PhD in Physical Therapy

Who Gets One & What to Expect

Physical therapy provides a strong and meaningful career path for anyone interested in helping individuals improve their health and contributing to the academic conversation in a scientific field. In most cases, those who excel in the physical therapy field identify as people-minded, science-focused, and detail-oriented, but the industry provides a home for all kinds of professionals.

The physical therapy profession also finds itself in a growth period. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects massive growth rates for both physical therapists at 28%, and physical therapist aides at 30%, by the year 2026. As such, it makes sense for a student considering a master's or a Ph.D. in physical therapy to earn their degree now.

A student who wants to practice at a higher level and contribute meaningful research should pursue a Ph.D. Below, we highlight a few reasons why.

Reasons to Pursue an Online Ph.D. in Physical Therapy

There are many reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. in physical therapy online. The physical therapy field provides many benefits to degree holders, and the online format offers several perks to working professionals, as well. Below, we spotlight five reasons to pursue a Ph.D. in this particular format.

A Love for Teaching and Research

As opposed to a doctor of physical therapy (DPT), which prepares graduates to practice, a Ph.D. in physical therapy prepares graduates to teach and research.

An Appreciation for Students

Similarly, a Ph.D. allows professionals to work directly with students, showing them the ropes of the physical therapy field. If you want to teach and work with students, it makes sense to pursue a Ph.D.

Higher Salaries

As an advanced degree, a Ph.D. in physical therapy generally leads to higher starting salaries and increased advancement opportunities for professionals in the field.

Reduced Costs

The format for an online Ph.D. in physical therapy allows students to avoid costs like housing, meal plans, and activity fees, which typically accompany their on-campus counterparts.

Flexibility

A student may wish to pursue a Ph.D. in physical therapy online and not on campus for the additional flexibility it provides. Asynchronous online programs in physical therapy typically allow students to maintain full-time jobs while still earning their degrees.

What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Physical Therapy?

Before a student makes the decision to pursue a Ph.D. in physical therapy online, they should familiarize themselves with the distinction between a Ph.D. in the field and a DPT degree. While a DPT degree prepares each graduate to practice as a physical therapist in clinics, private practices, and hospitals, a Ph.D. prepares graduates to teach students and publish original research at universities.

As such, students considering a Ph.D. in the field should think about how much they enjoy teaching and research, and whether or not they would enjoy working as a professor. If they can safely answer "yes" to both questions, then they should pursue this degree.

Common Career Paths and Salaries

The following table includes a detailed look at five different career paths that professionals who hold an accredited online Ph.D. in physical therapy can pursue. While career paths in the field can vary, the table gives examples of general job titles that graduates can expect.

Physical Therapist

Physical therapists assist injured or sick people in recovering, managing their pain, and improving their mobility. They often work in private practices, clinics, or hospitals. PTs need a DPT or a Ph.D. in physical therapy.

Average Annual Salary: $87,930

College Professor

College professors teach classes, perform academic research, and publish their findings. Professors always need an accredited Ph.D. in physical therapy, online or otherwise.

Average Annual Salary: $78,470

Academic Researcher

Academic researchers perform the research functions of college professors without worrying about any teaching duties. They perform original research and contribute their findings to a larger academic conversation.

Average Annual Salary: $64,242

Physical Therapy Assistant or Aide

Physical therapy assistants and aides help licensed physical therapists perform their duties, including assisting injured patients in recovering mobility and healing from those injuries.

Average Annual Salary: $48,090

Osteopath

Osteopaths improve patient health by concentrating on spine, joint, and muscular health. Often considered alternative medicine, osteopathy functions in an adjacent space to physical therapy.

Average Annual Salary: $70,000

Sources: BLS, PayScale

Physical Therapy Ph.D. Program Requirements and Outcomes

Though requirements vary from program to program, most online physical therapy Ph.D. programs share certain elements and standards. Many physical therapy Ph.D. curricula require each student to complete around 48 credits, although some curricula require as many as 72 credits. Full-time students can finish these requirements within 2-3 years, while part-time students may need 4-5 years, depending on how many courses they take per term.

Many programs allow students to complete practicum or clinical hours at physical therapy placement sites in their own communities. Some programs run on a hybrid model that requires each student to complete 2-3 on-campus residencies per semester. Admission requirements vary, with all programs requiring transcripts, letters of recommendation, and essays. Some programs require standardized test scores, as well.

Common Courses

While curricula and required courses can vary by school, the following section includes a list of five courses that you can reasonably expect to take in an online Ph.D. program in physical therapy. These courses cover core competencies and knowledge in the field and directly prepare graduates for their careers in physical therapy.

