There are multiple levels of education which can be obtained in the physical therapy field and each physical therapy degree available has its own practical applications within the employment arena. The following will detail the degrees available at the Associates, Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate levels.
While there are many online, distance learning and onsite physical therapy degree programs offered in the United States, it is critical that students select a program that is approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), the accreditation body of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). CAPTE is the only regulatory agency recognized to accredit physical therapy degree programs in the United States.
Physical Therapy Degree Programs
Physical Therapy Assistant Associate Degree
Not all of the individuals that work in physical therapy practices are medical doctors. In fact, most of the staff found in physical therapy facilities are those who hold an Associate or Bachelor’s level degree in physical therapy and are classified as physical therapy aides or physical therapy assistants (PTA).
PTAs work under the direct supervision of a licensed Physical Therapist but are intimately involved in direct patient care, including conducting diagnostic testing and rehabilitative services. As of 2011, there were more than two hundred technical schools, community colleges, and state and private colleges and universities offering an Associate of Physical Therapy degree program for those who wish to pursue a career as a PTA.
Associate of Physical Therapy degree programs may result in degrees of different titles: Applied Medical Science, Physical Therapy, and Rehabilitation Therapy, to name just a few.
Bachelor Degrees in the Physical Therapy Discipline
Those who receive a Bachelor’s degree in Physical Therapy are typically destined for a career as a PTA or are preparing to enter a graduate physical therapy degree program. PTAs who hold a Bachelor of Science degree may receive higher levels of pay, have greater patient care responsibilities, or may hold supervisory or administrative roles in a physical therapy practice.
Those students electing to enter a graduate physical therapy degree program will sometimes work as PTAs until gaining admittance to a physical therapy graduate school. Not only is a Bachelor’s degree a prerequisite for most physical therapy graduate school programs, but completing an undergraduate degree and beginning to work in the field of physical therapy affords students invaluable practical experience. Many graduate level programs also require a certain amount of work experience as a prerequisite, as well.
Most Bachelor’s degree programs in the physical therapy discipline are actually a portion of a Masters or Doctorate program, as a graduate degree is required for licensure as a practicing Physical Therapist. There are stand alone Bachelor of Science degrees in the discipline of physical therapy. There are also two and three year programs, at the completion of which students are expected to submit an application for admittance to a graduate program in physical therapy.
An undergraduate course of study in physical therapy can include a range of program titles: Health Science and Physical Therapy, Athletic Training and Rehabilitation, Physical Therapy, and Rehabilitation Therapy, among others.
Master’s Level Physical Therapy Degree Programs
Until recently, A Master’s degree in physical therapy was the minimum expectation for working as a Physical Therapist. Recent changes in the employment market have increasingly shown that a Doctorate level degree is now the preferred minimum requirement from most employers, resulting in an increased number of graduate programs changing their degree offerings to incorporate the Doctorate graduate level degree rather than the master’s level. Regardless, there are still some Master’s level physical therapy degree programs to be found, namely those of Masters of Physical Therapy (MPT), Masters of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT), and Masters of Health Science (MHS) with a concentration in physical therapy or rehabilitative science.
While the MSPT is no longer enough for many employers, it can be an appropriate degree for an academic or research physical therapy career trajectory. Many who achieve a Masters level education in the physical therapy discipline will eventually go on to complete a Doctorate as their Physical Therapist Degree.
Doctor of Physical Therapy Graduate Programs
While professional Physical Therapists already working in the field may continue – at least for the time being – to practice medicine with a MPT or MSPT degree in spite of recent elevations in minimum requirements among many employers, new graduates just sitting for the exam usually hold a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.
There are two primary degree programs available at the doctorate level: DPT and the Transitional Doctorate of Physical Therapy (tDPT). The DPT is commonly considered an entry-level DPT program, as it is pursued by students just completing their undergraduate education and entering the Doctorate program at a college or university.
Also called tDPT (though sometimes referred to as PPDPT), or Post-Professional Doctor of Physical Therapy, as it is also commonly titled, is a specially designed graduate program for those already working as credentialed Physical Therapists. Most tDPT programs are offered online or through other distance learning means in order to make the program more convenient for working professionals who are returning to school.
There is one other Doctorate of physical therapy degree program also available: the Doctor of Philosophy in Physical Therapy (PhD in PPT), though there are not as many schools offering this lesser utilized degree in the physical therapy field. Most who pursue a PhD in PPT are planning to use the credential within their clinical research or academic career, and the majority will work in a university environment as a professor preparing the next generation of physical therapy researchers, educators and clinical practitioners for entrance into the field.
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