PhD In Physical Therapy VS DPT

Last Updated on December 13, 2022 by

A Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) or Doctor of Physiotherapy (DPhysio) degree is a post-baccalaureate 3-4 year degree which may be conferred upon successful completion of a professional doctoral program.

A Transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree is also offered for those who already hold a professional Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree.

Both degrees currently prepare students to be eligible for the PT license examination in all 50 states. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) will require all programs to offer the DPT degree effective December 31, 2015.[1] After completing a DPT program the doctor of physical therapy may continue training in a Residency (medicine) and then fellowship. Credentialed residencies are between 9 and 36 months while credentialed fellowships are between 6 and 36 months.

In 2000 the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) passed its Vision 2020 statement, which states (in part):”By 2020, physical therapy will be provided by physical therapists who are doctors of physical therapy, recognized by consumers and other health care professionals as the practitioners of choice to whom consumers have direct access for the diagnosis of, interventions for, and prevention of impairments, functional limitations, and disabilities related to movement, function, and health.”[2]

As this statement highlights, the DPT program is an integral part of the APTA’s continued advocacy for legislation granting consumers (i.e. patients and clients) direct access to physical therapists, rather than requiring physician referral.  

If you are in the field of physical therapy, whether as a new student or a practicing therapist, you may have heard the news: the qualifications to become a physical therapist in the United States are changing. A profession that used to require a Masters of Physical Therapy (MPT) level education now requires a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has made it a goal for all physical therapists to have this level of certification by the year 2020 – which is coming up in less than six months!

If you are in the field of physical therapy, whether as a new student or a practicing therapist, you may have heard the news: the qualifications to become a physical therapist in the United States are changing. A profession that used to require a Masters of Physical Therapy (MPT) level education now requires a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has made it a goal for all physical therapists to have this level of certification by the year 2020 – which is coming up in less than six months!

What is the difference between MPT & DPT?

Even though a DPT now allows individuals to practice the exact same profession as an MPT once did, the difference between the two degrees extends far beyond semantics. 

One of the main differences between the Masters and the Doctor is the duration of the degree. A typical MPT program is two years long with fifteen weeks of clinical experience, which had been the norm for years. In comparison, a typical DPT program is three years long and requires one full year of clinical experience. A program with one added year as well as almost six times the amount of clinical experience arguably gives students much better preparation for entering the workforce.

Furthermore, typical MPT programs tend to focus solely on physical therapy in terms the realms of medicine they explore, whereas DPT programs will dive much deeper. A typical DPT program may include, but is not limited to, “physical health systems evaluation and analysis, pharmacology, imaging, healthcare management, preventive medicine, well-being, and pathology”. In short, the preparedness of someone with a DPT will likely be greater than that of someone with an MPT. 

Can I still practice without a DPT?

If you are already practicing as a physical therapist with a different level of certification, such as a Bachelors or a Masters, you can continue to practice. However, if you are a physical therapy student who has not yet graduated, a DPT will be required in order to pursue a profession in the field. The APTA does, however, encourage those with a BPT or MPT to pursue a DPT. It will not only grant a higher level of authority than the previous degrees, but it will soon be commonplace among practicing physical therapists. It is not yet determined whether the APTA will make earning a DPT mandatory for all practicing physical therapists at some point in the future. 

In keeping with the change, MPT programs are no longer offered in any schools in the US. While this option is no longer available to students in the United States, this may not be the case elsewhere in the world. 

Why are the physical therapy certifications changing?

The physical therapy certification levels are changing for a number of reasons. The main reason being that the APTA wants every new practicing physical therapist to be on the doctorate level. Why? It grants them more authority to perform a number of functions usually reserved for physicians, such as billing for compensation or starting their own practices. This degree allows physical therapists to be autonomous healthcare providers and essentially takes out the middleman between physical therapists and physicians, streamlining the processes. Some also argue that having the title include the word ‘doctor’ allows for patients and peers to recognize the time and energy put into completing this kind of program. 

How do I ensure I get into a DPT program so I can become a PT?

Physical therapists are one of the most in demand healthcare professions right now in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the profession will increase by almost 30% by 2026, which is much faster than all occupations overall. However, with the changing certifications to become a physical therapist evolving to be more intensive than they used to be, it is yet to be seen if schools will be more lenient or less lenient with who they allow into their programs. 

Regardless, there are things that can be done to set you apart from other applicants when trying to get into a DPT program. Having great grades is a given, but make sure you have a well-rounded application that presents you as a soon-to-be well-rounded healthcare provider. You will also want to highlight your clinical experience (if you have any yet), and having stellar references will always help your chances!

Are you looking for an amazing physical therapist position? Radius Staffing Solutions is always hiring for great PTs all across the country, like this one in New Mexico, this one in Colorado or this one in Missouri! The right job for you is out there – reach out to a recruiter today to find it!

Why you need a doctorate to become a PT

Physical therapy has progressed significantly in the past fifty years as we’ve learned more about how the human body works. Physical therapists and their patients have benefited from this knowledge immensely, but it also means that PTs need more training than ever.

PTs have also greatly expanded their practice in recent years. As Baby Boomers grow older, there has been an increased demand for physical therapy in geriatrics. Technological advancements in neonatology mean preemies are viable earlier; these patients require physical therapy, among other care. The establishment of trauma centers has led to better survival rates in trauma cases. And there’s an increasing awareness of how PT can stand in for dangerously addictive painkillers and invasive procedures.

All of which is to say that numerous populations benefit from physical therapy. Seniors can live more active lives. People with physical issues can stay pain-free for longer. Preemies can overcome developmental delays more quickly. Trauma patients can go on to lead healthy lives.