Statistical Methods

As physical therapy Ph.D. graduates typically work in academia, enrollees in Ph.D. programs need to learn how to perform original research. Research typically involves some statistical elements, so students must first learn the necessary mathematical and software skills before designing any research projects.

Teaching and Learning in Physical Therapy

If research constitutes half of a Ph.D. graduate's postgraduate career, teaching and theory usually make up the other half. Future professors must know basic postsecondary teaching methods and requirements, and this course helps familiarize students with those basics.

Computer Applications for Physical Therapy Research

This course usually accompanies a statistical methods course, helping students understand different software and computer applications that can help them design, perform, and publish their own original research in the field.

Grant Writing

In academia, Ph.D. students must often write grants to secure the funding that they need to perform their desired research. This course familiarizes students with best practices in grant writing, where to seek out grants in physical therapy, and other related topics.

Dissertation

As an academic degree, a Ph.D. in physical therapy typically requires each student to write and present a dissertation detailing their own original research in the field. This course often takes up a student's final year in a Ph.D. program. Students generally complete this requirement with the assistance of a dissertation advisor.

Other Requirements

Beyond just typical classroom coursework, physical therapy Ph.D. students commonly complete several other requirements before they can graduate and pursue licensure. Below, we delve deeper into three of the most common additional requirements in physical therapy Ph.D. programs.

Thesis/Dissertation

As discussed above, the Ph.D. prepares graduates to work in academia, as opposed to the DPT, which prepares graduates for practice. As such, before they graduate, physical therapy Ph.D. students must prove their research capabilities by performing original research and presenting it in the form of a thesis.

Practicum

Despite its overt academic focus, a Ph.D. program in physical therapy must also make sure that its graduates can perform hands-on work in the field. As such, each student can typically complete a practicum experience under the supervision of a licensed PT at a chosen placement site in their own community.

Oral or Written Examination

Most Ph.D. programs in physical therapy also include some sort of comprehensive examination that students must pass before they can graduate. This exam usually takes place during each student's final year of study and can include oral questions, written questions, or both.

Skills and Competencies

Beyond academic and research abilities, physical therapists must possess certain hard and soft skills to thrive in their profession. In this section, we highlight six important skills for physical therapists.

Fitness

Physical therapists spend nearly all day on their feet, moving between patients and rooms. As such, all professionals must have the stamina to function in a fast paced environment.

Communication

In communicating diagnoses and results from various tests, physical therapists must speak clearly and understand how to communicate with patients and their relatives.

Active listening

When patients describe their symptoms, physical therapists must listen carefully to understand what ails each patient and to make inferences that can lead to a diagnosis.

Medicine

If they want to assist their patients to the best of their ability, physical therapists must possess a comprehensive knowledge of how the body works, rehabilitation techniques, and other medical skills.

Therapy

Both in terms of coaching patients through rehabilitation and dealing with their reactions to their injuries, physical therapists must excel in the therapeutic portion of their job to practice at the top of their craft.

Monitoring

Physical therapists must feel comfortable using modern software and notes to monitor patients' injuries over time, ensuring that injuries do not worsen.

Physical Therapy Professional Organizations

As in many other fields, the ability to thrive in the physical therapy job landscape often depends on networking. Professionals can often land new jobs or promotions by meeting other professionals in the field at conferences, meetups, or other networking events. In addition to networking, physical therapists must commit to professional development every year. As best practices and the latest trends in physical therapy constantly evolve, professionals need to stay current by reading journals or other scholarly publications.

Membership in a physical therapy-related professional organization can help aspiring professionals and those in the field to excel in networking and professional development. Before joining, physical therapists should think about whether they want to belong to an organization with a local, statewide, or national scope. Below, we explore five physical therapy-related professional organizations.

American Physical Therapy Association

As the primary nationwide professional organization for the field, the APTA provides professional development, access to publications, and advocacy to its members.



Doctor of Physical Therapy Visionary Foundation

Founded by three DPT students in the 1990s, the Doctor of Physical Therapy Visionary Foundation awards scholarships to deserving students pursuing higher education in the physical therapy field each year.



American Osteopathic Association

The American Osteopathic Association serves as the main nationwide professional organization for osteopathy, providing access to publications, a jobs board, and professional development to its members.



The McKenzie Institute International

The McKenzie Institute International advocates for the McKenzie Method of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy through education, conferences, and the publication of different resources.



The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy maintains laws and standards ensuring that each licensed physical therapist is qualified and competent. The federation focuses primarily on education, examinations, and membership.