PhD in Physical Therapy

Who Gets One & What to Expect

Medical and allied health fields must continually adapt and adjust to the needs of the aging American population, and the physical therapy field is no exception. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) reports that physical therapists need advanced degrees to keep up with the demands of the profession.

This guide covers important information for prospective students considering an online Ph.D. in physical therapy, including program requirements, common coursework, and potential career paths and salaries for graduates.

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

Several accredited institutions offer online Ph.D. in physical therapy programs. These programs offer many benefits to current and aspiring physical therapists, including high salary potential and career advancement opportunities. Below, we highlight several key reasons to pursue a Ph.D. in physical therapy online.

Professional Recognition

Online Ph.D. in physical therapy programs are just as rigorous as their on-campus counterparts. The rigor of these programs earns graduates respect and recognition from peers.

Career Focus

Doctoral programs allow students to specialize in particular practice areas to support their personal interests and professional objectives.

High Salary Potential

The rigorous training and advanced expertise that students gain from a Ph.D. in physical therapy program often leads to jobs with high earning potential.

Employment Opportunities

Graduates with a Ph.D. in physical therapy can pursue a variety of career opportunities, working in private practice, teaching at a university, or establishing a career in a large medical facility.

Private Practice

Many states require physical therapists to hold a doctorate before setting up a private practice. Private practitioners also typically need several thousand hours of supervised practice.

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

Prospective physical therapy doctoral students can pursue a Ph.D. in physical therapy or a doctor of physical therapy (DPT). The former focuses on research, typically preparing graduates for top-tier teaching positions in accredited institutions. A DPT program also involves research, but it tends to focus more on practice-based study. Both types of degrees usually take 3-5 years to complete.

Common Career Paths and Salaries

A doctorate in physical therapy leads to diverse career opportunities. The following table presents five potential careers and median salaries for graduates.

Physical Therapist

Physical therapists work with injured and ill clients to improve physical stability, increase range of movement, and manage pain.

Median Annual Salary: $87,930

Chiropractor

Chiropractors use their knowledge of human anatomy to make spinal adjustments to manage health concerns, such as neck and back pain.

Median Annual Salary: $71,410

Postsecondary Teacher

Postsecondary teachers work in colleges and universities, giving lectures, developing instructional plans, and assessing student progress. They also conduct research in their area of expertise.

Median Annual Salary: $78,470

Audiologist

Audiologists diagnose and treat ear-related problems, such as tinnitus. They may also work with clients to improve balance and coordination.

Median Annual Salary: $75,920

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists help patients with physical and mental illnesses, injuries, and disabilities manage tasks of everyday living.

Median Annual Salary: $84,270

Physical Therapy Ph.D. Program Requirements and Outcomes

On-campus and online Ph.D. in physical therapy programs typically require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree with completed courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, and physiology. Many colleges offer pre-physical therapy majors that position graduates to pursue a doctoral program in physical therapy.

A physical therapy doctoral degree typically takes 3-5 years to complete. These programs usually comprise 96-133 credits and include coursework, clinical experience, and dissertation or comprehensive exam requirements, depending on the program. Prospective students should only consider schools accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical therapy Education to ensure that their degree meets licensure requirements.

Licensure requirements vary by state, but all physical therapy doctoral graduates must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy to practice.

Common Courses

Courses vary by program and specialty, but common physical therapy doctoral courses cover topics such as anatomy of movement, applied physiology, and healthcare delivery. We cover several common courses below.

Anatomy of Movement

In this course, students combine the study of gross human anatomy with kinesiological principles to develop a comprehensive understanding of anatomical components and functionality. The course often includes laboratory work on human cadavers and palpation of live patients.

Applied Neuroscience

Students in this course examine concepts relating to the structure and function of the nervous system. Topics often include cellular organization of the nervous system, reception and transmission of information, and clinical evidence of neural dysfunction.

Applied Physiology

This course typically focuses on the cardiopulmonary and musculoskeletal systems. Students examine how the human body responds and adapts to physiological changes associated with disease, aging, and nutrition.

Healthcare Delivery

This course provides an overview of the American healthcare system, examining the different components influencing it today, such as quality, access, and cost. Students learn how these and other factors influence the current practice and future direction of physical therapy.

Pharmacology

Learners in this class study common classes of drugs, including muscle relaxants, diabetic medications, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Students learn about adverse reactions, indications, and contraindications relating to these drugs.

Other Requirements

In addition to course requirements, physical therapy doctoral students typically need to complete clinical, exam, and dissertation requirements.

Clinical Education

During clinical education, students work directly with patients under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist, gaining hands-on experience in the field. Students typically complete this requirement over a 32- to 36-week period.

Comprehensive Exam

Because DPT programs do not usually require a dissertation, DPT students must often pass a comprehensive exam to graduate. Students typically take the exam after completing all coursework requirements.

Dissertation

Ph.D. in physical therapy students must complete a dissertation. Students propose a dissertation topic, conduct original research, and write the dissertation before defending it in front of a faculty committee. Online students may need to come to campus to defend the dissertation.

Skills and Competencies

Students in accredited Ph.D. in physical therapy and DPT programs gain a variety of skills applicable to their future careers. We highlight several key skills and their importance to physical therapy careers below.

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    Active Listening

    This skill helps physical therapists determine treatment plans that support patients' lifestyles, abilities, and wellness goals.

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    Program Evaluation

    Physical therapists must know how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various programs to choose optimal treatments for their patients.

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    Problem-Solving

    Physical therapists need problem-solving skills to identify existing issues and determine the appropriate treatment protocol for each patient.

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    Monitoring

    Physical therapists must know how to monitor patient progress and make adjustments to treatment plans and procedures as needed.

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    Learning Strategies

    Physical therapists must stay informed of current and emerging field techniques and methods to select the best treatments for their patients.

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    Instruction

    Physical therapists must instruct patients on how to optimize their treatment and recovery, often offering dietary tips and teaching daily exercises that patients can perform on their own.

Physical Therapy Professional Organizations

Physical therapy doctoral students and graduates can take advantage of professional organizations to support their studies and advance their careers. Members enjoy benefits such as access to annual conferences and regional meetings, exclusive job boards, continuing education opportunities, and discounts on professional resources. Some professional organizations also offer membership discounts to students. We cover several common professional organizations for physical therapists below.

American Physical Therapy Association

  • APTA shares physical therapy news, developments, and research findings. The organization also offers several career development opportunities, such as specialty certifications and advanced proficiency pathways.


Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

  • The FSBPT shares timely information regarding physical therapy licensure requirements and regulatory issues. The federation also offers the Practice Exam & Assessment Tool to help practitioners prepare for the National Physical Therapy Exam.


International Association of Healthcare Practitioners

  • Members of IAHP receive a professional profile page and access to physical therapy research, case studies, and peer-reviewed articles. Members also receive substantial discounts on various health and wellness products, including videos and books.


International Federation of Orthopedic Manipulative Physical Therapists

  • IFOMPT produces informative webinars and training documents on a variety of topics relevant to physical therapy. Members gain access to online workshops, mentorship opportunities, and the latest research findings.


World Confederation for Physical Therapy

  • The WCPT is a nonprofit physical therapy organization that represents 625,000 physical therapists worldwide and hosts more than 120 international chapters. The organization partners with accredited institutions to provide professional development opportunities for members.