What is a Physical Therapy Degree?

Anyone who's ever been in an accident knows it can take years to recover from an injury. Physical therapists (PTs) are the skilled professionals who make that recovery possible. Through targeted exercise plans and individualized attention, they help their patients regain mobility, strength, and range of motion. They also guide them in building flexibility, reducing pain, and improving their long-term wellbeing—all without drugs or surgery.

To anyone interested in this fascinating career, a degree in physical therapy is a must. These rigorous programs cover a wide range of subjects, including anatomy, physiology, biology, and more. Some even incorporate elements of psychology, highlighting how to support patients emotionally as they recover their health.

If you're considering a degree in physical therapy, read on. In this article, we'll cover:

  • How to choose between physical therapy and similar degrees
  • What kind of physical therapy degree you'll need
  • Which kinds of transferrable skills you'll learn as you study
  • What you can do with a physical therapy degree

Program Options

At one point, a bachelor's degree was enough to become a physical therapist. But around the end of the 1990s, graduate programs started to take off. Now, a doctoral degree is a must for anyone who wants to become a practicing PT in the US.

As we outline below, PT degrees come in all shapes and sizes. But whatever program you choose, make sure it's accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). And remember, you'll also have to complete a licensing exam before becoming certified to practice.

Direct Entry Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT)
DPTs are the standard education needed to become a physical therapist. These graduate programs take about three years to complete after a bachelor's, with no master's required. They are practical and intensive programs, which are usually followed by a clinical internship in a specialization of your choice.

Although a bachelor's in a related field, like kinesiology or physiology, is an asset when pursuing a DPT, it's not a must. As long as you meet all the prerequisite course requirements, you can enter this program with almost any degree.

3+3 Programs
To fast-track your DPT, consider a 3+3 program. In this degree, you'll spend three years earning your bachelor's degree, then continue for an additional three to complete your doctorate. If you can pull it off, you'll save at least one year of schooling.

Transitional Doctorate in Physical Therapy (tDPT)
Currently, many practicing PTs have only a bachelor's or a master's. But by 2020, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) hopes all of them will have obtained a doctorate. That means, tons of practicing PTs are going back to school.

That's where the tDPT comes in. Meant for PTs who already have a bachelor's or master's, this degree can take as little as one year to complete. A tDPT can be done online or part-time, making it an ideal option for those who want to continue working while they study.

International Programs
In other countries, such as Canada and Nigeria, a master's or bachelor's is sufficient to obtain an entry-level job in physiotherapy. Before you enrol in any program, make sure you know the specific educational requirements for the country you plan to live and work in.

Degrees Similar to Physical Therapy

Physical therapy overlaps with many fields, which can make it hard to know which degree is right for you. Let's take a look at three related degrees and what sets physical therapy apart:

Medicine
Like physical therapy programs, medical school is all about helping others improve their health and wellbeing. But although these two programs cover some similar subjects, they follow distinct trajectories. As you'll read below, most PT degrees take about three years to complete after a bachelor's. A medical degree, on the other hand, takes about four years, plus a residency.

PT degrees also tend to be cheaper than medical school, and open up different career options. Want to become a doctor? Bite the bullet and go to medical school. But if your main goal is to help patients through physical care, PT is your best bet.

Kinesiology
Kinesiology and physical therapy share some key similarities, but they are distinct fields. Kinesiology focuses on building mobility, endurance, and strength. Physical therapy, on the other hand, emphasizes treating and preventing physical ailments. The two disciplines also differ in terms of the level of education involved.

Most kinesiology degrees are four- to five-year bachelor's programs, which can optionally be followed by graduate school. Accredited physical therapy programs, on the other hand, exist only at the doctoral level.

Physical Therapy Assisting
Physiotherapist assistants (PTAs) work under the supervision of licensed physiotherapists (PTs) and perform many of the same duties. However, the two positions differ in some important ways. PTAs tend to focus more on guiding and supporting patients throughout their treatment. PTs, on the other hand, focus on establishing diagnoses and developing treatment plans.

Physiotherapist assistant programs tend to be shorter and less in-depth than physical therapy degrees. They take about two years to complete and can be done straight out of high school. They won't help you become a practicing PT, but they can get you an entry-level job in the industry.

PTA degrees go by many different names, including:

  • Physiotherapy Assistant Program
  • Physical Therapy Associate's Degree
  • Occupational Therapy Assistant Program
  • Rehabilitation Assistant Program
  • Therapist Assistant Program
  • Rehabilitation Therapy Assistant Program

Skills You'll Learn

Whatever physical therapy degree you choose, you'll end up with a wide range of transferrable skills. Here are a few examples:

Active Listening
Understanding patients' needs and challenges is key to determining an effective diagnosis and treatment.

Physical Fitness
As a practicing PT, you'll be on your feet for most of the day, demonstrating strength and flexibility exercises—building and maintaining your physical health is a core component of this educational path.

Communication
Whether you're providing a hands-on demonstration or a detailed list of verbal instructions, you'll learn to give clear guidance that patients can understand.

Technological Literacy
Health apps and patient-tracking software are on the rise, and PT students are learning to master more technology than ever.

Research
PT is a constantly evolving field; reading and understanding the latest scientific literature is an important part of staying up-to-date.

Time Management and Organization
Learning to balance a heavy workload is a core part of any PT degree (and any PT career).

What Can You Do with a Physical Therapy Degree?

Armed with this diverse set of professional skills, physical therapy graduates can wind up in an array of professions. Here are some of the most common career areas:

Hospital Health Care
If you enter a hospital health care profession after your degree, you'll provide intensive care for patients recovering from major surgeries or suffering from trauma. This line of work is fast-paced, demanding, but very rewarding.

Private Practice
Most physical therapists—more than 80%—work outside of hospitals. With a job in a private outpatient clinic, rehab facility, or sports center, you'll provide long- or short-term care to patients of all kinds. You may specialize in a particular area, like orthopedic or geriatric care, or provide more generic treatment.

Education
Transitioning to education is a natural step for many PT graduates. You might find work as a private tutor, supporting high school or university students with their science-related coursework. Or, you could find a job teaching anatomy or biomechanics at a community college. With the rise of remote education, becoming an online educator is another exciting option.

Utilization Review (UR)
Utilization review (also known as "clinical review") is all about quality assurance. Professionals in this field usually work in insurance or rehab companies. They review therapists' clinical notes to assess whether they've recommended the best treatment plan and the best cost. In this career, you'll play a key role in approving, denying, or managing insurance claims.

Health Technology & Robotics
As health technology continues to evolve, more and more physical therapists are entering the world of product development. By working in this field, you'll help designers, developers, and engineers create new apps, software, and technology to help patients become more mobile.

Recruitment
Finding the right employee for the job is hard in any industry, including physical rehabilitation. As a PT graduate, you can help streamline the process. Physical therapy recruiters work with employers and healthcare professionals. They screen applicants for potential jobs, direct them to new opportunities, and help connect great candidates with great companies.

Related Therapeutic Practices
Chiropractic care, occupational therapy, and exercise physiology are just a few career areas open to a PT graduate. All of these related therapeutic professions center around improving mobility, physical functioning, and quality of life. Although entering most of these fields will require additional training, licensing, and experience, a physical therapy degree is a perfect place to start.

Communication
In the age of search engine optimization (SEO), there's no shortage of medical writing jobs available. If you have a way with words, a career in communication can be an exciting option. You might work as a health copy writer or a clinical content writer for a large corporation. Or, you might enter the freelance world, working as a medical blogger, technical writer, or something else entirely. The choice is yours!

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