Online Physical Therapy Degree Guide

Can I Study Physical Therapy Online?

Physical therapy can help people of all ages manage pain, improve mobility, recover from injuries, and prevent future chronic disease and injuries. Licensed physical therapy professionals diagnose and treat patients using hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed exercise. Careers in physical therapy include physical therapist, physical therapist assistant, and physical therapy aide. Physical therapists and physical therapist assistants need licenses and formal training and education to practice.

A hands-on field, physical therapy poses a challenge for online learning. Colleges do not offer physical therapy degrees 100% online. All accredited physical therapy and physical therapy assistant programs require hands-on learning experiences. However, many schools offer hybrid physical therapy (PT) and physical therapy assistant (PTA) programs that combine online and in-person learning.

This page introduces the physical therapy profession, answers frequently asked questions, and outlines the options for studying physical therapy online. This page also describes the job outlook for physical therapists and physical therapist assistants, licensure requirements, and typical degree requirements. We conclude with a sampling of PT and PTA scholarships.

FAQ


  • Can I study physical therapy online?

    Yes. PT and PTA programs are not available 100% online, but many schools offer hybrid physical therapy degrees. Students can complete some coursework online, but programs also require in-person hands-on training and experiential learning.


  • Do you need a license to be a physical therapist?

    Yes. All 50 states require physical therapists to earn a license to practice. Physical therapists must meet their state’s requirements to receive a license. Physical therapist assistants also need a license in most states.


  • What degree do you need to be a physical therapist?

    Physical therapists need a doctor of physical therapy degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).


  • What degree do you need to be a physical therapist assistant?

    Most states require licensure for PTAs. Licensed physical therapy assistants must hold a two-year associate degree from a CAPTE-accredited program.


  • What is the difference between a physical therapist aide and a physical therapist assistant?

    Physical therapist aides cannot receive a license. They perform less skilled work than licensed physical therapist assistants. Aides typically prepare patients and exam rooms, whereas PTAs can participate in treatment.


Studying Physical Therapy Online

Pursuing a physical therapy degree online presents some challenges because of the hands-on nature of the field. Students cannot complete any CAPTE-accredited physical therapy doctorate or physical therapy assistant associate programs 100% online as licensure requirements include hands-on training and clinical coursework.

However, many schools offer hybrid PT and PTA degrees with some online and some in-person learning. In hybrid programs, students typically complete required in-person clinical experiences at organizations in their local communities.

Students can find several completely online and hybrid bachelor’s programs that provide preparation for physical therapy school. Pre-physical therapy bachelor’s degrees in exercise science and kinesiology may require an in-person internship in each student’s community. Even if students earn a completely online bachelor’s degree, admission requirements for physical therapy doctoral programs require hands-on physical therapy experience.

The marketing for some online physical therapy degrees can be misleading. Physical therapy aide programs are different from physical therapy assistant programs and do not lead to the same career paths. PTAs need an associate degree and perform more skilled work; aides do not need a degree or any formal training and education. Students who earn a physical therapy aide degree cannot work as licensed physical therapy assistants. Physical therapy aides make less than half the median annual wage of physical therapy assistants.

Although students cannot complete a physical therapy degree 100% online, hybrid programs offer the benefit of flexibility and convenience to physical therapy students who want to work while earning their degree. Pursuing a degree online lets students complete coursework around their work schedule. Online programs may also prove more affordable than their on-campus counterparts. When looking for a hybrid program, make sure you can meet the in-person requirements in your local community and that the degree is CAPTE-accredited.

Accredition in Physical Therapy

Accreditation is a voluntary peer-review process that ensures the quality of educational programs and institutions in the United States. Schools and academic programs must undergo the process on a regular basis to demonstrate they can provide students with an adequate education. Schools with regional accreditation status have successfully completed a rigorous vetting process from an independent accrediting agency.

Students who want to pursue a career as a licensed physical therapist or a licensed physical therapist assistant must earn a degree from an accredited physical therapy program. CAPTE provides specialized accreditation to entry-level physical therapy programs.

Earning a physical therapy degree from a CAPTE-accredited program is essential to qualify for the physical therapist and physical therapist assistant licensing exams, as all 50 states require PTs and PTAs to be licensed or certified to practice. Students who graduate from non-accredited physical therapy programs may not earn licensure.

You can find out which PT programs hold CAPTE accreditation here.

Associate Degrees

Earning a physical therapy assistant associate degree from a CAPTE-accredited program qualifies graduates for physical therapy assistant positions. Graduates qualify to sit for the national PTA licensing exam and to practice as a PTA once they meet all licensure requirements. Most states require licensure or certification for PTAs.

CAPTE-accredited physical therapy assistant degrees take full-time students two years (five semesters) to complete. Part-time students take longer to graduate. The curriculum includes general education, clinical education, and physical therapy courses.

Most physical therapy associate programs require a high school diploma or its equivalent. Admission requirements vary by school.

