Earning a Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Online

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November 18, 2020

Beginning 2020, students will need a Ph.D. in physical therapy to become a physical therapist. Doctor of physical therapy (DPT) programs cater toward students with at least a bachelor's degree in the field or people with experience as a physical therapy assistant who seek additional education and training.

Completing the program online is a great option for students with jobs and family responsibilities. Graduates can find jobs in clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, and private practice. Physical therapists often function as part of a team of healthcare professionals, working alongside nurses and physicians.

Patients may suffer from chronic conditions or acute injuries, and physical therapists use hands-on treatments, exercises, and stretches to manage pain and improve mobility. Successful physical therapists possess strong observational and communication skills, physical stamina, manual dexterity, empathy, and the ability to motivate patients through difficult or uncomfortable movements.

What Can You Do With a Ph.D. in Physical Therapy?

In addition to becoming physical therapists, graduates can pursue careers as speech-language pathologists and postsecondary teachers. Speech-language pathologists work with children, adolescents, and adults, usually in offices, hospitals, and nursing facilities, but sometimes in schools or patient's homes. Postsecondary teachers find jobs as professors, lecturers, or clinical education coordinators in higher education or hospital settings. They should enjoy teaching and working in an academic environment.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Annual Salary: $78,470
Expected Growth Rate (2016-2026): 15%

Physical Therapist

Median Annual Salary: $87,930
Expected Growth Rate (2016-2026): 28%

Speech-Language Pathologist

Median Annual Salary: $77,510
Expected Growth Rate (2016-2026): 18%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Salary by Experience Level

Most physical therapists gain work experience before choosing to specialize in an area like orthopedics, sports injuries, or geriatrics. Specialization often means a higher salary, in large part due to the hours required to become a specialist. These professionals must complete 2,000 hours of clinical work and pass an exam for board certification, and they must complete at least 1,500 hours for a clinical residency or fellowship program through the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

Pay by Experience Level for a Physical Therapist

Source: PayScale

The Top-Paying Industries for Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Graduates

The table below shows the industries with the highest levels of employment for physical therapists. The top spot, with more than 80,000 employees, goes to offices of other health practitioners, which may include chiropractors and occupational therapists. Rounding out the list are medical and surgical hospitals, with nearly 55,000 employees, and home healthcare, with just under 28,000.

  • Employment: 81,820

  • Percent of Industry Employment: 9.00

  • Annual Mean Wage: $85,720

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Traits of a Successful Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Graduate

To succeed as a physical therapist, graduates of DPT programs generally need skills in computer proficiency, reading and writing, inductive and deductive reasoning, active listening, oral expression, decision-making, problem-solving, and analysis. They also need good vision, physical strength, fitness, dexterity, and the ability to concentrate. Comfort with physical proximity to patients, time pressure, new systems and technologies, and dealing with unpleasant or angry people and those in pain is also essential.

Additional helpful knowledge areas include medicine and dentistry, psychology, and biology. Experience in business management and staff supervision is also useful. The top three skills for a physical therapist are listed below.

A large portion of the workday is spent interacting with patients, so a physical therapist should enjoy helping people. Because patients are often in pain or discomfort, compassion and empathy can prove essential.
Physical therapists spend much of the day on their feet, demonstrating and manually assisting patients with exercises. They need physical fitness, strength, and dexterity to perform the necessary movements.
Practitioners must speak and write clearly as their jobs entail communicating detailed instructions. They must also listen carefully in order to diagnose and properly treat their patients.

Certifications and Licenses a Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Prepares For

Steps to Earning a Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Online

While each online DPT program is different, reputable programs share commonalities. Prospective students should make sure their program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), as only students with degrees from a CAPTE-accredited school can take the physical therapist licensing exam. Other considerations are discussed below.

Find the Right Program for You

DPT programs can be offered entirely online or in a hybrid format that combines on-campus and distance learning. Some programs allow online exams, while others require in-person attendance. Online course delivery can be asynchronous, where learners complete work at their own pace and on their schedule, or synchronous, where students log into virtual classrooms at specific times. Students should consider whether the flexibility of online learning would work for them or if they'd do better with the accountability of a traditional program.


Admissions processes and requirements vary by program. Some schools accept the Physical Therapy Centralized Application Service application, which learners can complete online, while others require their own applications or supplemental paperwork. Other requirements may include transcripts, GRE or MAT test scores, personal essays, a portfolio of work experience, and letters of recommendation.

Capstone, Dissertation, or Thesis

Programs may culminate in a thesis or, more often, a capstone where students apply their knowledge to a practical problem. A thesis is a long, research-based paper written with professor oversight and which may be accompanied by an exam. A capstone is a written report or multimedia project completed during a specialty course and overseen by the course instructor. Capstones can sometimes require a presentation but usually do not involve an exam.

Fellowship or Internship

In general, an internship is a paid or unpaid student position that provides training, while a fellowship is merit-based funding for further education and training. DPT students typically participate in clinical education internships at hospitals, health centers, schools, or private practices. These internships are almost always completed in person and take a practical approach. For online programs, students can often fulfill internship requirements in their local communities. Online DPT programs may also offer fellowships.

Curriculum for an Online Ph.D. in Physical Therapy

Class offerings vary depending on the program, but some sample DPT courses are listed below.

  1. Human Anatomy: This course usually covers topics like gross anatomy, neuroanatomy, histology, embryology, and function anatomy related to human movement. Students also learn to use laboratory applications like three-dimensional anatomy software, living/surface anatomy, and synthetic human anatomical models.

  2. Musculoskeletal Practice: This course explores the clinical application of biomechanics, functional movement, and examination principles for musculoskeletal dysfunction. Focus areas may include the application of psychomotor skills related to regional palpation, examination, and evidence-based interventions emphasizing patient education, manual therapy, and therapeutic exercise.

  3. Patient Management: This class teaches basic decision-making skills, professional behaviors, and impairment assessment in patients with musculoskeletal, neurologic, and/or cardiopulmonary dysfunction. The course may also cover the professional roles physical therapists must play for culturally competent interactions with patients, healthcare team members, and society. Students often use patient scenarios to practice, self-assess, and reflect on interviewing skills.

  4. Pharmacology: An introduction to pharmacologic principles as applied in pathological processes and as they impact patient management, this class offers students an opportunity to learn how to identify drugs physical therapy patients commonly take and their side effects. Students may also explore the timing of rehabilitation sessions and expected physical therapy outcomes.

  5. Practice Management and Administration: An overview of the latest delivery models of practice, this course examines the underlying rationale for recent and pending legal and policy changes in healthcare, presents essential clinical competencies, and defines direct-access physical therapy. Students also learn about administrative and management concepts, current trends in payment for physical therapy services, and marketing strategies.


DTP programs do not typically offer concentration areas until after students complete core coursework and begin a residency or clinical internship, at which time they can choose a specialty area. A few possible specialities include those listed below.

This specialty focuses on the challenges faced by people as they age, such as stiffness, brittle bones, decreased strength and endurance, and balance issues.
These specialists treat patients recovering from surgery or fractures and those with arthritis; tendinitis; sprains and strains; neck and back pain; hip and knee problems; and shoulder, elbow, and wrist conditions.
Sports injury specialists assist athletes with recovery after injury and/or surgery, helping retrain them to perform sport-specific movements such as running, throwing, and jumping.
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