The APTA decided a long time ago that four-year bachelor’s degree programs in PT simply could not provide physical therapists with adequate training. More recently, the group determined that a bachelor’s degree plus a two-year master’s degree in physical therapy was also insufficient. The DPT represents new, higher professional standards that follow modern physical therapy practice.

Licensed MPTs can continue practicing without having to go back to school, but aspiring physical therapists are now required to pursue a three-year doctorate. The DPT addresses everything from physical health systems evaluation to pharmacology, pathology, and evidence-based practice.

Career options for those with a doctorate in physical therapy

There are many kinds of PTs who work with many different populations. Aspiring PTs often have a specialty area in mind before enrolling in a DPT program, and they look for a program that allows them to complete one or more clinical internships in a specific field. If you haven’t yet thought about what kind of physical therapist you’d like to be, here are some options to consider:

  • Acute care physical therapist
  • Adult neurological physical therapist
  • Cardio and pulmonary physical therapist
  • Geriatric physical therapist
  • Occupational physical therapist
  • Oncology physical therapist
  • Orthopedic physical therapist
  • Pediatric physical therapist
  • Sports physical therapist
  • Travel physical therapist
  • Vestibular rehabilitation physical therapist
  • Women’s health physical therapist

If you’d prefer not to specialize, however, you should still consider looking into pediatric physical therapy, which offers a combination of generalist and specialization studies. Pediatric physical therapists work with all the body’s systems because their young patients see them for sports injuries, neurological issues, developmental delays, physical and behavioral disabilities, and many other conditions.

DPT versus PTA

Before committing to a DPT program, you should consider the opportunity cost. Including undergraduate study, getting a Doctorate in Physical Therapy typically takes seven to eight years, and that’s before any optional residencies and fellowships. If that sounds overwhelming, be aware that it’s possible to work in physical therapy with just a two-year associate’s degree. Before enrolling in a DPT program, take a look at becoming a physical therapy assistant, or PTA, instead. PTAs provide physical therapy under the direction and supervision of a licensed physical therapist.

According to the job posting website Salary, the average physical therapist salary is about $89,000 while the average physical therapy assistant salary is $55,000. That’s a substantial difference, but consider that most new PTs won’t make anywhere near that amount when they start working at around age 25, and that they are carrying about $100,000 in student loan debt. Meanwhile, PTAs typically have around $11,000 in student loan debt and can start working at age 20.

You’ll make less as a PTA, but you may be able to bank the same amount over your lifetime, given the smaller student loan burden you’ll likely have. You’ll be doing valuable work, and you may enjoy what you do more than a PT does. According to one commenter on the Fifth Wheel Physical Therapist blog, “…it’s been my experience that the PTs are primarily evaluation machines and us PTAs do almost all the treatments. Regardless of who does the treatment, PT or PTA, the treatment is still the same. We do the fun part, and have less paperwork and responsibility.” That may be why only 10 percent of PTAs make the decision to go back to school to become PTs.

If you do decide to go that route, however, there are CAPTE-accredited PTA-to-PT bridge programs at two schools: The University of Findlay and The University of Texas Medical Branch.

Pros and cons of earning a doctorate in physical therapy

When you’re trying to determine whether to enroll in a physical therapy program, you shouldn’t make a decision without considering the pros and cons.

Pros of earning a doctorate in physical therapy

  • Necessary credentials: The DPT, along with a license and whatever other proofs of competency your state requires, is required to practice physical therapy. That alone can make getting a Doctorate in Physical Therapy worth it.
  • Demand for PTs: Physical therapist routinely makes it onto lists of the hardest jobs to fill. There’s still a nationwide physical therapy shortage, though you may live in an area not affected by that shortage.
  • Good pay: When you graduate with your DPT, you can make good money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median pay for physical therapists is about $87,930 per year, though entry-level physical therapists make closer to $60,000. The best-paid PTs can make over $100,000.

Cons of earning a doctorate in physical therapy

  • Substantial academic commitment: To become a PT, you’ll need to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree program (usually in a subject like exercise physiology or health sciences) and then a three-year on-campus or online DPT program (which could take even longer than three years). The only alternatives are 3+3 DPT programs, which let you earn a Bachelor of Science plus a Doctorate in Physical Therapy in six years, or accelerated transitional DPT programs. The latter are designed for working PTs who have graduated from an accredited master’s degree program.
  • Opportunity costs: Can you afford to stay in school for 7+ years without earning a full-time income? Especially given the high student debt load that many aspiring PTs take on? If you need to take out loans to cover the full cost of your education, your entry-level pay may not be high enough to allow you to pay those loans back quickly or comfortably. One study found that the “net present value” of a DPT represented a good investment until students reached a certain debt threshold. At that threshold (somewhere below $150,000, according to the study), from a lifetime earning perspective, a DPT becomes no more valuable than a bachelor’s degree.

Best programs to earn a doctorate in physical therapy

According to US News and World Report, some top-ranking physical therapy schools include:

  • Boston University
  • Duke University
  • Emory University
  • Northwestern University
  • Ohio State University – Main Campus
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Iowa
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Southern California
  • Washington University in St Louis
  • University of Florida

How to decide if a doctorate in physical therapy is right for you

Are you sure you want to be a physical therapist? Then this is the right degree for you, and the time you spend in a DPT program will absolutely be worth it. On the other hand, if you want to work in physical therapy or healthcare, but you’re not sure if you want to become a full PT, you could become a PTA, an exercise physiologist, or a nurse. In those jobs, you will also work with people to help them improve or maintain their health.

At the end of the day, doctorate programs for physical therapists are expensive, and the time you spend in school may reduce your lifetime earning potential. But if you have a real passion and genuine love for PT and want to spend your weekday nine-to-fives helping people get their quality of life back through movement, you’ll get much out of this degree and the career you build with it.

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