The average physical therapist makes $72,123 per year1 working with patients who need to recover after injury, build strength after surgery, or maintain a range of motion as they age. These therapists work with the body to ensure that muscles and connectors remain strong and supple. Most physical therapists need a doctoral-level degree to receive certification, so students must understand the school path to obtain certification.
This guide outlines what it takes to become a physical therapist and helps students choose the right physical therapy degree to complete their goals.
What Is an Online Physical Therapy Degree?
An online physical therapy degree prepares students for taking their certification and licensure exams. It trains students in the best practices of the field, offering both coursework and clinical experiences.
Students can complete coursework online both asynchronously and synchronously but need to participate in clinical experiences in person. Most schools offer support for students to find clinical locations in their area. However, if students live close enough to their program’s physical location, they can also take advantage of the program’s network for clinical placements.
The programs often include a capstone project — a scholarly research paper or a more hands-on patient care plan, for example — that showcases a student’s mastery of physical therapy subject matter. Each state may possess slightly different licensure criteria, so students must check their chosen online program for skills and eligibility alignment.
How Can I Use a Physical Therapy Degree?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the field to grow at a faster than average pace at 21% over the next decade2. Potential job seekers can look forward to 15,600 job openings each year from 2020 to 20302, leaving plenty of room open for new physical therapists.
Much of this job activity is expected to happen because of two factors3:
- Firms need to replace those leaving the field or retiring.
- As more people live longer — with baby boomers leading the way — the demand for aging services such as physical therapy will grow.
Together, these two factors mean job seekers will enjoy a robust career field with plenty of opportunities for at least the next 10 years or so.
According to the BLS, this list includes the five highest paying industries for physical therapists:
Spectator Sports Physical Therapists Average Annual Salary: $108,520
Physical therapists can make over six figures per year4 working for the sports industry. They keep players healthy and happy while managing pain from muscle use and injury. This job employs roughly 50 positions per year4.
Physical Therapists at Outpatient Care Centers Average Annual Salary: $105,600
Physical therapists at outpatient care centers make over $105,000 per year4, helping manage the ongoing physical therapy for a variety of patient types. They may have regular attendees, those recovering from injury or surgery, and those with special health needs. The field employs 5,700 positions per year4.
Physical Therapists in Individual and Family Services Average Annual Salary: $101,240
Physical therapists working for individual and family services can make over $101,000 per year4, helping seniors and families with disability services, health needs, and routine checks. The sector employs 2,720 people per year.
Physical Therapists in Child Day Care Services Average Annual Salary: $99,910
Child daycare services that offer physical therapy pay almost six figures per year4. Children can be candidates for physical therapy because of surgery or injury, as well as those with special health needs. The sector will employ around 310 positions per year4.
Physical Therapists in Office Administrative Services Average Annual Salary: $98,510
Office administrative services pay physical therapists $98,510 per yearand employ about 130 positions4. This field provides offices and companies with in-house health services.
Physical Therapy Degree Courses
Students in a physical therapy degree path focus on bodily systems, therapy techniques, and other appropriate anatomy and physiology training. While degree paths may vary slightly, these are five common courses students will take.
Students gain a deeper knowledge of the human body and its systems. This knowledge helps students understand the cause and effect of injuries, surgery, and other challenges, as well as offers students a foundation for planning physical therapy approaches.
What happens when the human body exercises, and how does exercise affect the overall movement and flexibility of the body? Students explore these questions in this course.
Kinesiology and biomechanics
These courses study the mechanics of movement. Students learn how to identify issues with movement based on movement norms and build physical therapy programs that tackle movement challenges.
Most doctor of physical therapy programs require research in the field. Research methods courses teach students the best practices for approaching research from an academic standpoint and support students who plan to conduct research in the field.
Students take part in on-site clinicals designed to provide hands-on experience in both physical therapy and the workplace. They then apply their skills and see what happens in a real clinical setting.
Physical Therapy Degree Concentrations
Physical therapists may choose to specialize in a certain area of the field for their doctoral studies. These concentrations fall into three distinct areas.
Specific Body Systems
Physical therapists can specialize in a certain body system, helping patients recover and applying their knowledge to ensure that the system works at its best. Some examples include:
- Orthopedic physical therapy: Focuses on restoring normal function to the musculoskeletal system, including joints, spinal tissues, and bones.
- Cardiopulmonary physical therapy: Focuses on the heart and lungs
- Neurological physical therapy: Focuses on brain and nervous system health
Specific Health Challenge
Physical therapists can also focus specifically on health challenges, working with patients overcoming a specific need based on things like recent diagnosis, traumatic event, or even job type. Some examples include:
- Sports physical therapy: Focuses on the needs and challenges for athletes, whether professional or amateur
- Oncology: Aids cancer teams in helping patients regain function after a cancer diagnosis, treatment, or surgery
- Electrophysiology: Focuses on using electrical stimulation to help patients overcome chronic conditions, muscle spasms, or wound healing
Specific Life Stage
Physical therapists can also choose to focus on a specific life stage, such as:
- Neonatal: Focuses on premature children and works with the neonatal care team to facilitate the best start to life
- Pediatrics: Focuses on the health and wellbeing of children, studying growth patterns and progression
- Geriatrics: Focuses on senior health and the aging process
How Long Does It Take to Earn a Physical Therapy Degree?
Physical therapists need a doctoral degree to earn licensure and certification in most states. Students begin with a traditional undergraduate degree in a field like biology, pre-med, or pre-physical therapy. The undergraduate degree takes four years of full-time study and includes state-required core courses.
A doctor of physical therapy takes an average of 2.5-3 years after receiving an undergraduate degree. It includes both regular coursework and clinical hours. This degree possesses online options for coursework, but students need to take in-person clinicals to qualify for licensure.
Students should check their state’s requirements for the number of clinical hours required for licensure, but typically they translate to full-time work for a certain period of time. In all, it can take seven years of full-time, uninterrupted study to complete the degree work to become a licensed physical therapist.
Discover More About Physical Therapy Degree Programs
Q. What is the application process for a licensed physical therapist?
Students first complete an undergraduate degree in a related field before applying to an online doctorate program. Each school has individual admissions criteria; students should prepare by compiling references or completing any necessary standardized exams.
Q. Are scholarships available for physical therapy degrees?
Online and traditional programs may offer scholarships to students from an academic standpoint, to those with existing work experience, or to those from traditionally underrepresented groups. Students choosing to concentrate in an in-demand area may also find local scholarships available.
Q. Does location matter for a physical therapy degree?
Online options make getting a degree easier. However, students may find higher-paying employment in the following states:
- Nevada average annual salary: $108,5804
- California average annual salary: $104,5004
- Alaska average annual salary: $101,1904
- New Jersey average annual salary: $100,7404
- Connecticut average annual salary: $100,5804
Q. Is an online physical therapy degree an option?
Students can complete coursework online but must attend clinicals in person. They can take advantage of their program’s network for placements or find their own program-approved placements close to their location.
Q. Can you become a physical therapist with a bachelor’s degree?
Most states require a doctoral degree for full licensure, but an associate or bachelor’s degree offers students the opportunity to work as physical therapy assistants.
Q. Is physical therapy a good career?
Despite the long schooling years, physical therapy remains a good career for the long term. The field is expected to grow over the next 10 years, and many states and positions pay over six figures.
 PayScale. (2021). Physical Therapist Salary. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Physical_Therapist_(PT)/Salary
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physical Therapists. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-2
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physical Therapists Job Outlook. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-6
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Occupational Employment and Wages, Physical Therapists. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291123.htm#st