Before you can properly research physical therapy programs, you need to know which of the two primary physical therapy career paths you plan to pursue.
The college programs that provide the training necessary for becoming a Physical Therapist (PT) are completely different than the programs that will lead to becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA).
In addition to having different program requirements, the universities and colleges that offer physical therapy programs resulting in a Physical Therapist degree generally don’t also offer programs for a Physical Therapist Assistant degree.
Physical Therapy Programs
If you are planning on pursuing a career as a PTA, a distinct advantage you will have (at least financially) is that there are a number of public community colleges that offer physical therapy programs leading to a PTA degree. By comparison, a PT degree requires attending a full four year college or university program, which tends to be more expensive.
Physical Therapy Program Options
For those planning to become a licensed Physical Therapist, there are two physical therapy program paths you can pursue, a Master’s degree or a Doctorate degree. Both physical therapy programs will typically include at least the following courses, including advanced classes in most of them:
• Physical Therapy Theory
• Therapeutic Exercise
• Sports Performance
• PT Licensure Preparation
• Medical Ethics
• Clinical Application
Master’s Degree Physical Therapy Programs
The first option is a Master’s degree in physical therapy, which requires a basic Bachelor’s degree to even apply. Getting into a physical therapy program can often be very competitive, so it’s best to have focused on science, physics, anatomy, physiology and similar science or health oriented classes.
To obtain your Master’s degree in PT, it will require an additional 2 – 2 1/2 years of schooling, focusing specifically on physical therapy courses.
Rather than requiring a Bachelor’s degree, there are a few physical therapy programs that offer a 3+3 format option, allowing you to take 3 years of focused undergraduate schooling plus 2-3 years of advanced physical therapy courses, resulting in a Master’s degree or Doctorate degree in physical therapy.
The disadvantage to these programs is that they are generally only available from private schools, which can make the cost quite expensive.
The percentage of physical therapy students graduating with a Master’s degree is now less than 20%, so take that into consideration when deciding which degree to pursue. It may be tougher competing for a PT job if most of your competition have Doctorate degrees.
Doctorate Degree Physical Therapy Programs
The second option is a Doctorate degree in physical therapy, and has become, by far, the most common choice.
Similar to a obtaining a Master’s degree, you will need to already have a Bachelor’s degree with a strong science and/or health emphasis before applying. If you already have your Master’s degree in PT, that would obviously give you a competitive edge over those applying with only a generalized Bachelor’s degree.
To obtain your Doctorate degree in PT, it will generally require 3 additional years of specialized PT classes. This would be greatly reduced of course if you already have your Master’s degree in physical therapy.
When applying to physical therapy programs, most of them have a prerequisite of a minimum number of hours already worked in a physical therapy environment. This is usually accomplished by volunteering at a physical therapy facility or perhaps working as physical therapy aide.
Many programs also require one or two letters of recommendation from licensed Physical Therapists before you can apply, so you many need to volunteer or work at a couple different locations.
Physical Therapy Assistant Programs
If you are more interested in pursuing a career as a Physical Therapist Assistant rather than a licensed Physical Therapist, you will usually only need to earn an Associate’s degree in physical therapy.
Be aware that you normally can’t apply PTA coursework you’ve taken to PT requirements, so if you decide later to move on from working as a Physical Therapist Assistant and pursue a career as a licensed Physical Therapist, you’ll generally have to start all over with your schooling.
A physical therapy Associate’s degree can normally be completed in two years or less and includes a combination of general education and Physical Therapist Assistant theory and clinical courses.
Many physical therapy programs for Assistants can be found at local community colleges helping to reduce the associated costs.
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