Bachelor’s Degrees

The physical therapy field does not offer bachelor’s degrees. Some bachelor’s degrees that provide a solid foundation for applying to physical therapy school at the doctoral level include exercise science, biology, kinesiology, health sciences, and psychology. Many doctor of physical therapy (DPT) programs require a bachelor’s degree, but it does not need to be in a specific field.

There are no standard requirements to get into these types of bachelor’s programs. Most colleges require a high school diploma or its equivalent and ACT or SAT scores. Contact each bachelor’s program directly to find out specific requirements. Online options for a bachelor’s degree tend to be very broad. Most bachelor’s degrees require four years of full-time study.

Doctoral Degrees

Physical therapists must earn a DPT from a CAPTE-accredited program to qualify for physical therapist jobs. DPT programs include didactic and clinical education and take three years to complete. Admission requirements for PT doctoral programs typically include a bachelor’s degree, completion of course prerequisites, physical therapy experience, GRE scores, and references. Admission requirements vary by school, so contact specific programs for specific criteria.

A doctorate is now the terminal degree in the physical therapy field. Some practicing physical therapists hold a master’s in physical therapy from when this degree was the requirement for licensure. However, a master’s degree is no longer an option for new physical therapy students in the U.S. A bridge program exists from the master’s to doctoral level for individuals who hold a PT master’s degree and want to earn their DPT.

Physical therapists can become board certified in more than nine specialty areas, including oncology, women’s health, neurology, sports, pediatrics, and cardiovascular and pulmonology. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties provides specialist certification in physical therapy.

Why Study Physical Therapy?

The desire to help other people and an interest in the human body are the main common interests among students who want to pursue a physical therapy career. Other relevant traits include compassion, resourcefulness, physical stamina, and dexterity.

PTs and PTAs typically work in hospitals, private practices, home healthcare services, and nursing and residential facilities. Day-to-day tasks vary, but may include diagnosing patients, creating care plans, evaluating patient progress, and providing patient education. Physical therapy professionals spend plenty of time on their feet, lifting and moving patients, and demonstrating exercises.

The physical aspect of the job can prove challenging to some people, as can working with so many different types of people, many of whom are going through difficult situations. However, helping patients recover from an injury or manage pain from a chronic illness makes the job rewarding.

Physical therapist assistants and physical therapists enjoy healthy salaries. The following section explores the career and salary outlook for these positions.

Career and Salary Outlook for Physical Therapy

Physical therapist aides, physical therapist assistants, and physical therapists all work with physical therapy patients. Physical therapist assistants and physical therapists both must hold state licenses to practice and need formal education and training. Physical therapist aides do not hold licenses and do not need formal education. Physical therapy professionals work in healthcare settings like physician and health practitioner offices, general and specialty hospitals, and nursing care facilities.


  • Physical Therapist Aide

    Physical therapist aides work under the supervision of physical therapists and physical therapist assistants. They perform routine tasks like preparing treatment areas or patients for PTs or PTAs. Physical therapist aides do not need formal education or training.

    MORE INFORMATION


  • Physical Therapist Assistant

    Physical therapist assistants participate in providing physical therapy procedures and treatments to patients. They help create treatment plans, document treatments, carry out routine processes, and modify treatments under the supervision of a physical therapist. Physical therapist assistants need an associate degree and a state license.

    MORE INFORMATION


  • Physical Therapist

    Physical therapists need a doctorate in physical therapy and a state license to practice. They help ill or injured patients manage pain and improve movement. Physical therapists often play a role in preventive care, treatment, and rehabilitation. They also supervise physical therapist assistants and physical therapist aides.

    MORE INFORMATION


CAREERMEDIAN ANNUAL SALARYPROJECTED GROWTH RATE (2018-2028)
Physical Therapist Aide$26,24026%
Physical Therapist Assistant$58,04026%
Physical Therapist$89,44022%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Physical Therapy Licensing

Physical therapists need a license to practice in all 50 states. Physical therapist assistants need either a license or certification to practice. PTs and PTAs do not apply for licenses at the national level. Instead, each state operates its own regulatory board that manages physical therapist and physical therapist assistant licensure. Individuals must meet the requirements of the state regulatory board in which they plan to practice. Common requirements include earning an accredited physical therapy degree and passing the National Physical Therapy Exam.

In Colorado, for example, the Colorado State Physical Therapy Board regulates the profession. To receive a license, physical therapists in Colorado must graduate from a CAPTE-accredited DPT program, submit an application and non-refundable application fee, and earn a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Exam for PTs.

Physical therapist assistants in Colorado who seek licensure must graduate from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapy assistant associate program, submit an application and non-refundable application fee, and earn a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Exam for PTAs. Many states require PTAs and PTs to complete continuing education requirements to maintain and renew their licenses.

Currently, 21 states participate in the Physical Therapy Licensure Compact, an interstate reciprocity agreement that lets PTs and PTAs with a license in one state easily qualify for a license in another state.

