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Physical Therapy Education Guide

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Learn About the Many Physical Therapy Degree Programs

Once you’ve decided a career in physical therapy is for you, you’ll need to assess the many physical therapy degree programs available. Because there are several career paths you can take, it’s important to understand what’s required to begin your practice, and what physical therapy degrees will help you stay ahead of the competition and earn the salary you want.

Generally, all physical therapy careers require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited 4-year college or university. For students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree and have taken the appropriate prerequisites in chemistry, biology, and physics, a doctoral-level physical therapy program (which is a common end goal) can take as few as 2-1/2 years.

Here are the different degrees you can earn:

Available Physical Therapy Degree Programs

Degree TypeAbout the Program
Associate DegreePhysical therapy assistants must earn a 2-year associate degree in order to practice. In addition to the theory and practice of physical therapy, you’ll study the basic medical sciences, general education courses and gain hands-on experience in a clinical internship.
Bachelor’s-to-Master’s These joint bachelor’s/master’s physical therapy degree programs allow you to earn both degrees on an accelerated schedule.
Direct Entry Masters (MPT)These physical therapy degrees give students credit for having completed their liberal arts requirements and combine preparation for licensure with advanced training in a master’s specialty area. Direct entry MPT programs typically take 2-to-3 years to complete, with the first year being devoted to entry-level coursework and the last year to clinical practice.
Direct Entry Doctorate (DPT)DPT programs prepare graduates with bachelor’s degrees in other fields for entry into the PT profession. Most programs can be completed in three years.
Transitional DPTA two year doctorate program developed specifically for practicing PTs who want to “bridge the gap” between their certificate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees in physical therapy and earn their Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

The first step toward earning your postgraduate professional degree is to complete a bachelor’s degree program. During the course of your 4-year program, focus on taking as many science and health-based classes as possible. Some graduate programs’ prerequisites include a certain amount of coursework in these areas.

Courses in a Bachelor’s PT Program

  • Cellular biology
  • Comparative anatomy and biology
  • General chemistry
  • Statistics
  • General psychology
  • General physics
  • Pre-calculus or calculus

Master’s Degree Programs

Master’s degree programs in physical therapy require incoming students to hold an undergraduate degree. Coursework in a master’s program prepares students for the national licensing exam. Typically, these programs are structured so the first year focuses on coursework and the final year is devoted to clinical practice.

Doctorate Programs

A DPT program is designed to give you the expertise to be a successful physical therapist. Your time will be spent both on coursework and in clinical practicum.

As an example of course work, the University of New England’s DPT program includes the following classes:

Courses in a Doctoral PT Program

  • Gross anatomy
  • Psychosocial Aspects of Disability and Illness
  • Kinesiology
  • Pathology and Medical Management
  • Administration
  • Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
  • Public Policy and PT

Getting Into the School of Your Choice

Admission to physical therapy programs is competitive; to get into your school of choice, you’ll need to accomplish the following:

  • Volunteer or have work experience as a physical therapy assistant
  • Earn a high overall grade point average (GPA) in college
  • Some schools require up to 150 hours of clinical experience before admission
  • Have strong letters of recommendation
  • Have earned a satisfactory score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

What You’ll Study

Curriculum varies from program to program, but in addition to the theory and practice of physical therapy, your physical therapy courses will likely cover:

  • Basic medical sciences
  • Biomechanics
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Pathology
  • Rehabilitative procedures

You’ll also gain plenty of hands-on experience in a clinical internship.

What Accreditation is There For My Program?

Accreditation is the seal of a approval that a school or program meets the highest standards set by an accrediting organization. Without accreditation, a school isn’t eligible for federally-funded and state entitlement programs, like financial aid. As a student, attending a non-accredited school can hinder your future education plans. Many accredited schools will not accept credits or coursework from a non-accredited institution. This means if you were to earn a bachelor’s degree from a non-accredited school, you may not be accepted into an MPT or DPT program at an accredited institution.

Physical therapy programs and schools should be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

Getting Your License

After graduating from an accredited physical therapy program, you must then pass the National Physical Therapist Examination (NPTE). Some people choose to seek advanced certification in a clinical specialty, while others become certified in electrophysiological testing and measurement.