Physical Therapy Studies: College Program Overviews by Degree Level

Students seeking a career as a physical therapist have a variety of educational opportunities available to them such as bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees. These programs teach students how to provide rehabilitation services for individuals with physical ailments, conditions and impairments.

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Essential Information

The path to becoming a physical therapist starts with a bachelor's degree. This program will cover a variety of science topics, such as anatomy and pharmacology. After completing a bachelor's degree program, you won't be qualified to work as a physical therapist and will need to complete a master's degree program.

In a master's degree program, you will get to work in clinical situations, participate in internships and gain the skills needed to become licensed. Licensing is done through the state. If you wish to advance your career and go into teaching or research, you will need to complete a doctoral degree program. Regardless of whether you complete a master's degree or go on to a doctoral program, you will most likely be required to take continuing education courses. These courses will help you stay current on trends and changes within the field.

Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

A bachelor's degree in physical therapy prepares students for eventual physical therapy and rehabilitation graduate work. Some colleges and universities offer dual degree programs that allow students to pursue a bachelor's degree and master's degree in an extended period of time, perhaps five or six years. Traditional 4-year programs prepare students to enter 2-year master's degree programs with clinical physical therapy labs, life science courses and statistical and research coursework.

To enroll in a physical therapy bachelor's degree program, students must have a high school diploma or equivalent. Students must submit official transcripts and SAT or ACT scores for evaluation.

A bachelor's degree in physical therapy includes life science, psychology, research methods and social science courses. Courses discuss various medical treatments and teach students how to operate in clinical and medical settings like hospitals, physician offices and physical therapy centers. Common courses include:

  • Clinical anatomy and physiology
  • Muscular and skeletal examination
  • Health care and insurance systems
  • Biostatistics research
  • Physical therapy pathology
  • Pharmacology

Master of Science in Physical Therapy

A master's degree in physical therapy prepares students to work as professional physical therapists. Students learn through clinical physical therapy labs, internship opportunities and advanced health care coursework. Some programs specialize in one area of physical therapy, such as geriatrics, pediatrics or orthopedics.

Graduate degree programs in physical therapy require students to have a bachelor's degree. Students must submit official undergraduate transcripts, personal statements and GRE test scores prior to enrollment.

Master's degree courses in physical therapy are research-intensive and many are conducted in clinical laboratories. Students use physical therapy strategies in practical, simulated medical conditions. Students learn to apply advanced therapeutic concepts to a variety of medical conditions. Most programs require a thesis or capstone project before completing the program. Common courses include:

  • Advanced patient care techniques
  • Pathokinesiology
  • Trends in physical therapy
  • Physical disability prevention
  • Health science concepts
  • Exercise physiology

Ph.D. in Physical Therapy

A doctoral degree in physical therapy allows students to pursue teaching and research-based positions with universities, health care organizations, hospitals and physicians. Students can also seek management positions in physical therapy or start their own physical therapy practice. Most doctoral degree programs take about three years to complete.

To enroll in a physical therapy doctoral degree program, students must have a bachelor's degree and master's degree in physical therapy. Requirements vary by program but personal statements and submission of official transcripts is usually required.

In a doctoral degree program, most of the coursework is based on advanced physical therapy research. Students work on medical dissertations while studying physical therapy case studies and past medical trends in physical therapy. Most programs require students to pass a technical written or oral exam administered by the college's physical therapy department.

Employment Outlook and Salary

Physical therapists are generally required to have a master's degree in physical therapy in order to practice. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were approximately 210,900 physical therapists in 2014. Hospitals and practitioner offices employed the most physical therapists ( Physical therapy is expected to see significant growth from 2014 to 2024, with a 34% increase in job opportunities.

According to the BLS, physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $84,020 in 2015. Physical therapists in home health care earn the greatest salaries, followed by physical therapists in nursing care homes, hospitals and physician offices. Some physical therapists work part-time (

With a doctoral degree in physical therapy, professionals can seek high-level postsecondary teaching and research-based positions. Physical therapists can also seek supervisory, management or executive-level positions with hospitals, medical clinics and physician offices. With a doctoral degree, students can also work independently as a self-employed physical therapist.

Continuing Education Information

After obtaining a master's degree, students can seek licensure as a physical therapist. In order to be licensed, students must pass a state-regulated physical therapy exam. Many employers require physical therapists to also participate in continuing education programs to keep their physical therapy knowledge current. Physical therapists can also pursue a doctoral degree in physical therapy. The APTA has a database of more than 160 accredited doctoral degree programs in the country.

Students who want to be a physical therapist must go on to obtain graduate level education in order to be licensed in the state they live in. If a person is interested in teaching and research opportunities, the doctoral degree would be needed.

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