Is a Physical Therapy Degree Worth It?

physical therapy

Key Takeaways

  • A physical therapy degree offers a pathway to a rewarding career with strong job growth projections and diverse opportunities.
  • The financial and time investments in a DPT are significant, but they can lead to a stable and well-compensated career.
  • The value of a physical therapy degree extends beyond salary, including high job satisfaction and the ability to improve lives.

    Introduction to Physical Therapy as a Career Path

    Physical therapy has been around for over a century. Yet, its popularity and demand have only begun to soar in recent years. Today, the physical therapy career is one of medicine’s most financially and personally satisfying paths.

    Physical therapists (PTs) are dedicated to enhancing people’s health and activity levels. Here are the primary responsibilities of physical therapists:

    1. Diagnosing Physical Impairments
      PTs identify injuries that affect a person’s ability to do daily activities. They work with various patients, from athletes to stroke survivors.
    2. Creating Treatment Plans
      They create a customized treatment plan to help injured people recover and perform basic tasks without assistance. These plans often include therapeutic exercises to strengthen muscles and restore function. They can also include modalities like TENS for pain relief.
    3. Providing Treatment
      PTs administer prescribed treatments and adjust plans as needed based on patient progress. They ensure that patients receive quality care.
    4. Educating Patients on Self-Care
      PTs are required to educate patients on long-term aftercare in detail. They’ll teach patients how to manage lifestyle changes for better recovery. In most cases, patients are advised to maintain a consistent exercise routine rather than rest for an extended period.

    As a PT, you have various options for where to perform your practice. PTs are mostly in demand in the following healthcare settings:

    Featured Programs

    • Healthcare Practitioners Offices
    • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
    • Home Health Care Services
    • Physicians Offices
    • Nursing Care Facilities

    The specific duties of physical therapists may vary depending on where they work. In healthcare settings, PTs will report to other healthcare professionals, and discuss patient progress. PTs can also create their practice and perform home-based physical therapy. In this case, the communication will only be between the physical therapist and the client.

    PTs can also work in:

    • Schools
    • Sports and fitness facilities
    • Workplaces

    Regardless of the workplace setting, you’re required to possess the following skills:

    Specialized Skills:

    • Patient screening
    • Rehabilitation
    • Treatment planning
    • Orthopedics
    • Home health care
    • Discharge planning

    Soft Skills:

    • Communications
    • Computer literacy
    • Coordinating
    • Customer service
    • Interpersonal communications
    • Leadership
    • Management
    • Scheduling
    • Writing

    The duties of a physical therapist are difficult. One wrong treatment plan may cause a lifetime of patient disability. Breaking into the field requires a significant amount of time, effort, and money. 

    Educational Investment for a Physical Therapy Degree

    To become a physical therapist, complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. This degree signifies expertise in human movement, which is vital for treating pain, injuries, and movement issues. There are various paths to earning a DPT:

    • Traditional DPT. This is the most commonly used pathway in becoming a physical therapist. Students will complete a bachelor’s and DPT separately.
    • Three-plus-Three. This program combines undergraduate and graduate studies in a condensed timeline. However, it’s suitable only for those who haven’t started a bachelor’s degree.
    • Freshman/Direct-Entry. This program is an accelerated pathway toward a physical therapy career. It allows students to fast-track prerequisite material alongside DPT coursework. At the end of their studies, students will complete clinicals. However, many universities have dismissed this degree program due to evolving industry standards.

    Most traditional DPT programs don’t have strict prerequisites for undergraduate degrees as long as you’ve studied anatomy, chemistry, and physics. However, the strongest candidates are those with a BS in:

    • Biology
    • Kinesiology
    • Exercise science
    • Psychology

    According to the APTA, it would be better if you have completed the following undergraduate courses:

    • Anatomy / A&P 1 with lab
    • Physiology / A&P 2 with lab
    • Biology 1 (not botany or zoology)
    • Biology 2 (not botany or zoology)
    • General Chemistry 1 with lab
    • General Chemistry 2 with lab
    • General Physics 1 with lab
    • General Physics 2 with lab
    • Psychology
    • Statistics

    Other requirements you should be mindful of include:

    • Minimum GPA
    • Graduate Record Examination
    • Physical therapy volunteer experience under a licensed physical therapist’s supervision
    • Recommendation/Reference Letters
    • Interview
    • Criminal background checks
    • Technical standards and essential functions

    You also need to check if the individual DPT program accepts non-residents. Many DPT programs favor in-state students. It’s common for out-of-state and foreign applicants to face limited positions or be ineligible. This is especially true with public/government-funded institutions. 

    If you’re an out-of-state student, do not cross out private DPT education; they often offer more admission opportunities for non-residents.

    Time and Cost Commitment

    DPT degrees take at least three years to complete. The common program structure of these programs is as follows:

    • Foundational Courses
    • Clinical Sciences
    • Patient Care Skills
    • Professional Issues
    • Clinical Internships
    • Capstone Projects or Thesis
    • Electives

    In addition to time commitments, DPT programs also require significant financial investments. It’s no secret that any course related to clinical healthcare is expensive.

