Physical Therapist College Degree Program Overviews

Apr 24, 2020

Essential Information

The education needed to become a physical therapist typically takes seven years to complete and includes a four year undergraduate program and a 3-year professional program. Entry-level positions as physical therapists require a minimum of a doctoral degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). As of 2016, there were 233 CAPTE-accredited programs in the U.S., all of which award the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT).

Doctor of Physical Therapy

Applicants to DPT programs should have completed bachelor's degree programs that include specific prerequisite courses; some schools offer pre-physical therapy programs designed specifically for students planning on applying to DPT programs. Prerequisite courses may include biology, human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, psychology, calculus, medical terminology and statistics. Additional requirements may include work experience in a physical therapy setting and submission of GRE test scores, letters of recommendations and essays.

Some schools offer transitional DPT (t-DPT) programs, which are designed for currently licensed physical therapists who already hold a bachelor's or master's degree in physical therapy and wish to pursue further education. These shorter programs generally only require students to complete 12-24 credits, and coursework may be completed entirely online from some schools, though a clinical component is still required.

The curriculum of a traditional DPT program provides students with the skills and knowledge needed for careers as physical therapists. Coursework prepares students for working with patients by exploring subjects such as orthopedics, wellness and prevention, anatomy and cardiac testing. In addition to taking didactic classes, students work in a clinical setting and learn practical physical therapy techniques. Students also typically participate in group projects and lab assignments. The 3-year program often requires students to complete clinical components during the summer. Common courses in a DPT program include:

  • Physical therapy anatomy
  • Musculoskeletal rehabilitation
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Pediatric rehabilitation
  • Cardiopulmonary physical therapy

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of physical therapists nationwide is expected to increase by 22% between 2018 and 2028. According to the same source, the mean annual wage for physical therapists in May 2019 was $90,170.

Licensing and Certification Information

After completing an accredited DPT program, graduates will need to become licensed before they can practice as physical therapists. Specific requirements vary by state, but all states require applicants to pass the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy's National Physical Therapy Examination. Many states also require a background check and a law exam. Voluntary certification is also available from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Board certification is available in eight specialty areas and requires passing an exam and meeting clinical experience requirements.

The Doctor of Physical Therapy prepares students to be licensed as physical therapists. Because every state has different laws, it is important that students are aware of how a school's standards align with licensure requirements.

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