Physical Therapy Degree

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What is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is the process used to provide assistance to individuals suffering from motor problem incurred by accident, surgery, or from other sources. Therapists are responsible for tracking and updating programs based on the progress of a given patient, working closely to ensure that goals are met.

Additionally, physical therapists will work with patients and families to provide education regarding treatment and how to facilitate recovery through exercises and practices in the home. Physical therapists may work in hospitals and clinics or have their own practices and facilities.  A physical therapist will also work with other healthcare professionals to develop and implement treatment plans.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

PT’s will assess and manage plans of care for patients through a series of evaluations, examinations, and data.  As evidence-based health care practitioners, they work to understand each patient as an individual and design a unique recovery plan for every person.

Physical therapists wear many hats in their daily job duties.  Examples of job duties can range from helping a person recover from an serious injury to increasing patient mobility and strength leading up to a big race.  Given the range of duties, professional training must allow for PT's the meld to the needs of patients.

Treatments Provided By a Physical Therapist

A physical therapist will help patients with wellness, fitness, rehabilitation, injury prevention, and overall health promotion to optimize health and well-being.  The list below will provide greater insight into the advantage of physical therapy.  PT's can help relieve chronic pain to rehabilitate sports injuries.  The top ailments a physical therapist can help others include assistance with:

Back and neck pain Balance issues
Fibromyalgia Cancer-related complications
Joint injuries Carpal tunnel syndrome
Brain injury Spinal cord injuries
Arthritis Post-operative rehabilitation
Cerebral palsy Rotator cuff injuries
Knee Injuries Sports injuries
Fractures and trauma Cystic fibrosis
Incontinence Lymphedema
Chronic pain Multiple sclerosis
Osteoporosis Muscle strains
Parkinson’s disease Obesity
Diabetes Pelvic pain
Ankle Injuries Plantar fasciitis


Difference Between Physical Therapist and Physical Therapy Assistants?

The difference between a physical therapy assistant and physical therapist comes down to education, training, body of knowledge, and job responsibilities.  A physical therapy assistant is required to earn a degree or certificate of completion from an accredited college or university which will take 1-2 years of full-time matriculation to complete.

On the other hand, a physical therapist will need to earn an advanced degree in physical therapy which takes 6-7 years to complete depending on the program and number of classes taken.  In addition to the educational requirements, physical therapists have an intensive clinical clerkship along with far greater job responsibilities and state licensure requirements.

Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree

There are basically three different PT doctor degree types to choose from when considering a vocation as a physical therapist.  The degree programs include a DPT, PTA to DPT Bridge Program, and a MSHP.  Research each degree type from top physical therapy schools today with our leading edge degree finder tools.  Finding the best physical therapy schools is only a search away.

  1. DPT – The Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program is the gold-standard for physical therapists around the country and come in two flavors: Direct Entry DPT and Post-Professional DPT. The Direct Entry DPT is an all-in-one program or 3x3 program whereby students spend three years on undergraduate, pre-professional curriculum and the last 3 years on graduate-level curriculum.  The Post-Professional DPT, on the other hand, is a program designed for physical therapy professionals with a master’s in physical therapy or bachelor’s degree in physical therapy.
  2. PTA to DPT – The PTA to DPT Bridge program is a degree program designed for Physical Therapy Assistants (PTA) to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). Many colleges and universities offer online and on-site bridge programs to help mesh the degree program into a busy work schedule during the didactic portion of the program.
  3. MSHP – The MSHP is a program that stands for Master of Science for Health Professionals, including a physical therapist. Classroom-based or online Master of Science for Health Professionals programs exist to help students and professionals in the field take advantage of career opportunities in applied practice, research, education, and management.

DPT Degree Programs

Coursework for physical therapy degree programs will vary by PT school.  Yet, you will discover physical therapy programs have many overlapping classes.  After performing research into dozens of programs, a list of common classes are outlined below to help you better understand the content of a physical therapy degree program.  A sample of classes in a DPT program from physical therapy schools may include:

  • Musculoskeletal Anatomy
  • Cellular & Systems Physiology
  • Integrated Patient Management
  • Lifespan Motor Control
  • Therapeutic Interaction in Health Care
  • Clinical Biomechanics
  • Pathophysiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Mechanics of Human Gait
  • Therapeutic Exercise
  • Principles of Disease
  • Acute Care in Physical Therapy
  • Rehabilitation
  • Orthopedic Therapy
  • Pharmacology
  • Neuropathology
  • Clinical Clerkship

Physical Therapist Education Requirements

Physical therapy school requirements prepare students with the skills and knowledge necessary to assist patients who have debilitating ailments. A physical therapist will assist by evaluating the patient and developing a plan to promote movement, remove pain and restore function to the injured area.

A degree in physical therapy is usually issued at the master's and doctoral level.  Pre-physical therapy programs are offered at the associate and bachelor degree level.  A master's program in PT will typically take 3 years to complete and doctoral programs an additional three years on average.

