If you’ve ever been treated by a physical therapist, you no longer take basic mobility for granted. Injury, illness, and aging all can diminish a person's range of motion, balance, gait, flexibility, and strength—and their overall quality of life. But with a physical therapist’s guidance, patients can regain independence, confidence, and a sense of well-being that enhances their daily lives.
Physical therapy’s role in healthcare and our lives is evolving. The demand for integrated medicine, for example, is on the rise. In a recent article in Penn Medicine, Gina Ruppert, PT, CLT highlighted the growing relevance of a physical therapist's work: “We have a lot of tools in our arsenal that don’t involve medications. And although PT is often thought of as exercise or massage, it’s more accurate to see it as an evolving, holistic approach."
The need for physical therapists has unexpectedly skyrocketed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After a year and a half of working remotely (often in sub-optimal conditions) and observing physical distancing guidelines, many people now have neck, back and shoulder issues, tightened joints, and decreased physical strength.
Pair these with the recent developments in the education requirements to become a licensed physical therapist and there's no mystery as to why Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs are increasingly popular. And even though one must invest a fair amount of time and money pursuing this degree, physical therapy is a rapidly expanding field with multiple career paths that are well-compensated.
So let's talk numbers. How much money will you make with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree? And which physical therapy job titles—both specialized roles and entry-level positions—attract the highest annual or hourly wage? In this guide, we'll cover:
About two decades ago, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) changed the requirements to practice PT. Prior to 2020, students only needed a master's degree in physical therapy to be eligible for the licensing test. Requirements now include:
While not required for all specialties, most professionals also become board certified by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.
Both in-person and hybrid online DPT programs cover the medical and clinical components of being a physical therapist. Students then choose to focus on certain populations, like children, older adults, or athletes—and specialized areas, such as:
To get an idea of the typical DPT curriculum, let's take a look at the popular in-person and hybrid programs at the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt's curriculum builds upon the most crucial topics over the course of seven terms. Students begin with foundational topics like:
As the program progresses, students delve more deeply into their clinical education. This directly informs the students how physical therapists work on a daily basis. Pitt adds research, professional development, and health and wellness topics as the program progresses. Students also have the option to add electives later in the program.
As the pandemic has illustrated, online and hybrid programs permit students access to higher education no matter what is transpiring in the world or where they are based. In addition to taking their coursework online, Pitt's DPT hybrid format brings students to its campus for two immersive experiences each term (typically ranging between six and nine days).
Unlike other online degree programs, physical therapy requires a hands-on, clinical course of study. PT students need to experience the diagnostic and therapeutic approaches first hand to hone their clinical skills. So, during their final two terms, students transition to a full-time clinical schedule.
An ideal hybrid program has:
If we look back at our example of Pitt, earning a DPT either in person or through the hybrid program takes seven consecutive terms. So, DPT students generally complete their studies over the course of two years.
You'll find this to be the case at other top DPT programs, including Northwestern's and the University of Delaware’s, both of which take between two and three years to finish.
In the case of Pitt's program, students study full-time during the first five terms and then transition to a 15-week clinical educational experience.
In most academic fields, the standard progression is from bachelor's degree to master's and then onto a doctorate. The physical therapy doctorate works differently.
A DPT admissions office typically looks at a prospective student’s bachelor's from an accredited university as well as their related experience in the physical therapy field—which could be as a physical therapist assistant, in a volunteer capacity, or as a set number of observation hours.
As part of your application, you also will need:
Let's cut to the chase. How much can you make as a physical therapist after graduation? As a PT professional, you will have a host of career opportunities, but your industry, location, and specialization will play a significant role in your salary.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median salary for a physical therapist in 2020 was just over $91,000. Equally impressive is the fact that the job market outlook for physical therapists over the next decade is at a much faster pace than the average for all occupations with a mind-blowing 18 percent growth rate.
As is the case with most jobs, where you live plays a huge role in your annual pay. Your state’s cost of living, PT availability, and demand for care affect salary levels. Let's look at a few average physical therapy salaries by state:
If you work in a large metropolitan area, you'll likely encounter higher salaries as well. This is usually due to the concentration of specialty centers and hospitals, as well as overall higher-than-average pay as well. Below, you’ll find average PT salaries for several major US cities:
Licensed physical therapists have many options post-graduation. Depending on their specialization—more on that below—PT professionals can find positions at large hospitals, start their own private practices, or work at sports facilities. They may provide intensive inpatient as well as outpatient therapies. PTs also can choose to pursue PT teaching opportunities with post-graduate programs.
The major PT industries and their average salaries include:
Since specialized fields within physical therapy command certain salaries, specialization is one way to exercise some control over your salary level once you're out of PT school. Below, you’ll find several areas of specialization and their average pay:
Acute PT specialists step in when a person experiences major neurological, cardiovascular, or muscular injury and illness. They typically work in intensive care or other specialty units in the hospital.
Neurological physical therapists are experts in how damage to the nervous system can limit movement and work with their patients to regain it.
This field concentrates on the health of the heart and the lungs in relation to movement, exercises, and posture. Specialists work in a range of both hospital and small-office settings.
Geriatric PT specialists focus on care for older adults, specifically those who have experienced injury or illness that impedes movement and daily activities of living.
Occupational physical therapists help patients re-learn everyday tasks such as eating, getting dressed, or typing.
When a person is diagnosed and treated for cancer, oncology PTs can help them regain mobility from weakened muscles, neuropathy, and the effects of treatment.
Also known as orthopedic physiotherapists, these doctors focus on the relation of the body and mobility to the muscular structure, and help patients recover from injuries to ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bones.
As the name suggests, these physical therapists specialize in helping children and teens recover from the effects of injury and illness.
This is one of the most popular areas of PT specialization. Not to be confused with exercise physiologists, sports PT doctors work with teams, in athletic centers, or in hospitals to address specific sports-related injuries and long-term health.
The majority of vestibular PT focuses on a patient's balance, inner ear issues, and the symptoms of vertigo.
These PT specialists provide the exercises and treatments that support women’s reproductive and general health at each stage of their lives.
A terminal degree is optional in many career paths and the lack of one generally doesn’t hamper one’s advancement or success. Physical therapy, however, requires a complex training and certification process in order for you to practice this type of medicine safely and effectively. Fortunately, physical therapy salaries after graduation reflect the amount of time and tuition you’ve invested in your DPT degree—and reward you for your effort.
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