    According to the APTA, the average cost of DPT tuition for in-state students is $90,375. On the other hand, out-of-state students pay an average of $106,653 in tuition alone. This rate excludes the money you’ll spend on textbooks, housing, transportation, health insurance, and other living expenses.

    Choosing the Right DPT Program 

    It’s important to thoroughly research your options to ensure a satisfactory return on investment. APTA doesn’t rank DPT programs. As long as they’re accredited, you’ll receive a high-quality education. However, there is no one-size-fits-all way to earn a degree. The DPT degree value will mostly rely on the program’s compatibility and alignment with your preferences and goals.

    Here are a few APTA reminders to keep in mind when choosing a DPT program:

    Physical Therapy Education Cost

    Each DPT program has its unique features and expenses. Although there are various avenues for reducing financial burdens, it’s essential to be financially savvy and ready for the costs involved.

    Many DPT students rely on student loans to cover their education expenses. However, relying solely on loans may reduce your long-term ROI. The APTA provides scholarships and awards for eligible DPT students and offers the APTA Money Smart website. This resource helps prospective students learn more about financial planning for their education and future.

    Program length.

    Traditional DPT programs take three years. However, some programs condense academic requirements, enabling you to complete your education faster and potentially reduce overall costs.

    Demographics and setting

    Starting a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program is a big commitment in terms of both time and money. That’s why it’s important to pick a program that feels right for you. You must also consider the program’s overall vibe/fit.

    Think about the atmosphere, values, and how you fit into the community. Feeling comfortable will improve your learning. It’ll also help you grow personally and professionally, setting you up for success as a future physical therapist.

    Career Prospects and Job Security

    Physical therapist job outlook is constantly increasing, providing several opportunities for new DPT graduates. Employment will grow by 15% between 2022 and 2032, according to official data. This rate is significantly faster than the average for all occupations, suggesting a promising future for aspiring professionals.

    Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics posits a significant surge in physical therapy careers until 2032, paving the way for over 284,100 new jobs. This growth in demand is attributed to factors including:

    • Raised awareness of the benefits of physical therapy
    • Aging population
    • Advancements in medical technology

    Yet, the specific salary of physical therapists can increase or decrease depending on several factors. Here are the following elements influencing PT’s salary:

    • Geographic location. The higher the living cost of the area, the more competitive the salary packages will be.
    • Experience. Professionals with more experience and a good reputation can demand high salary rates.
    • Work settings/industry and employer type. US BLS states that physical therapists in-home healthcare services are compensated more than professionals in hospitals and nursing homes.

    You can always pursue advancement opportunities if you feel unsatisfied with the financial gains. Here are some things you should consider to increase ROI:

    Pursue a Specialization 

    Physical therapy offers several specialization options; some may offer even more lucrative opportunities than others. The top-paying physical therapy specializations are:

    • Neurology
    • Sports Medicine
    • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
    • Geriatrics
    • Pediatric
    • Acute Care
    • Orthopedic

    Traveling PTs are also paid more than those restrained in a single setting. This is because they lead a mobile lifestyle, meeting the needs of various clinics on a contract-by-contract basis.

    Apply for Leadership and Management Roles

    As your career grows, consider advancing into roles like department manager or clinical director or perhaps starting your own practice. These positions are known to have six-digit pay. You’ll also gain access to stock options, profit sharing, and bonuses, which significantly increase income. In addition to increased financial gains, these positions also allow you to shape the course of patient care.

    Pursue Academia and Research 

    Engaging in teaching and research can offer an additional income stream. But beyond that, it simulates your intellect, which can lead to more opportunities.

    Regardless of your planned career trajectory, it’s important to stay abreast of field trends. Pursuing additional training or certificates can lead to higher earning potential.

    Benefits of a Career in Physical Therapy

    Being a physical therapist goes way beyond monetary gains. For physical therapists, aiding patients in their recovery journey is not just a duty but a rewarding aspect of their work. It allows them to measure their success as their patients improve easily.

    And unlike other clinical roles like nursing or medical assisting, PTs often have more flexibility in their work schedules. Many PT roles allow you to make meaningful contributions while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

    However, some positions may be more demanding than others. This is especially true if you’re placed in a setting with high patient volume or specialized care requirements. In these cases, the work can be very demanding.

    Here are a few tips to avoid or reduce workplace burnout:

    1. Embrace a positive outlook. Always remember that bad situations are not long-lasting.
    2. Find meaning and direction in your career.
    3. Share any achievement with your friends and colleagues.

    Long-Term Return on Investment and Professional Fulfillment

    Is a physical therapy degree worth it? With no doubt, yes! 

    For one, physical therapy offers a stable career trajectory with several opportunities for salary advancement. You’re less likely to be unemployed as the demand for your expertise proliferates.

    Beyond professional gains, you have the autonomy to design personalized treatment plans. This allows you to make clinical decisions that align with your expertise and patients’ needs.

    Your success in physical therapy is measured not just by professional gains but also by the progress and well-being of your patients. This career path will give you a deep sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, surpassing the pursuit of monetary rewards and motivating you to continue making a positive impact.