Physical Therapy Degrees: Associate, Bachelor & Online Class Info

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Associate's and bachelor's degrees in physical therapy can lead to careers in physical therapy assistance or to further education in the field. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and online options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying Physical Therapy: Degrees at a Glance

Individuals working in physical therapy (PT) help patients regain physical mobility for work, play or everyday activities. Physical therapists need a master's or doctoral degree and licensure, but with an associate's or bachelor's degree in PT, you can work as a physical therapist assistant, a recreational therapist or prepare for advanced education. PT assistants work under licensed physical therapists. Undergraduate programs focus on the procedures used to diagnose and treat physical disabilities and impairments through exercise or stimulation of affected areas. Assistants can find employment in places like hospitals, nursing homes or private practices. They usually need to be licensed, so you should check with your state's board of PT.

In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected a 46% increase in PT assistant jobs from 2010-2020, while PTs could see a 39% spike in the same decade. Recreational therapists were estimated to see a 31% increase in employment from 2010-2010, per the BLS.

Associate 's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in working as a physical therapist assistant or going on to earn a bachelor's degree in the field People who want to work as a physical therapist assistant or prepare to eventually become a physical therapist
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Physical therapist assistant ($51,100)* - Recreational therapist ($43,000)*
- Physical therapist ($80,000, after obtaining a graduate degree and completing licensure)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-5 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Various laboratory classes
- Clinical internships
- Various laboratory classes
- Clinical internship/capstone
Prerequisites High school diploma or a GED High school diploma or a GED
Online Availability Yes Yes

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

Associate's in Physical Therapy

In an average 2-year associate's degree program, the final semesters include clinical practicums to familiarize you with rehabilitation methods, but admission into the technical portion may require a physical examination and immunizations. The curriculum helps you understand the physical, cognitive and communication skills needed to work in the field as well as how the law and ethics play a part. You'll learn about various exercises for children and the elderly and basic human anatomy. Many schools offer clinical facilities for hands-on learning.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • An associate's degree program in physical therapy will prepare you to become a physical therapist assistant
  • The BLS projects that the number of jobs for physical therapy assistants will grow at a far above average rate*
  • There are a number of online associate's degree program options to choose from

Cons

  • An associate's degree isn't enough to continue on to a master's or doctoral degree program that would enable you to become a physical therapist
  • Many positions that you might apply for require experience in the field that an associate's degree program may not offer
  • Some physical therapy assistant programs may not be accredited

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

In an associate's degree program in physical therapy, you'll usually be provided with foundational courses in anatomy, rehabilitation techniques and patient care in the classroom and the clinic. The following are a handful of classes that you might encounter:

  • Pathophysiology
  • Exercise therapy
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Human kinesiology
  • Medical terms
  • Physical rehabilitation
  • Neurology

Online Degree Options

If you're currently employed or can't attend an on-campus program for other reasons, then an online associate's degree program in physical therapy may be what you're looking for. Although the coursework can typically be completed entirely online, you may be required to complete lab work on campus. For example, you'd need to attend an on-campus lab program for one week at the end of a semester.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

There are various measures that you can take to get ahead in the job market while earning your associate's degree in physical therapy. One option is to complete certification, which not only adds to your resume, but may be required for employment. Even if your program doesn't offer a path to cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification, you can complete a CPR course through a local organization. Many employers look for CPR certification when looking for physical therapy assistants.

Bachelor's in Physical Therapy

Most students who earn a bachelor's degree in physical therapy can go on to pursue a master's or doctoral degree in physical therapy. Once licensed, you'll often concentrate on a certain age group or type of therapy such as pediatric therapy or occupational therapy. Many bachelor's degree programs in this field are designed to set you up for this process and are referred to as pre-physical therapy tracks. These programs examine topics like exercise, rehabilitation, motor development, cultural diversity and psychology, along with fundamental science areas.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A bachelor's degree program in physical therapy prepares you to earn a master's or doctoral degree in the field and become a licensed physical therapist
  • According to the BLS, the number of jobs for physical therapists was projected to increase at a faster than average rate*
  • In many programs, you'll gain computer literacy in the medical field

Cons

  • Many available physical therapist assistant positions don't require a bachelor's degree
  • Bachelor's degree programs take approximately four years to complete
  • Because you'll typically be focused on a variety of skills, you may not yet gain any particular area of expertise

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

The courses that you can expect to take in different bachelor's degree programs in physical therapy tend to be similar, although you can choose to specialize in certain areas when you choose your electives. A few typical classes are:

  • Immunology
  • Sociology and medicine
  • Exercise physiology
  • Sports injuries
  • Pre- and post-natal care

In addition to the coursework, you'll often be required to put in a certain amount of clinical work and complete a number of general education undergraduate classes.

Online Degree Options

There are a number of online options for bachelor's degree programs in physical therapy, although they aren't quite as common as associate's degree programs. Most of them are hybrid programs. Because this degree tends to be very hands-on, most online curricula are combined with on-campus lab work.

Stand Out with This Degree

There are a variety of ways that you can stand out while pursuing your bachelor's degree in physical therapy. CPR certification is required by some jobs and useful in many others. Because many physical therapy assistant positions require experience in the field, you could complete an internship or volunteer at a clinic over the summer. Even if an internship is part of your program, the hands-on experience you gain can make you more desirable to potential employers. Staying abreast of the latest in physical therapy technology can also help. Computer literacy and knowledge of various therapy, exercise and rehabilitation software can help you stand out from other candidates.

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