Physical Therapy

How to Become a Physical Therapy Professor

How to Become a Physical Therapy Professor
You'll need an academic doctorate (not just a DPT) to teach physical therapy at most universities. Image from Unsplash
Tom Meltzer profile
Tom Meltzer February 10, 2020

Educational requirements for physical therapists become more stringent in 2020, potentially heightening the demand for physical therapy faculty at the graduate level. That means now's as good a time as any to consider making a move to the classroom.

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If you’re a prospective or current physical therapist, 2020 is a big year for you. No, not because it’s a leap year—although, yay, one extra day of PT! And no, not because presidential election years result in knottier backs and rage-induced injuries requiring PT.

It’s because 2020 is the year the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) decreed the deadline by which “physical therapy will be provided by physical therapists who are doctors of physical therapy.” Until 2020, a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) or a Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT) was sufficient to practice physical therapy. However, advances in the field have required practitioners to develop doctoral-level knowledge and skills. Accordingly, the new prerequisite for PTs is a Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT).

This more rigorous credential requires more education and more training, which in turn means that the need for physical therapy professors might also increase. If you’ve been thinking about entering the physical therapy teaching profession at the college or university level, now might be a good time to make your move. To do that, you’ll need to know how to become a physical therapy professor. This article tells you. It covers:

  • What does a physical therapy professor do?
  • What types of physical therapy professors are there?
  • Educational commitment to become a physical therapy professor
  • The pros and cons of becoming a physical therapy professor
  • Resources for becoming a physical therapy professor
  • Should you become a physical therapy professor?

What does a physical therapy professor do?

A physical therapy professor teaches physical therapy at the undergraduate and graduate levels. They are themselves physical therapists, many of whom continue to practice as they teach. Some have retired from practice but continue to teach and, perhaps, conduct research. In addition to teaching, a physical therapy professor may also advise and mentor students and serve on committees.

A physical therapy professor’s responsibilities include:

  • Preparing curriculum and lesson plans for courses
  • Teaching courses
  • Assessing student performance
  • Mentoring younger faculty
  • Engaging in service within the school community

Very few physical therapy professors can teach across the curriculum of a doctoral program. Most specialize in one or more areas. Job postings for faculty typically seek applicants able to teach two or more practice areas. These specializations include:

  • Cardiopulmonary physical therapy
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Clinically informed neuroscience
  • Clinical reasoning
  • Geriatrics
  • Integumentary physical therapy
  • Manual therapy
  • Musculoskeletal physical therapy
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pain science
  • Pediatric physical therapy
  • Pelvic floor rehabilitation
  • Pharmacology physical therapy
  • Physical therapy administration and management
  • Sports physical therapy
  • Women’s health

The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties confers certification in many areas of specialization. Most employers of faculty will expect candidates who claim specialization to hold the appropriate certifications.

What types of physical therapy professors are there?

Like most organizations, academic institutions are hierarchically organized. As you doubtless know from past experience as a student and perhaps as a teacher, not all professors enjoy the same status. There are professors, and there are professors-you-do-not-mess-with. Within the hierarchy of academia, faculty enjoy more-formal titles. These include:

  • Instructor: Instructor is the entry-level position in higher academics. Instructors may be current graduate students (perhaps earning their DPT or PhD degrees) who teach for experience and, of course, a little extra cash. Or, they may be postdocs and residents relatively new to teaching.
  • Assistant professor: The assistant professor designation is the next level up from instructor. Assistant professors typically have a contract of substantial length (often, it’s for six years). Assistant professor is a tenure-track position, meaning that an assistant can potentially earn the golden ring of academic teaching, i.e., tenure. Tenure is a form of job security that, with the decline of labor unions elsewhere in the job market, is virtually unknown outside of academics. A faculty member with tenure enjoys numerous benefits, the most valuable of which is that they essentially cannot be fired (absent “extraordinary circumstances“). While practice varies from one school to another, assistants typically undergo tenure review somewhere around the four-year mark in their contracts. Tenured positions are rare, so many are denied. Under most contracts, assistants must leave at the end of their contracts if they are not granted tenure.
  • Associate professor: The title of associate professor indicates prestige within one’s field of expertise. At some schools, all associate professors have tenure; at others, only those who were promoted within the institution are granted tenure, while those hired from outside must wait through a probationary period before receiving tenure. Associate professors can apply for promotion to full professor, although they are not required to do so. Unlike assistant professors, they need not leave the institution if they are not promoted. They just go on being associate professors.
  • Full professor: Full professors enjoy permanent tenure and are definitely professors-you-do-not-mess-with.
  • Adjunct, visiting, or clinical professor: These titles apply to faculty who are not on a tenure track. The various designations indicate different lengths of appointment, eligibility for reappointment, and pay level.