Physical Therapy Courses

Physical therapy assistant programs provide a foundational understanding of the profession, its history, and its theories and practices. A typical physical therapy curriculum explores anatomy, biology, exercise physiology, and kinesiology. Additional topics may include behavioral sciences, evidence-based practice, ethics, musculoskeletal issues, and cardiovascular and pulmonary disorders. Physical therapy courses help students develop research, analytical, and clinical skills.

Physical therapist assistant associate degrees take two years to complete, while physical therapy doctoral degrees take three years. PT students spend about 27.5 weeks on their final clinical experience.

Every PT and PTA program does not offer all of the courses listed below, but this sampling represents a typical curriculum at both levels.

Physical Therapy Associate Courses

  • Introduction to Physical Therapy
    This course introduces the profession of physical therapy, discusses its history, and explains the role of physical therapy assistants and their relationship to other healthcare workers. Students learn about the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the Clinical Performance Instrument, and the Guide to Physical Therapist Practice.
  • Documentation for the Physical Therapist Assistant
    Documentation is a critical part of the daily job tasks of physical therapy assistants. This course covers the guidelines for documenting notes in patients’ medical records using the Guide to Physical Therapist Practice. Students learn about the most common types of records, including phone conversations, incident reports, legal issues, and reimbursement.
  • Medical Terminology for the Physical Therapy Assistant
    Physical therapy assistants need a strong grasp on medical terminology to succeed in their jobs. Students learn fundamental medical terminology and important abbreviations used in physical therapy practice. This course covers terms related to surgery, diagnostics, pharmacology, laboratory tests, and patient care in addition to language used in medical orders and reports.

Physical Therapy Doctorate Courses

  • Functional Anatomy
    Physical therapists must understand advanced human anatomy to safely and effectively work with patients. This course introduces the anatomy of the human body and the way anatomy impacts human motion. Students learn about joint structure and function, neuromuscular anatomy, musculoskeletal anatomy, and kinematics.
  • Health Promotion and Wellness for Physical Therapy
    Students explore family health over the life cycle from a multidisciplinary perspective. They learn to consider family health behavior and beliefs using a biopsychosocial framework. This course also covers healthcare access and assessment of family healthcare needs.
  • Musculoskeletal Disorders
    This course covers physical therapy treatment and evaluation for musculoskeletal disorders with a focus on the lower extremity of the body. Students learn evaluation and treatment techniques, including movement and posture retraining, exercise prescription, and soft-tissue and joint mobilization.

Scholarships for Physical Therapy Degrees

Physical therapy students at all levels can find scholarships to support their education. Professional organizations, universities, private companies, and foundations all award physical therapy scholarships.

AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PHYSICAL THERAPY SCHOLARSHIPS

Who Can Apply: Physical therapy and physical therapy assistant students in their final year of training can apply for these scholarships. The committee considers GPA, community engagement, leadership, and financial need.

Amount: Varies

APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIP

OUTSTANDING PT STUDENT AND PTA STUDENT SCHOLARSHIPS

Who Can Apply: Physical therapy and physical therapy assistant students who demonstrate exceptional academic achievement and contributions to APTA can apply. Applicants must be in their final year of study and members of APTA.

Amount: $500

APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIP

MARY MCMILLAN SCHOLARSHIP AWARD

Who Can Apply: Students in their final year of an accredited physical therapy or physical therapy assistant program can apply. Applicants must demonstrate scholastic ability and potential for future contributions to the field.

Amount: $3,000-$5,000

APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIP

MINORITY SCHOLARSHIP AWARD

Who Can Apply: Minority physical therapy or physical therapy assistant majors in their final year of an accredited program can apply. Applicants must submit a personal essay and three reference forms and demonstrate participation in minority affairs activities, academic excellence, and potential as a future physical therapist.

Amount: Varies

APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIP

GARY L. SODERBERG DOCTOR OF PHYSICAL THERAPY SCHOLARSHIP

Who Can Apply: The Doctor of Physical Therapy Visionary Foundation awards this scholarship to a doctor of physical therapy student in their final year of study. Applicants must demonstrate potential to advance physical therapy, involvement in the field, and appropriate representation of the profession in the community.

Amount: Varies

APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIP

Learn More…

Best Online Physical Therapy Programs
Break into Physical Therapy Assistant Education with an Online Associate Degree
Ph.D. in Physical Therapy

Latest Posts

See All Posts
Navigating College Financials During a Pandemic

Navigating College Financials During a Pandemic

November 12, 2020   |   Staff Writers

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life for everyone. The pandemic has also created new financial burdens for college students. Many degree-seekers find themselves wondering how to afford college during a...

Online Sales Management Schools

Online Sales Management Schools

November 3, 2020   |   Staff Writers

An online bachelor's degree in sales management prepares learners to join the fast-paced and lucrative world of sales. Whether you sell goods or services, the skills gained in these programs...

Advertisement AffordableCollegesOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Search for Online Colleges by Subject

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.