Becoming a physical therapist is a common goal for health science students. This is largely because you’re able to use your knowledge of the body’s structure and inner workings to develop solutions for better health. If you’re interested in this career path, but unsure how to start, you may have questions about the educational requirements to become a physical therapist.
In this overview, you can learn what a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is, the different program options that are available to you, and what you should look for in a degree program.
What Is a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree?
A Doctor of Physical Therapy degree is a clinical doctorate demonstrating expertise in human movement. “Universally, the entry-level degree for physical therapists across the country is a DPT,” says Dr. Christopher Cesario, Associate Clinical Professor and Director of Student Affairs for the DPT program at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences.
Physical therapists need this education to properly treat pain, injuries, and movement impairments that affect a patient’s quality of life. For example, these programs focus on patient education, movement exercises, and hands-on therapeutic care to ensure PTs are prepared to help individuals of all ages regain mobility and range of motion, reduce discomfort, and heal from injuries.
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Types of Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree Programs
Earning a DPT is an essential step if you hope to practice as a licensed physical therapist. It typically involves three years in a postgraduate program, but there are different options for completing your degree depending on the program.
“Not all DPTs programs are created equal though,” says Cesario. “There’s a variety of different models.” Here’s a closer look at the different types of DPT degree programs.
A Three-Plus-Three physical therapy program allows you to complete undergraduate and graduate degree requirements on a shortened time frame. The first three years of education go toward your bachelor’s degree requirements, while your fourth year— technically, your senior year—transitions into the DPT curriculum. Once you “graduate” with your bachelor’s degree, you only need to complete two more years of work to obtain your DPT.
While an accelerated program can be appealing to many students, it’s only beneficial to people who are sure they want to pursue physical therapy before starting their undergraduate degree. If you plan on exploring your career options through your undergraduate program, this isn’t a recommended track to becoming a physical therapist.
A freshman entry program is an accelerated model in which the curriculum covers what would normally be prerequisite material at the same time as DPT coursework. Students then move into the advanced clinical aspects of the curriculum at the end of their education. Up until 2018, Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences offered this type of program.
“Students would come into the program as an 18-year-old and do five years of rehabilitation or rehabilitation science studies curriculum,” says Cesario. “That education contained all the pre-reqs plus the coursework needed for a DPT. And then the final year focused on clinicals. So, we were considered a 5+1 program.”
Bouvé transitioned away from this model for several reasons, but it was largely driven by industry trends to ensure their students were set up for success down the line. In fact, only approximately 10 to 15 percent of the 260 DPT programs in the country still have a freshman direct-entry path program, according to Cesario.
Traditional Post-Baccalaureate Doctorate Program
In a traditional program, students complete their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees separately. So, after earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field, you can obtain a doctorate in three years. The majority of institutions follow this model because it gives students more time and flexibility to figure out what they want to do and gain experience that will enrich their postgraduate education.
What to Look For in a DPT Program
Choosing the right degree program plays a huge role in how well you’re positioned to enter the field. The availability of developmental resources, level of faculty engagement, and opportunities for networking can make or break your educational experience.
Here’s what to look for in a physical therapy degree program to get the most out of your investment.
Exposure is everything in healthcare careers. What you learn from lectures, textbooks, and research won’t begin to cover the many variables you’ll encounter working as a care provider. Every patient has unique health needs, goals, and physical challenges, as well as different biological makeup.
“One of the things that we pride ourselves on is the focus on experiential learning,” says Cesario. Northeastern University’s DPT program includes a comprehensive assessment of essential functions, such as:
- Critical analysis
- Leading therapeutic exercises
- Evaluating sensory information
Instead of simply taking in facts, students need ways to apply what they’re learning in real time, so they can evaluate the full context of a situation.
Bouvé students conduct realistic assessments and movement therapies at the institution’s simulation lab, often working with local members of the community. PT students must learn to be attentive to what their clients are experiencing and adapt their treatment plans to get better results. “That really speaks to the co-op education aspect,” Cesario notes. “I think we do that very well here at Northeastern.”
Faculty members are the stewards of your education, and their value as instructors will be very limited if they lack insight into the dynamics of real-world environments. This is especially true for programs with a high proportion of faculty who have spent much more time in the academic space than in clinical settings.
As a physical therapy student, it’s more beneficial to learn from professionals with substantial experience across many environments and firsthand knowledge of trends currently shaping the industry. Everything from lectures, to writing assignments, to patient simulation labs will offer more actionable information because students can ask deeper questions and get multilayered perspectives based on what’s happening on the ground in healthcare.
Faculty credentials and range of specializations are another thing to consider when comparing DPT programs, Cesario notes. “We have a high fraction of our clinical faculty that have board certifications in the field.” This is particularly important if you’re interested in clinical specialization, such as neurology or cardiopulmonary physical therapy. Board-certified physical therapists have verified expertise in their specialty fields and must continue providing direct patient care to maintain their credentials, making them the best source of information for students.
Consider what resources are available locally when evaluating a DPT program. Once you’re ready to conduct research, network with mentors, do internships, or find a job, you’ll want an abundance of options for moving your career forward. Look for schools with strong partnerships with other influential healthcare organizations and private physical therapy practices. Otherwise, you might struggle to find opportunities that align with your goals.
“We are well-positioned in Boston, so for students to have access to these major medical centers can be a major plus,” says Cesario. “It’s not to say that everyone will have experiences at these institutions, but our position in the community makes these opportunities a possibility.”
Extensive Alumni Networks
Attending a college with a highly active alumni community can make your job search much easier and offer you various advantages throughout your education. If you can tap into a large network of experienced PTs for things like informational interviews and job shadowing, you’ll have the chance to establish relationships with well-connected healthcare professionals long before you graduate.
Keep Northeastern’s vast resources top of mind if you’re thinking about enrolling. “We have a very loyal and dependable alumni network from our program that is always looking for ways to give back to our current students. In some cases, this means hiring them when they graduate,” says Cesario.
Start Preparing for Your Career in Physical Therapy
While the answer to the question, what is a Doctor of Physical Therapy seems simple, the differences in the admissions criteria, depth of curriculum, specialized concentrations, and learning models tell a different story. Where you pursue a physical therapy education can have a huge impact on the long-term value of your degree.
Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences’ Post Baccalaureate Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree offers amazing opportunities for PT students. From the expert faculty to the experiential learning resources, students gain all the tools, support, and skills they need to start their physical therapy careers from a strong position. If you’re interested in learning about enrollment options, contact a Northeastern University admissions counselor for more information about the DPT program.