Study Physical Therapy: Doctorate, Masters Degree & Online Training Info

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What will you learn in a physical therapy degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and doctoral degree and potential careers.
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Physical Therapy Master's and Doctorate Degrees: At a Glance

Physical therapists are licensed professionals who help people with conditions that limit their mobility and cause pain. They design treatment plans that reduce pain, prevent disability and enhance function, while also educating patients about their injury or illness and expectations for the recovery period.

As a student in this field, you'll learn about physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, neuroscience and biomechanics. After graduation, you'll be prepared to seek positions in outpatient clinics, hospices, research centers, rehabilitation facilities, fitness centers, schools and extended care facilities.

Job opportunities for physical therapists were expected to increase 39% from 2010 -2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). You must possess a graduate degree and pass a national licensure exam before you are allowed to practice as a physical therapist. Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) programs are becoming increasingly uncommon, as the majority of schools are now offering Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Students interested in training for a physical therapy career Students who are interested in advancing their career or learning a specialized field such as pediatrics, sports physical therapy or geriatrics
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual income) - Physical therapist ($80,000)* - Physical therapist ($80,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time plus 1 summer semester, following completion of a bachelor's program 3 years of additional full-time study beyond a bachelor's degree
Common Graduation Requirements - About 20-25 graduate-level courses
- Internship
- Clinical experience
- Comprehensive exam
- About 30 graduate-level courses
- Research project
- Internship
- Clinical experience
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- Undergraduate coursework in general chemistry, human anatomy and physiology, statistics, social sciences and general physics
- Bachelor's degree
- Undergraduate coursework in psychology, statistics, anatomy and physiology, biology, physics and chemistry
Online Availability Not at this time Limited hybrid programs are available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Physical Therapy

Master's degree programs in physical therapy allow you to study physical therapy sciences, basic sciences, clinical logic and scientific inquiry. Full-time clinical internships are an essential component of the curriculum that usually takes place towards the end of your studies. During this time, you'll apply what you have learned in your courses and practice under the supervision of experienced physical therapists.

Upon successful completion of the internship and clinical experiences, you'll be eligible to take the examination that is required to obtain a license to practice physical therapy. Some programs may require you to complete a research project or directed study course before you can begin an internship or clinical rotation.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Usually takes less time to complete than a doctorate
  • Internship provides you with clinical experience
  • Eligible for licensure upon completion of the program

Cons

  • Master's programs are becoming increasingly rare
  • You'd be spending a minimum of 6 years in school (bachelor's degree plus a master's degree)
  • Job market may be competitive, as you would be applying for the same jobs as someone with a doctorate

Courses and Requirements

Your required coursework will span across a number topics, including human anatomy, physiology, rehabilitation, exercise physiology and musculoskeletal disorders. Courses will vary and usually consist of lecture, discussion and laboratory work. You will also need to meet general education course requirements before gaining entry into the program.

Physical therapy students are exposed to more hands-on learning than students in other graduate programs. You'll have to complete an internship or a clinical experience program; you might even participate in multiple internships throughout your studies. Some programs may also have mock clinics that allow you to use what you have learned in a laboratory setting. Some of the courses you may take include:

  • Patient management and supervision
  • Neuromuscular disorders
  • Human movement
  • Neuroscience
  • Electrophysiology
  • Orthopaedic physical therapy

Online Course Info

Of the few schools that do offer master's programs in physical therapy, none of those programs are available in an online format. If you do find a school that offers an online program, make sure to find out if it is accredited by the by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) before enrolling in the program.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

According to the BLS, there will be a high demand for physical therapists amongst the aging and elderly populations. For this reason, it is expected that employment opportunities within acute hospitals, orthopedic settings and skilled nursing facilities will increase greatly.

To improve job prospects following graduation, you may want to consider internship opportunities within these facilities. Special topics courses involving the geriatric populations or rehabilitation for individuals who have suffered a heart attack or stroke may also prove to be valuable for improving employment opportunities. If you wish to specialize in a particular type of physical therapy, you may want to look in obtaining a certification in that specialty. Physical therapy certifications are not required, but you can stand out from other therapists if you have a professional designation next to your name.

Doctorate in Physical Therapy

Doctorate programs in physical therapy allow you to further study biology, anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, behavioral sciences, ethics, pathology and clinical reasoning. You can also gain additional knowledge of the different systems of the body, including the musculoskeletal, endocrine, metabolic, pulmonary and cardiovascular systems. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has estimated that 80% of the curriculum for doctorate programs is based on lab and classroom study, while 20% is committed to clinical education.

Admission to doctorate programs is highly selective, with most schools admitting between 24 and 32 students to the program each year. Clinical experience is emphasized in the majority of doctoral programs in physical therapy, as you will dedicate 35-39 weeks to full-time clinical rotations while enrolled in the program. You'll be eligible to sit for the licensure exam after graduating from a program that is accredited by CAPTE.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Small class sizes allow for more interaction with instructors and individualized attention
  • Greater availability than master's programs
  • Most programs boast a 99%-100% success rate for graduates who take the licensure exam

Cons

  • May be difficult to get admitted due to the limited number of spots
  • Students are usually responsible for all costs associated with clinical internships, including travel, housing, uniforms and insurance
  • You could spend 7 or more years in school (bachelor's degree plus doctorate)

Courses and Requirements

Students enrolled in the doctorate program take courses that are very similar to the master's program, although courses at the doctoral level often cover topics more in-depth and offer advanced learning opportunities. Every doctoral program has a required clinical internship component. Some programs may also require students to participate in a research program and report their findings in a professional presentation. Some programs may require you to complete up to 3 clinical experience sessions (usually about 8 weeks each). The courses you can expect to take while enrolled in a doctoral program include:

  • Neuromuscular therapy
  • Clinical issues
  • Neuroscience
  • Human anatomy
  • Pathophysiology
  • Kinesiology

Online Course Info

Online learning is typically not offered at the graduate level, although there are a limited number of schools that offer hybrid degree programs. If you're considering a career in physical therapy, you will greatly benefit from the hands-on learning opportunities and individualized instruction that on-campus doctorate programs offer. If online availability is important to you, you can check the class schedules of a variety of programs or contact the individual schools to see if they offer online classes. If you're considering an online program, make sure to find out if it is accredited by CAPTE so you can be eligible for licensure after you complete the program.

Stand Out with This Degree

Students can consider becoming a member of the American Physical Therapy Association. This membership offers numerous benefits to students, including networking and building relationships with professionals in the field, exploring future career opportunities, gaining knowledge about the latest trends in physical therapy and having access to scholarships, grants and awards. You can also explore student organizations and associations that are specifically for students enrolled in a doctoral program. Doing so can provide you with experiences that involve working with the community, which can aid you upon graduation.

To improve job prospects after graduation, you can also consider clinical residency or fellowship programs. These opportunities offer you additional mentoring and clinical supervision experiences, in addition to furthering your knowledge of patient care services. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) also offers opportunities to become board certified in a particular area, such as women's health, physical therapy, geriatrics, cardiovascular, and pulmonary. Having a professional designation could make you stand out from other physical therapists who have a doctorate.

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