How to Get a PhD, EdD, or DPT in Physical Therapy

Doctoral degrees in Medical & health with a specialization in physical therapy are becoming more numerous and, perhaps, more important. The American Physical Therapy Association has stated a goal that by 2020, all physical therapist should possess a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, or DPT. As recently as 1998, a bachelor’s degree was the only college education requirement to practice as a physical therapist. That is a long way to come in ten years.

As physical therapy techniques continue to become more advanced and the demand for physical therapy services continues to increase, education standards are rising. On-campus and online degree programs in physical therapy are growing to meet that need.

If you obtain a PhD in Physical Therapy now, you may see many of your peers follow in your footsteps in coming years. Do not choose to pursue a PhD in physical therapy hastily or due to peer pressure, though. This is a big decision that requires thorough research. Doctorate degrees in physical therapy vary both in content and quality. Be sure to choose an on campus or online doctoral degree in physical therapy that gets respect.

Why a Doctoral Degree in Physical Therapy May Be Desirable

In order to make an informed decision as to whether you should pursue a PhD in Physical Therapy, you must first examine the factors that are creating a need for increased levels of education for physical therapists.

The factors encouraging physical therapists to achieve doctoral degrees are neatly divisible into three interrelated categories:

  1. Demographics
  2. Treatment methods
  3. Cost concerns

Each of these warrants a closer look.

The Aging of the Baby Boom Generation

With regard to demographics, the headline is the aging of the Baby Boomers.

  • The over-85 age group is the fastest-growing segment of the population
  • Someone turns 55 years of age every six seconds
  • By 2030, the population of over-65 Americans will more than double

People are living longer than ever before. Perhaps more importantly, this new class of seniors will not settle for being relegated to a wheelchair. They want to walk until the end of the path.

The opportunity for physical therapists trained in geriatrics is stunning not only in terms of numbers–and dollars–but also in terms of making a difference in people’s lives. To be up to the task of dealing with these issues, though, requires PhD-caliber education.

Treatment Methods: More Numerous, Complex

In past years, the average physical therapist practiced a fairly limited number of treatment methods, many of which were quite rudimentary. Stretching and exercise, mainly. Different physical therapists implemented those methods differently, some far better than others.

Like everything else, technology has irrevocably changed the practice of physical therapy. Much more information is now available about what exercise treatment methods work for what ailments. Keeping up with all the new research requires long study, such as a doctoral degree program in physical therapy.

Who’s Going to Pay for the Physical Therapy of the Future?

The third major factor driving the push towards doctorate-level education of physical therapists has to do with insurance reimbursement. With so many new physical therapy customers and so many new physical therapy treatments, who is going to foot the bill?

The opinion of the American Physical Therapy Association–and the view seems only logical–is that physical therapy will only be paid for by insurance (including, notably, Medicare) if physical therapy and physical therapy techniques can be scientifically documented as effective.

A PhD in physical therapy may qualify you to help build up that body of data; a body of data that, someday, could mean the difference between seniors receiving physical therapy treatment via insurance reimbursement, or not receiving physical therapy at all.

Data regarding the efficacy of physical therapy is, of course, also necessary to the continuance of physical therapy as a thriving and growing industry.

Choosing a Doctorate Degree in Physical Therapy

Now that the need for PhD programs in physical therapy has been established, it’s time to move on to the pressing matter of which PhD in physical therapy is right for you.

Because the whole idea of physical therapists obtaining doctorate degrees remains somewhat informal, even controversial, the meaning of particular degrees can be hazy. Hopefully this guide will clear up some of the specifics of what each degree means.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT): One Name, Three Meanings

The classic doctorate degree obtained by physical therapists is called the Doctor of Physical Therapy, or DPT. The doctor of physical therapy degree is a general term that encompasses multiple levels of knowledge and experience.

At the lower end, you can enter a doctor of physical therapy degree program with a bachelor’s degree (even in an unrelated field) and no clinical physical therapy experience. As such, DPT degrees are not terminal degrees in the traditional sense of the phrase, because they are not the highest degree attainable in the field. These less-intensive professional doctoral degree programs typically require three years of study, and can be accomplished through online graduate degree programs in physical therapy.

Other DPT programs are geared towards the already licensed and working physical therapist. These programs are often available as distance learning online degrees and can be completed in one to two years.

A third type of doctor of physical therapy degree program is aimed at the physical therapist who seeks to specialize in one area of physical therapy, such as:

  • Geriatrics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports medicine
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics

All three of these doctorate degree program types confer upon graduates the title Doctor of Physical Therapy, but the last one, the specialized one, is the only one that is a terminal degree in the sense that there is no higher degree offered in the field of physical therapy.

Alternative Doctorate Degrees in Physical Therapy

Many physical therapists seek out doctorate degrees other than the standard DPT degree. These alternative doctorate degree programs include:

  • Doctor of Science (ScD or DSc)
  • Doctor of Science in Physical Therapy (DScPT)
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy Science (DPTSc)
  • Science Doctor of Physical Therapy (ScDPT)
  • Doctor of Health Science (DHSc or DHS)

Research each option in depth before committing to any PhD program in physical therapy. Use general career planning strategies and career planning tools to augment your career experience.

