree that focuses on giving students a head start on the requirements for their graduate work. Graduate programs in physical therapy typically require students to have completed a bachelor's degree in a related discipline to physical therapy before they can be admitted.

Some online schools in physical therapy may give students the option to complete their undergraduate degree entirely online, depending on how much practical or hands-on work is included in the curriculum. Before you sign up to earn your physical therapy degree online, make sure you're ready to take the initiative required to complete all your coursework without the consistent reminder of steady class attendance.

Advanced-degree physical therapy programs

An advanced degree and a physical therapy license are each necessary in order to practice legally as a physical therapist. Here's some info on practical as well as scholarly graduate degrees from traditional and online schools in physical therapy:

  • DPT - The Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is the traditional professional degree for practicing physical therapists. Students typically dive deep into human anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, child development, gerontology, neuroscience, pharmacology and other advanced subjects. Most DPT programs include clinical internships, in which students learn to apply their training in a professional setting, and many graduates of DPT programs complete a year or so of residency work after leaving school to enhance their knowledge and experience in specialized areas of care.
  • Professional certificates - Physical therapists who have completed their DPT and want to prepare for specialist certification in neurology, orthopedics, geriatrics, pediatrics or other areas of practice can study their intended specialty in intensive, one-semester certificate programs. Many professional certificates can be earned mostly or completely online, and accelerated formats may be available for students whose schedules demand a shorter session.
  • Ph.D. - Students who develop an interest in contributing to contemporary research and scholarship in the physical therapy field can continue their educations beyond the DPT program with a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program in physical therapy. Ph.D. coursework tends to focus on research methodologies, advanced biometric instrumentation, quantitative evaluation and statistical analysis methods. Students must complete a dissertation project and may need to take one or more qualifying examinations over the course of the program.

It's possible to find DPT and Ph.D. programs at online schools in physical therapy, although programs offered completely online have yet to materialize in any meaningful way. Low-residency doctoral programs are indeed available, wherein students complete the lecture- and research-oriented portions of their physical therapy degree online and travel to campus sometimes as seldom as twice a year.

Q&A with experts

David MesnickDavid Mesnick, PT, OCS, cMDT, physical therapist and physical therapy instructor at PT360

What role do physical therapist assistant programs play in the path to a physical therapy career? Do you recommend that students start out with a PTA degree before entering a DPT program?

While some PTAs return to school to pursue their DPT, most physical therapist assistants choose their education path because they are interested in working as a PTA. Physical therapist assistants are important ancillary providers in many physical therapy settings and the profession can be just as satisfying as PT, with less responsibility.

Do some DPT programs include a state or national licensing exam or do graduates typically complete that on their own?

Once graduating from DPT school, each new PT is required to take a national licensing exam to practice. While some DPT programs may have a review course, they do not include the exam as part of their programs.

Dr. Jonathan ReynoldsDr. Jonathan Reynolds, physical therapist at Orthology

Why would you encourage someone to consider a physical therapy degree?

Physical therapy is a profession with a very broad scope that offers the therapist the ability to work with people of all ages and with many different conditions.

What are the most common educational paths for those interested in this career field?

Physical therapists trained in the United States typically complete an undergraduate degree, which need not necessarily be in a pre-medical direction. However, to be accepted into a physical therapy program, applicants will need to have certain prerequisites, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Physical therapy students then complete post-graduate education and typically will graduate with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. The prerequisites will vary from one university to another.

What advantages can clinical residencies and fellowships bring to a physical therapy career?

I think that the more the student can expose themselves to a variety of clinical practice the richer will be their own career and the more likely that they will choose a direction that will be suited to them. It is important that no one clinician knows everything there is to know about their "specialty" and that pursuit of excellence is a lifelong habit that all therapists should strive for.

What's some advice you would give to someone who's just started training to be a PT or PTA?

  1. Observe as many clinicians as you can.
  2. Ask questions when you don't understand something, or when you fail to understand what you are observing.
  3. Practice your skills often.
  4. Never think that you have it all figured out or have learned all there is to know. There's always something more to be learned in any field.

