Physical Therapist (PT) Education Overview

Physical therapist (PT) professional education refers to the didactic and clinical education that prepares graduates for entry into practice of physical therapy. (Education for the advancement of practicing physical therapists is termed post-professional). All PTs must receive a graduate degree from an accredited physical therapist program before taking the national licensure examination that allows them to practice.

Mission of Physical Therapist Professional Education

The mission of PT professional education is to graduate knowledgeable, service-oriented, self-assured, adaptable, reflective practitioners who, by virtue of critical and integrative thinking, lifelong learning, and ethical values, render independent judgments concerning patient/client needs that are supported by evidence; promote the health of the patient or client; and enhance the professional, contextual, and collaborative foundations for practice. These practitioners contribute to society and the profession through practice, teaching, administration, and the discovery and application of new knowledge about physical therapy experiences of sufficient excellence and breadth to allow the acquisition and application of essential knowledge, skills, and behaviors as applied to the practice of physical therapy. Learning experiences are provided under the guidance and supervision of competent faculty, in both the classroom and the clinic.

Physical Therapist Degrees

Professional (entry-level) physical therapist education programs currently are offered at 2 degree levels:

  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Degree 
  • Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) or Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT) Degree 

All PT education programs have transitioned to the DPT degree, except one. Both degrees currently prepare students to be eligible for the PT license examination in all 50 states. To maintain or be granted accreditation, programs will be required to award the DPT degree by 2015 and will have until 2017 to come into compliance with this decision. To practice as a physical therapist in the US, you must earn a PT degree from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist education program and pass a state licensure exam.


The length of professional DPT programs is typically 3 years. Primary content areas in the curriculum may include, but are not limited to, biology/anatomy, cellular histology, physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, pharmacology, pathology, behavioral sciences, communication, ethics/values, management sciences, finance, sociology, clinical reasoning, evidence-based practice, cardiovascular and pulmonary, endocrine and metabolic, and musculoskeletal. Eighty percent (80%) of the DPT curriculum comprises classroom (didactic) and lab study and the remaining 20 percent (20%) is dedicated to clinical education. PT students spend on average 27.5 weeks in their final clinical experience.

  • Bachelor's Degree Required? Most physical therapist education programs require applicants to earn a bachelor's degree prior to admission into the professional DPT/MPT program. Other programs offer a 3+3 curricular format in which 3 years of specific pre-professional (undergraduate/pre-PT) courses must be taken before the student can advance into a 3-year professional PT program.
  • Freshmen Entry - A few programs recruit all or a portion of students directly from high school into a guaranteed admissions program. High school students accepted into these programs are can automatically advance into the professional phase of the PT program pending the completion of specific undergraduate courses and any other stated contingencies (eg, minimum GPA).

Bachelor's degree requirements (key code A4) and freshmen entry (key code A2) programs are identified on the Accredited PT & PTA Programs Directory.

Choosing the Right Program

It is extremely important that you attend a program accredited by CAPTE and will only be able to sit for the licensure exam if you have graduated from a CAPTE-accredited program. Without a license you will be unable to practice. Check APTA's accredited programs directory and the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) websites for a list and descriptions of PT education programs. A visit to one or more programs is also a valuable means for selecting the programs that best meet your educational goals and personal needs. You should consider a variety of factors when researching PT education programs:

  • Program structure and curriculum
  • Types of clinical education and training opportunities
  • Faculty composition and cohesiveness (years working together)
  • Student demographics
  • Facilities (eg, classrooms and labs)
  • Campus setting (eg, rural, urban, suburban)
  • Geographic location and distance from home/family
  • Size of the university
  • Size of PT program's entering class
  • Licensure pass rates
  • Employment rates
  • Degree awarded
  • Length of program
  • Admission requirements
  • Cost and financial aid opportunities
  • Extracurricular activities

In an effort to compare the above factors, you may wish to:

  • Contact current students and recent graduates of the program
  • Interview employers who hire graduates and ask about program strengths and weaknesses


APTA does not rank PT education programs. Programs are accredited by CAPTE, which assures quality in physical therapy education. Graduation from an accredited program is currently required for eligibility to sit for the licensure examination for physical therapists in those states in which licensure is required.

Tuition and Fees

The annual tuition and fee rates for DPT programs in 2011 were as follows:

  • Public: $15,831  
  • Private: $30,672 

Check the directory of accredited programs and contact the PT education program directly about Scholarships, Awards, and Grants opportunities.

Furthering Your Education (After Graduation)

Clinical Residency and Clinical Fellowships
Licensed physical therapists may choose to pursue a residency or fellowship program to enhance their knowledge and practice.

  • Clinical Residency: A clinical residency is a planned program of postprofessional clinical and didactic education for physical therapists that is designed to significantly advance the physical therapist resident's preparation as a provider of patient care services in a defined area of clinical practice. It combines opportunities for ongoing clinical supervision and mentoring with a theoretical basis for advanced practice and scientific inquiry.
  • Clinical Fellowship: A clinical fellowship is a planned program of postprofessional clinical and didactic education for physical therapists who demonstrate clinical expertise, prior to commencing the program, in a learning experience in an area of clinical practice related to the practice focus of the fellowship. (Fellows are frequently post-residency prepared or board-certified specialists.) A fellowship program must possess a curriculum that:
  1. is focused, with advanced clinical and didactic instruction within a subspecialty area of practice;
  2. is intensive and includes extensive mentored clinical experience; and,
  3. provides a sufficient and appropriate patient population to create an environment for advanced clinical skill building.

Specialty Certification
Physical therapists have the opportunity to become board-certified clinical specialists through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialities (ABPTS). Specialization is the process by which a physical therapist builds on a broad base of professional education and practice to develop a greater depth of knowledge and skills related to a particular area of practice. Specialty certification is voluntary. PTs are not required to be certified in order to practice in a specific area.

Physical therapists can become board-certified specialists in the following areas:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopaedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports Physical Therapy
  • Women's Health

SOURCES: Normative Model of Physical Therapist Professional Education: Version 2004
CAPTE Fact Sheet: Physical Therapist Education Programs: 2011

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