Is a Doctor of Physical Therapy Worth It?

Physical therapists help ill or injured people manage pain and improve range of movement after injuries or illnesses, or when they’re experiencing a chronic condition. Physical therapists develop individualized care plans so patients can increase mobility and prevent further injury and pain, through rehabilitation and exercises, stretching and therapy.

To become a physical therapist, also known as a PT, a PT doctorate is often required. In fact, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has proposed that physical therapy should be provided by physical therapists who have earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy. If you’re interested in the human body and in helping patients recover from mobility issues, you may be considering a Doctor of Physical Therapy online program. Read on to learn if a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) is worth the investment and find out what PT doctorate alternatives are available to you.

How to Decide Whether a Physical Therapy Doctorate Is Right for You

Typical full-time PT doctorate programs last three years and require a significant time (and sometimes financial) commitment. Here are some reasons why a DPT program may be right for you.

1. You’re sensitive, caring & empathetic

Mobility is one of the most valued abilities people have. Being restricted is more than physically challenging — it can be emotionally and mentally taxing, as well.

Physical therapists work with people across the lifespan who have all kinds of mobility issues. These could be a result of breaking a bone, having a back or neck injury, going through amputation, having a stroke or having a neurological disorder such as cerebral palsy.

Physical therapists must be caring and empathetic doctors who work to help their patients achieve the highest level of mobility possible. They must show patience and understanding as their clients work through their mobility plans.

2. You’re fascinated by the human body

Physical therapists must have intricate knowledge of how problems like fractures or arthritis affect movement. They must be able to diagnose issues with movement and function through observation, and be able to create an effective individualized patient care plan that includes patient goals and expected outcomes.

If observing and working with the human body interests you, you’ll be able to do that every moment in your work as a physical therapist.

3. You have an interest in fitness and exercise

One common form of physical therapy is exercise. This can range from squeezing a soft ball to regain full mobility in the hand, to using straps, free weights, balance boards or bikes to achieve increased mobility and strength. Physical therapy is one form of health care that goes hand-in-hand with exercise.

Many people become physical therapy patients because of sports-related injuries. Or, they’re in physical therapy with the goal of returning to the gym. Physical therapists get to integrate athleticism into treatment and work with athletes.

Financial Return on Investment for a Doctorate in Physical Therapy

The financial return on investment for a doctorate in physical therapy degree will depend on a variety of factors such as how many years you plan to work as a physical therapist, as well as student loan interest rates. If you still have decades before retirement and can afford the time and monetary commitment for the program, you may be able to expect a significant financial return on investment for a PT doctorate.

How much could a DPT increase your salary on average?

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), the 2018 national median pay for physical therapists was $87,930 per year, with the top 10% earning more than $123,350.

If you currently work in health care but do not have your doctorate, you may be able to also increase your salary with a PT doctorate. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median usual weekly earnings of those with a doctoral degree in 2018 were $1,825, compared to $1,198 for those with a bachelor’s degree and $1,434 for those with a master’s degree. You can multiply the difference over the potential number of years you plan on working with a doctorate to see a potential salary increase.

Additionally, with aging populations increasing, physical therapists are in high demand. The BLS reports employment for physical therapists is expected to grow 22% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than average. As the job market for physical therapists becomes more competitive in the next decade, this may give physical therapists more salary negotiating power.

What Are the Benefits of a Doctor of Physical Therapy?

If you want to be a physical therapist, you generally need to have a PT doctorate. A Doctor of Physical Therapy enables you practice and specialize within this field.

Physical therapists work in all types of environments. Their areas of practice can include sports physical therapy, outpatient clinics, home health, research centers, hospices, rehabilitation hospitals, schools and nursing home facilities. If you want to help patients with mobility issues and work in one of these environments, a Doctor of Physical Therapy helps you get there.

A Doctor of Physical Therapy can also pave the way for other career paths such as becoming the owner of a physical therapy outpatient clinic. Having a physical therapy background can help you when managing other physical therapists.

How Does Life Change After a PT Doctorate?

Obtaining a PT doctorate and beginning work as a physical therapist can be both exciting and rewarding. After you get your degree and become licensed, you can apply for work in a variety of settings with diverse patient populations.

As Heather Birely writes for the American Physical Therapy Association, getting her PT doctorate at the age of 40 has been fulfilling and gratifying. Birely mentions rewards like getting to meet new people, facing new challenges and helping patients find the strength to achieve goals and overcome setbacks.

Fifth Wheel Physical Therapist bloggers Dr. Jared Casazza and Dr. Whitney Eakin write about physical therapists having overall high work satisfaction and good work-life balance. While many medical doctors have demanding round-the-clock hours and experience heartbreak and tragedy in emergency medical situations, physical therapists are doctors who can look forward to more consistent schedules and who can work with patients over longer periods of time to achieve goals. Physical therapists get to build meaningful relationships with patients, which doctors in other fields may not experience.

Alternatives to Physical Therapy Doctorate

If you’re interested in careers related to physical therapy but are not sure about getting a PT doctorate, you have other options. There are dozens of medical degree programs available online, so you can find the program that fits your career goals and learn from anywhere in the world.

Here are some PT doctorate alternatives you might consider:

Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD)

OTD stands for Doctorate in Occupational Therapy. Physical therapy and occupational therapy differ in several ways. While physical therapists focus on improving and maintaining mobility in patients, occupational therapists focus on holistic rehabilitation and improving the daily life activities of patients.

Physician Assistant (PA)

physician assistant (PA) program is a master’s degree program that teaches students how to diagnose illness and injury, how to create and implement treatment plans, and how to provide pre- and postoperative care. However, if you want to stay within the realm of physical therapist duties, you may want to become a physical therapist assistant (PTA) instead.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

DNP stands for a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. DNP programs teach specialties such as acute care, adult care, family care and pediatric care. This profession might be best if you want to be able to perform additional duties outside the scope of physical therapists such as prescribing medication and referring patients for diagnostic imaging.

Interested in a PT Doctorate? Check Out Online Program Options

If you’re interested in getting your PT doctorate, there are online programs available. Without having to relocate and move to a school, you can take classes, turn in assignments and study online on your own schedule.

Sponsored Online Physical Therapy Program

The Hybrid DPT Program From USC — Bachelor’s Req’d

With USC’s Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, aspiring physical therapists can earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree in an innovative hybrid format. Bachelor’s required.

  • Full-time, three-year program 
  • 44 weeks of rich, varied clinical experiences 
  • Regular visits to USC for on-campus, skill-building immersions