Types of physical therapy careers

The careers available to professionals with a physical therapy degree are typically limited to the physical therapy field itself, although exceptions include certain education and child development positions. Here's a table of occupations for which graduates of traditional and online schools in physical therapy may qualify, including salary, employment and minimum educational attainment information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
Projected job growth
Total U.S. employment
Entry-level education
Physical Therapist Aide $26,660 40 percent 50,000 High school diploma or postsecondary non-degree award
Physical Therapist Assistant $54,330 41 percent 71,400 Associate degree
Physical Therapist $83,940 36 percent 204,200 Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree
Health Specialties Teacher, Postsecondary $112,950 36 percent 67,800 DPT or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree

Common misconceptions about physical therapy degrees

Physical therapy careers are some of the fastest-growing job markets in the nation, which can cause some people to rush into their training with a few mistaken assumptions about the opportunities and challenges of a physical therapy degree. Whether online or traditional physical therapy schools are your target, don't let these mistaken ideas trip you up:

Misconception: Online physical therapy schools don't require you to set foot on campus.

  • Fact: Although there have been significant advances in course delivery in the virtual classroom, the hands-on experience gained in face-to-face laboratory courses has yet to be reproduced in a way that measures up to the real thing. Even the most forgiving physical therapy degree online will require one or two campus visits per semester, and some require weekly in-person contact.

Misconception: You can work as a physical therapist with a bachelor's degree.

  • Fact: Physical therapy education at the bachelor's level can qualify you for a career as a physical therapy assistant or other auxiliary operative in a physical therapy office, but a DPT degree and a physical therapy license are required to work in an official capacity as a physical therapist.

Misconception: All physical therapy degree programs are created equal.

  • Fact: Not only does the exact physical therapy curriculum tend to differ from institution to institution, but some schools offering physical therapy degrees may not be quite what they seem. When shopping around for your physical therapy degree, whether online or on campus, ensure that the program you choose is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

How can I enroll in an online physical therapy degree program?

Every one of the campus-based and online schools in physical therapy around the country has its own set of admissions practices and requirements. Take a look through the college and university listings below, find a few accredited programs that look right for you, and contact a registrar or admissions counselor for more information.

1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed October 28, 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
2. Physical Therapist (PT) Education Overview, American Physical Therapy Association, accessed October 28, 2015, http://www.apta.org/PTEducation/Overview/
3. School pages, accessed October 28, 2015: Physical Therapy Aide Program Curriculum, Ashworth College, https://www.ashworthcollege.edu/career-diplomas/physical-therapy-aide/curriculum/; Physical Therapy Aide Certificate Program, California State University Long Beach, http://www.ccpe.csulb.edu/continuinged/course_listing/programdescription.aspx?OfferingID=1767&content=8; Pre-Physical Therapy and Pre-Physician Assistant, Auburn University, http://bulletin.auburn.edu/undergraduate/collegeofsciencesandmathematics/prehealthprofessionalcurricula/prephysicaltherapy_major/; Pre-Physical Therapy Program, Boise State University, http://hs.boisestate.edu/preprof/programs/physical-therapy/; Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapist Assistant Program, Pima Medical Institute, http://pmi.edu/Programs/Bachelors/Bachelor-of-Science-Physical-Therapist-Assistant; BS In Health Sciences, Physical Therapy Emphasis Degree, University of Central Arkansas, http://uca.edu/pt/phd-in-physical-therapy/bs-in-health-science-pt-emphasis/; Flexible Doctor of Physical Therapy, University of St. Augustine, http://www.usa.edu/p41-58-Flexible-Doctor-of-Physical-Therapy.aspx; Transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy Online, A.T. Still University, http://www.atsu.edu/transitional-doctor-of-physical-therapy-degree; Research in Physical Therapy PhD Program, New York University, http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/pt/phd/; Doctor of Philosophy in Physical Therapy (PhD), Texas Woman's University, http://www.twu.edu/physical-therapy/physical-therapy-phd.asp; PhD in Physical Therapy, University of Central Arkansas, http://uca.edu/pt/phd-in-physical-therapy/phd-in-physical-therapy-2/; Physical Therapy Certificate, University of Michigan - Flint, http://www.umflint.edu/graduateprograms/physical-therapy-certificate
4. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed October 28, 2015: Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm; Physical Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Physical-therapists.htm; Postsecondary Teachers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Education-Training-and-Library/Postsecondary-teachers.htm
5. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed October 28, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
6. Interview, David Mesnick, conducted October 26, 2015
7. Interview, Dr. Jonathan Reynolds, conducted October 27, 2015

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