These alternative doctoral degrees in physical therapy require more rigorous academic study and increased specialization. For example, in order to graduate with a doctorate degree of DPTSc, you may be required to write a dissertation on a contemporary topic in your desired area of specialization.

Professional mentorship programs are also common for these more advanced degrees. Search by location to see if there is a doctoral degree in physical therapy program near you.

Testing, Testing

A main reason for obtaining one of the alternative doctoral degrees in physical therapy named above is to prepare for and pass a specialty examination that signifies extraordinary mastery over a particular specialized area of physical therapy.

Areas of study that may lead to professional specialty designations include:

  • Cardiopulmonary
  • Clinical-electrophysiologic
  • Geriatric
  • Neurologic
  • Orthopedic
  • Pediatric
  • Sports

The attainment of one of these professional specialty designations is very prestigious and quite rare. As of 2008, only 8,408 physical therapists, about 10 percent, held one of these specialty designations. Only 135 physical therapists were recognized as cardiopulmonary specialists. The pursuit of a professional specialty designation is a primary motivation for many students who strive for alternative doctorate degrees in physical therapy such as the DPTSc.

An EdD in Physical Therapy Qualifies You to Teach College

PhD in Physical Therapy degree programs hope to turn out graduates who can teach and discover the scientific validity of physical therapy treatment techniques.

Scarcely available but still worth mentioning is a doctorate-level degree program run out of a school’s education department: the EdD in Physical Therapy. An EdD in Physical Therapy degree program may be suitable if you know you want to teach physical therapy in a college setting, rather than treating patients.

How to Apply for PhD Programs in Physical Therapy

As you can see, choosing what type of doctorate degree in physical therapy you want to pursue can be a significant challenge. Luckily, choosing between schools is a bit simpler, if only because there are a limited number of schools that currently offer doctorate degrees in physical therapy. (Expect this number to increase.)

When evaluating doctorate degree programs in physical therapy, always consider:


Due to the relative newness of doctorate-level physical therapy degree programs, industry-specific accreditation for a DPT or PhD degree program is rare.

However, as part of the push towards requiring physical therapists to have advanced degrees, you can expect that accreditation issues will come to the fore over the next few years. Watch out for this development.

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), for instance, by far the most active professional organization for physical therapists with over 70,000 members, sponsors the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, or CAPTE. Currently, CAPTE only accredits basic physical therapy degree programs, not doctoral degree programs. This could be a significant change coming down the pike.

Meanwhile, insist on accreditation of school quality from national or regional accreditation organizations that are sanctioned by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Quality of Faculty

The quality of a school’s faculty can be difficult to measure, but measure it you must before choosing a DPT or alternative doctorate degree program in physical therapy.

When evaluating the quality of a school’s faculty, consider such factors as:

  • Degrees held by faculty
  • Years in practice for each faculty member
  • Responsiveness and availability
  • Published?
  • Past student review

Ask a school admissions representative these hard questions. Instead of contacting schools individually, makes it easy for you to submit your information and have schools contact you instead.

Program History and Performance

Similar to the accreditation dilemma, it can be difficult to measure the program history and performance of doctorate degree programs in physical therapy because the trend towards doctorate-level study in physical therapy is so new relative to other campus-based and online PhD programs.

Yet there are, again, questions you can ask so as to ascertain the program history and performance of a doctorate degree program you’re considering.

  • What is the graduation rate?
  • How many students have gone through this program?
  • How has this degree improved the careers of its graduates?
  • How long do faculty members typically teach at this school?
  • Can references to past students be provided?

Contact schools directly, and ask these questions and more. Or fill out a simple form and watch schools come to you.

Resources for Researching Doctorate Degrees in Physical Therapy

By now it should be obvious that deciding to pursue a doctorate degree in physical therapy, and then choosing and applying to particular degree programs, is not simple. This situation is complex and still actively developing.

You do have some very valuable resources, though, as you ponder this decision.

Enrollment Advisor

If you can team up with an enrollment advisor who has your best interests at heart and really knows her stuff, you may be especially equipped to make an efficient, correct decision, both in terms of what PhD in physical therapy you should choose and what school.

The importance of a good enrollment advisor is a forceful argument for contacting schools directly and seeing if you can find someone you like and trust. offers some great tools for narrowing down your search and discovering which schools have what you want. You can search by degree subject, degree level, or school location. You can even get financial aid advice. Hundreds of schools offer online degree programs through

The American Physical Therapy Association

The APTA is by far the biggest and most active professional organization for physical therapists in the world. They provide a wealth of information through their Web site, conferences, advocacy efforts, and, perhaps most importantly, access to 70,000 plus physical therapists who are registered members. By connecting physical therapists to each other, the APTA allows you to query your peers about everything related to your choice of doctorate degrees in physical therapy.

Because PhD-caliber education in physical therapy education options is a fluid situation, the opinion of your peers on your choice in a PhD in physical therapy may be second in importance only to the opinion of your clients–whose opinion of you is the only one that really matters in the end.


  • American Physical Therapy Association, About APTA
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physical Therapists
  • Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy
  • Rehab Management Magazine, The Future of PT, by Rich Smith
  • U.S. News and World Report, Best Careers: 2009, by Marty Nemko
  • The Washington Post, We’re Hiring. (Really, We Are.), by Steve Hendrix
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