Educational commitment to become a physical therapy professor

To teach physical therapy at the college or university level, you will likely need a terminal degree. In rare instances, schools will hire faculty members with master’s degrees, but such hires are typically temporary stopgaps to fill an urgent need. Furthermore, most institutions require faculty to hold an academic doctoral degree—a Doctor of Physical Therapy, which is a professional degree, usually isn’t enough.

Most physical therapy professors hold one of the following degrees.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Physical Therapy

Unlike the DPT, which trains physical therapists to work with patients, a PhD in physical therapy trains researchers and educators. Whereas DPT students learn and practice established techniques, PhD candidates are more likely to explore new experimental treatments and approaches. Students spend much of their time developing expertise in a specified subject and conducting research into that subject (i.e., a dissertation). Most candidates already hold a DPT, although some may hold a master’s in a related field and a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. Schools offering a PhD in physical therapy include:

Doctor of Science (DSc or ScD) in Physical Therapy

The DSc/ScD degree straddles the line between the professional-practical DPT and the academic PhD. As with a PhD, original research is an essential component of earning a DSc, but the DSc may also include advanced training in specialized practice. The goal of such programs, according to Drexel University, is to prepare students “to take leadership roles as educators and master clinicians in rehabilitation sciences.” A DSc typically takes three to five years to complete. Schools offering this degree include:

Doctor of Education (EdD)

A Doctor of Education (EdD) degree prepares candidates for leadership roles in education, not in physical therapy. In combination with a DPT, however, the EdD is often enough to qualify therapists to teach physical therapy at the university level. The EdD theoretically confers expertise in teaching, something that, sadly, cannot be claimed by all PhDs. That’s why many job postings for PT professorships include the EdD among the qualifying degrees.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)

As previously mentioned, a DPT on its own likely will not qualify you for a professorship. It is almost certainly a degree you will need, however. It is now the required degree to practice physical therapy, and who wants to be taught PT by someone who has never practiced? You will likely need to supplement your DPT with another advanced degree (such as one of the degrees listed above) to procure a teaching position. A number of schools offer combined DPT/PhD dual degree programs, including:

If all this seems a little daunting, remember that there are options other than teaching PT at the undergraduate or graduate level. You could teach community groups or you could teach in continuing education programs with nothing more than your DPT. You may even land a job as an instructor at your local community college. If your goal is simply to teach people interested in physical therapy, there are faster ways to achieve it than by earning a challenging, costly, and time-consuming doctorate.

The pros and cons of becoming a physical therapy professor

Teaching at the university level can be a thrilling experience. It’s not without its challenges, however. As political scientist Wallace Stanley Sayer once observed, “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” If you can deal with the occasional petty squabble or turf war, however, it can be a pretty good way to earn a living. Here are some of the pros and cons of the job:

The pros of becoming a physical therapy professor

  • The pay is good: According to Salary.com, a professor of physical therapy earns between $86,000 and $127,000 annually.
  • You’ll be paying it forward: Just as someone trained you to practice PT, you’ll be passing on your skills and wisdom to the next generation. In that way, your years of dedication will continue to help patients long after you’ve retired.
  • Campus life is pretty good: College and university campuses are full of smart, interesting people. The calendar is jammed with lectures, conferences, concerts, plays, sporting events, and more. You’ll work with people who share your interests. There are certainly worse places to work, and, arguably, few better.

The cons of becoming a physical therapy professor

  • Competitive environment: Throughout academia, candidates outnumber jobs. Finding a great appointment is tough. When you find one, you may have to relocate to a new town. That’s a tough adjustment, especially for someone who is more established in their life and career.
  • Pay for non-tenure track jobs can be poor: The glut of academics means schools can hire more adjuncts and other non-tenure track faculty. These jobs often pay poorly and come with few or no benefits.
  • Grades, grades, grades: Grading other people’s work can be stressful and, frankly, a little boring. You won’t always feel like it, but it’s a big part of your job so you’ll have to do it.

Resources for becoming a physical therapy professor

Should you become a physical therapy professor?

If you’re asking this question, chances are you are currently a practicing physical therapist looking to change things up in your career. If you have the urge and skills to teach, and you have a terminal academic degree in a related field—or are willing to put in the time, effort, and expense to get one—then becoming a physical therapy professor is certainly an option worth considering. The final questions you need to ask are: where will the jobs be when you’re ready to apply? And, will be willing to relocate if necessary?

If your answers are yes across the board, then maybe you should give it a shot. What have you got to lose? You’ll still have the skills to practice physical therapy, so even in a worst-case scenario, you’re no worse off than you were before. That’s an advantageous position to be in.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Author

Tom Meltzer began his career in education publishing at The Princeton Review, where he authored more than a dozen titles (including the company's annual best colleges guide and two AP test prep manuals) and produced the musical podcast The Princeton Review Vocab Minute. A graduate of Columbia University (English major), Tom lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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