How long does it take to become a physical therapist? The answer depends on a number of factors. For instance, how long it takes can depend on how quickly you complete your education and how long it takes for you to pass your state licensing exam.
While becoming a physical therapist is not for the faint of heart, it can offer you rewarding career opportunities in various industries, from self-employment to hospitals and care facilities.
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With a physical therapy doctorate, you may be in a position to earn higher than average annual salaries and benefit from the positive job growth rate in the profession.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Physical Therapist?
The specific length of time required to become a physical therapist can vary from one state to the next, depending on state licensing requirements.
Physical therapist schooling requirements typically include earning a bachelors degree followed by a doctorate in physical therapy. Bachelor degrees can generally be completed in 4 years, though there are some physical therapy programs that let you begin your Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) after 3 years in undergrad.
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DPT programs generally take 3 years to complete when attended on a full-time basis. Enrolling on a part-time basis may extend the length of time required to earn your degree. In some cases, you may also complete a master’s program in between your undergrad and doctorate studies, though this is not a general requirement.
As part of your education, you may be required to complete coursework that covers topics such as:
- Functional anatomy
- Foundations of examination
- Foundations of interventions
- Neuroscience in rehabilitation
- Professional issues in physical therapy
- Movement science
DPT degree options are intended to provide you with an in-depth understanding of physical movement, care planning, treatment methodology, and health education. These programs equip you to provide quality care to the individuals that you service and support.
Physical Therapist Education Requirements
There are a few different ways to earn your degree in physical therapy. These degree paths include freshman entry Doctor of Physical Therapy programs, traditional DPT programs, and other physical therapy degrees that can allow you to enter into the profession.
Freshman Entry Doctor of Physical Therapy Program
Freshman entry Doctor of Physical Therapy programs are educational programs specially designed to allow you to fast track your studies by combining your undergraduate and graduate education.
Through a freshman to doctorate program, you can earn your bachelors degree in your chosen major before completing your doctorate in physical therapy. This track often allows you to earn your bachelors in less time than the traditional route.
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Freshman entry DPT programs generally take around 6 years to complete instead of the 7 years of traditional programming. Some major options that may be available as part of this combined program include biology, physiology, or health services. The option that’s right for you will often depend on your specific interests and overall career goals.
Traditional DPT Program
The traditional route to DPT programs often takes about 7 years of full-time study to complete all of your educational requirements.
This option generally includes completing your undergraduate degree first. Common bachelor degree study schedules typically take 4 years to finish. Next, you could complete your 3 years of study in a Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
While this option may take longer than accelerated programs, it may be a good fit for those who are not sure which career path they want to take as an undergraduate student.
Physical Therapy Degrees
A doctorate in physical therapy is generally required to become a licensed physical therapist. There are other degree options, though, that can allow you to enter into the general profession of physical therapy in other ways.
Other degree options include:
- Associates degree in physical therapy
- Bachelors degree in physical therapy
- Masters degree in physical therapy
In addition to on-campus programs, a growing number of universities also offer physical therapy assistant programs online, though there is usually a clinical component that would have to be completed in a hospital or clinic.
You are not typically eligible for licensure as a physical therapist with these degree options. They can help qualify you for other roles, though. Additional positions in this profession include physical therapy assistant, athletic trainer, exercise physiologist, or recreational therapist.
Physical Therapy Licensure and Certifications
While licensing requirements vary by state, here are some general licensing requirements to keep in mind as you pursue the career of a physical therapist:
- Education. A bachelor’s degree and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is generally required to qualify for licensure.
- Examination. Passing the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is needed to become a licensed physical therapist. This exam is put on by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
- Additional requirements. In some states, you may need to satisfy additional requirements to become licensed, including professional experience, subsequent training, and criminal record checks.
Since the specific requirements vary greatly from one state to the next, it’s beneficial to research the criteria for the state you’re interested in practicing in.
How to Choose an Online Doctor of Physical Therapy Program
There are a number of considerations to take into account when choosing an online Doctor of Physical Therapy program, such as:
- In-person requirements. Some programs may have in-person requirements, such as meet and greets at the beginning of a semester or in-person examinations. If you’re wanting to complete a program fully online, this may be an important factor to consider.
- Internship requirements. You might want to check whether a program requires to complete a placement or internship in order to graduate.
- Cost. It can be strategic to compare the overall costs of programs and any financial aid opportunities that may be available.
- Accreditation. It’s strategic to verify the accreditation status of a program and the school it’s offered by.
- Transfer policies. You may want to research a school’s transfer policy to see whether you’re able to transfer any credits into the program from previous studies.
- Schedule options. You can see if a school allows you to fast track their program or enroll on a part-time basis.
The factors that may influence your decision will depend on your professional goals and your personal responsibilities or obligations.
The admissions requirements for a physical therapist degree program can vary from one school to the next, but common criteria often includes:
- Bachelor degree from an accredited institution
- Transcripts from all postsecondary education
- Statement of intent
- Letters of recommendation
- GRE or GMAT scores (only some schools require them)
In some cases, DPT programs may require certain prerequisite courses to be completed before you’re able to start your doctoral studies.
Regional accreditation is a status that is granted to schools that meet a set of predetermined standards, verifying the quality of the educational offerings.
Attending a program and school that is regionally accredited can impact your ability to transfer credits into another program. It can also influence your ability to obtain your license as a physical therapist. A degree from a regionally accredited school also tends to be seen with higher regard by employers and may impact hiring decisions.
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For more information, you can visit the US Department of Education’s website.
Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is the programmatic accreditation for DPT programs. CAPTE is recognized by the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
The commission oversees the accreditation of entry-level educational programs in physical therapy, including physical therapy assistant education. CAPTE is focused on the accreditation of programs, as opposed to the accreditation of entire institutions.
How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for physical therapists is $91,010 per year. Annual earnings can vary greatly depending on geographic location, years of experience, and industry, among other factors.
Positions in nursing and residential care facilities tend to earn more on average, with a median annual salary of $97,610. Most physical therapists work in offices of audiologists and physical, occupational, and speech therapists. The median annual earnings for this sector is $85,680.
Physical therapist assistants, on the other hand, earn a median of $49,970 per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Are Physical Therapists Doctors?
Licensed physical therapists who have completed a DPT program are considered doctors. DPT program graduates, though, are not medical doctors (MDs).
Medical doctors are required to complete medical school and earn their Doctor of Medicine designation. In addition to having a different scope of practice, medical doctors are also required to complete a different type of education and work experience in order to be granted the status of MD.
Getting Your Doctorate in Physical Therapy Degree Online
Physical therapists can work across various industries and support individuals from all walks of life.
If you’re interested in helping people recover from injuries, manage pain, or improve their overall conditioning and wellbeing, then you might consider earning your doctorate in physical therapy.
Online DPT programs from accredited universities allow you to better balance your studies with other life responsibilities. You can start exploring DPT programs today to find the one that best fits your schedule and your learning needs.