All You Need to Know About Physical Therapy Education

In Physical Therapy by Seth Peterson, Physical Therapist Oro Valley

It’s one of the most common questions we are asked: what does it take to become a physical therapist?  Few people know what PT education consists of and what separates physical therapists from other professions.  Here’s a quick overview.

  1. Getting into PT school

It’s not easy.  Physical therapy programs are graduate programs, meaning they require the applicant to have taken certain college-level courses before entry.  This typically means physical therapists already have a 4-year undergraduate degree by the time they enter school.  You also have to do well in school.  In 2011-12, the average entry GPA to physical therapy programs was 3.52, and has gone up since then.  This number is reported and updated by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), and would probably surpass that of chiropractic colleges, but the American Chiropractic Association doesn’t seem to publish this data.  Believe it or not, the mean GPA to enter physical therapy school is approximately that of medical school.  According to the American Medical Association’s data, the average GPA in the 2017-18 year was 3.56.  

2. Graduate School

Physical therapy programs now offer a clinical doctorate-level degree.  Some of my patients have associated our doctorate degree with a PhD, which is not the case, although it’s a bit confusing.  A PhD is a degree focused on conducting research and teaching, and there are PhD programs in physical therapy.  However, the entry-level degree is a clinical doctorate.  Think chiropractors and medical doctors.  Those are clinical doctorate degrees.  To get the doctorate degree, or “DPT,” it takes around 3 years of school and mentorship.  Afterward, you have to pass a board exam.  Once you do that, you’re a full-fledged PT.  

For some, the learning stops there.

3.  Optional Post-Graduate Training: Residency

The graphic says about 1 in 10 physical therapists undergo residency training, but that number is incorrect.  That number is closer to the number of physical therapists that are “board-certified,” often a goal of residency training.  However, the number of residency graduates is probably much smaller than 1 in 10.  Residency training is focused training and mentorship in a specific area.  If you see a physical therapist who practices in an “orthopedic” setting, they might have undergone specific mentorship in that area for 1 year.  This is how physical therapy residencies are structured.  Once a physical therapist graduates from a residency, they must pass a written exam to receive the designation of a “specialist.”

4.  Board-certified Specialization

As mentioned above, many physical therapists that become board certified have taken a residency.  However, the majority of board-certified specialists have not been through a residency.  In physical therapy, you are still allowed to sit for this exam after accumulating a certain number of hours practicing as a physical therapist in a “specialty area.”  

5.  Fellowship training

The fewest number of physical therapists make it to this step.  About 1 in 200 physical therapists are considered fellows, or have graduated from a fellowship program.  A fellowship is an area of sub-specialty practice.  For example, “orthopedics” is the most common specialty and “orthopedic manual physical therapy” is the most common fellowship.  As contrasted with medical fellowships, which are typically much shorter than medical residencies, physical therapy fellowships are much longer than physical therapy residencies.  They are known for emphasizing clinical reasoning, emparting complex desicision-making skills, and focusing on specific skills germane to the subspecialty.  Research shows fellowship graduates follow clinical practice guidelines more often, get better outcomes, get patients better faster, and are more likely to go into teaching.  

It’s a long process, but worth it!  If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me personally through the website!