A physical therapy major will need to know various fundamental sciences along with developing communication and analytical skills.  Additionally, students will be trained to adeptly identify a variety of issues and empathize with the mental state of their patients.  Courses part of physical therapist requirements may include:

  • Anatomy
  • Psychology
  • Genetics
  • Exercise Physiology
  • Nutrition
  • Kinesiology
  • Chemistry

Physical Therapy Jobs and Licensing

A physical therapist must work closely with patients and with medical professionals like  physicians and occupational therapists.  As a team, they will help to establish and manage a treatment plan for a patient.  Good listening skills and pleasant demeanor will go a long way in working with patients as well.

Physical therapists will identify discrepancies and difficulties in motor function and develop a plan for rehabilitating the damaged or dysfunctional area. Over the course of treatment the rate and success of rehabilitation will be evaluated, and the process modified as needed to adjust and correct any errors.

Licensure is required for PT's by most states.  As such, individuals pursuing a career in physical therapy should review their state's licensing carefully.  Variations will exist by state with respect to college requirements, supervised work experience, exams, and physical therapy continuing education credits.

Physical Therapy Certifications & PT Specialists

Some physical therapists may choose to pursue certification in a specialty after a number of years of experience have been gained. Certification is awarded through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). To receive certification a physical therapist must take an exam in his or her desired specialty, the successful passing of which confers the certificate.

PT students may be interested in pursuing a general education or investing in a specialized education.  Those interested in a specific area of concentration can perform additional research into the viability of such areas in addition to college requirements.  Examples of PT specialties can include the following tracks:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Pulmonary
  • Myofascial Release
  • Sports
  • Physiotherapy
  • Pediatrics
  • Geriatrics
  • Orthopaedics
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Women's Health

Where to Physical Therapists Work?

Physical therapists can be employed in a wide number of settings across the country by public companies, private entities, and non-profit organizations.  As such, PT’s can provide professional care for patients in the following arenas:  private practices, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, medical centers, outpatient clinics, medical offices, skilled nursing facilities, long-term care centers, convalescent homes, community health organizations, schools, home health agencies, pediatric clinics, athletic facilities, and sports clinics.

Physical Therapy Career Paths

The job title of a physical therapy or PT’s is the most commonly used job title across the industry, a few noteworthy variations exist.  To best prepare you for the job market ahead, a list of related job titles for a physical therapist are listed below.  The most popular job titles for physical therapists include:

  • Physical Therapist (PT)
  • Chief Physical Therapist
  • Home Care Physical Therapist
  • Rehabilitation Services Director
  • Pediatric Physical Therapist
  • Staff Physical Therapist (Staff PT)
  • Outpatient Physical Therapist
  • Physical Therapist, Director of Rehabilitation
  • Per Diem Physical Therapist
  • Registered Physical Therapist (RPT)

Physical Therapist Job Duties

Job responsibilities for a physical therapist may vacillate from employer to employer but will generally fall into a few primary buckets.  The U.S. Department of Labor recently completed a survey of Physical Therapists revealing a unique list of job duties.  The top job responsibilities of a physical therapist include:

  1. Assess and document a patient’s initial examination, followed by data evaluation to identify problems and intervention solutions
  2. Manage and document a patient’s overall goals, milestones, and follow-up intervals
  3. Plan, manage, and execute treatment plans to improve or restore physical conditions or alleviate discomfort
  4. Document treatment plans and outcomes in a patient’s chart
  5. Determine efficacy of treatment plans at select intervals and adjust treatments to achieve maximum benefit
  6. Review a patient’s medications, test results, and notes from other health care providers
  7. Perform real-time tests to identify prospective and existing problems
  8. Design individualized plans of care based on their medical expertise, best available research, the patients’ unique situations and goals and the expected outcomes of the plans.
  9. Coach and educate patients and families members about treatment plans and expectations from therapy
  10. Develop patient discharge plans

States with the Highest Employment of Physical Therapists

  • California    19,910
  • New York    16,390
  • Texas           14,910
  • Florida        12,480
  • Illinois         11,030

Top Paying States for Physical Therapists

  1. Nevada             $120,820
  2. New Jersey       $96,890
  3. California          $95,350
  4. Texas                  $95,240
  5. Alaska                $93,060

Physical Therapist Salary & Career Outlook

The average physical therapist salary is $85,400 a year.  It is worth noting the expected job growth for PT's is an astounding 34% or nearly 5 times the national average.  Education and experience play a large part in determining one's salary, as well as location. More densely populated areas will have a larger number of patients, resulting in more work and thus typically a higher DPT salary.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, some 71,800 physical therapists are expected to enter the workforce in the coming decade.

Jobs in physical therapy are expected to increase much faster than average over the next decade. This is due almost entirely due to the aging baby boomer population, which will require professional medical services, especially those of a physical therapist, as they will provide rehabilitative therapy for individuals in the range of high risk for cardiac arrest.

Advancements in technology have allowed the treatment of previously deadly problems to be survivable, also increasing the need for physical therapist to assist in the rehabilitative process. Outpatient care has also been affected by technology, allowing for quicker recovery, and the use of physical therapists to assist in normalizing motion.

Additional Resources for Physical Therapists

Individuals interested in physical therapy may also be interested in a career in art therapy, music therapy, massage therapy, dance therapy, or occupational therapy.  For more information, check out our Physical Therapy Career Guide on our blog.

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Career Summary: Physical therapy Major




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