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5 Steps to Become a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)

5 Steps to Become a Doctor of Physical Therapy - U of the Cumberlands

Fri, 03/18/2022 - 5:44pm

Physical therapists are licensed healthcare professionals that assist patients in managing chronic health conditions, reducing pain, and improving mobility. They often assist after injury, illness, or surgery as patients recover and strive to get back some of their lost mobility. Through massage, body manipulation, exercise, and stretching, physical therapists can give people back a lot of their life after a serious medical event.

A career in physical therapy can be both financially and intrinsically rewarding. As you help people regain strength and mobility, you can also earn a good income. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates an average salary of $91,010 a year for physical therapists and an expected growth of 21%. This field pays well and is in high demand, and both of these facts make it a great career path to pursue.

Yet becoming a physical therapist can be a challenging process. In 2016, the process of becoming a physical therapist changed. In the past, all you needed was a master’s degree and licensure to practice physical therapy, but today you must have a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. Understanding the process of getting that terminal degree and applying for licensure is vital if you are going to pursue this career path. Here is a step-by-step guide to successfully completing the educational requirements of a physical therapy program, applying for licensure, and launching a physical therapy career.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in a Related Field

Today, the first step in becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy is earning a bachelor's degree, and you don't need a master’s degree to fulfill the education requirements. This leaves you with the question of what degree you should pursue.

While you can choose a pre-physical therapy track at some schools, you may not need something quite this specific. In fact, few colleges offer a physical therapy specific bachelor’s degree. However, you must have an undergrad degree to get accepted into a DPT program.

So, what should you study? If you have a DPT program chosen, start by looking at its prerequisites. This will give you a good idea of the type of undergrad degree that will best prepare you. Most of the time, you will need to study something that covers biology and anatomy. You may also need a foundation in biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, and pharmacology. Some majors that might provide the right foundation include:

  • Biomechanics
  • Anatomy
  • Kinesiology
  • Exercise Science
  • Physiology

Keep in mind that you can also look at minors and concentrations to gain the skills you do not get in your degree major. Make sure you are building soft skills, like communication, financial abilities, and clinical reasoning and ethics while working on your undergraduate training program.

Whatever undergraduate degree you select, choose something oriented to science or medicine. Work hard in this program to keep your GPA up, because most DPT programs have strict entrance requirements. Good grades, especially in medical or science courses, are essential.

2. Gain Physical Therapy Experience

Most high-quality Doctor of Physical Therapy programs, including the one at University of the Cumberlands, require more than just education for physical therapy students. These programs also require you to get some hands-on experience in the field before applying for the doctoral program.

Consider a shadowing program that allows you to watch and work alongside a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Check your DPT program to see how many hours you need to complete, and make sure you get those hours in. These hours may be part of a paid internship, or they may be unpaid volunteer hours, depending on the physical therapy location you choose. You may also get some of these hours as part of your undergraduate training.

These hours are important for your professional development. Observing a licensed physical therapist working with real patients will help you develop the soft skills you need as well as give you the chance to learn hands-on technical skills in a protected environment. You will get to work with patients from various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, as well, which can provide some insight into what your job will look like later.

As you look for places to get your hands-on therapy training, consider working in more than one type of physical therapy practice. Doing so will allow you to explore the different career paths you can pursue later.

3. Complete Your Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree

Now that you have your undergraduate degree and hands-on experience, you are ready to enter a doctoral program for your terminal degree. A Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree typically takes three years to complete according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Choose a program accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Not all programs have this accreditation, but you will need it to take the physical therapy license exam, so be sure to look for it.

You will cover a number of topic areas in your Doctor of Physical Therapy degree program. In addition to the biology, anatomy, and kinesiology you need to know to practice physical therapy techniques, you may study:

  • Ethics
  • Finance
  • Sociology
  • Behavioral science
  • Communication
  • Management

Remember, working as a physical therapist is more than just the medical side of things. You will need to know how to run a business and manage a practice, so your doctoral program should touch on these things in addition to the medical and exercise training you need to work with patients.

To make the application to physical therapy programs easier, many schools use the Physical Therapy Centralized Application Service application. This application will send your transcripts, references, and observation hours to the school in a simplified format that they can easily look at to decide if you are qualified. Consider using this service to help you get into your program more quickly.

4. Sit for Your Physical Therapy Licensing Test

No matter which state you are going to work in, you will need a physical therapy license. These license requirements will vary state by state, so look up the rules for your state. Wherever you choose to practice, know that you will also need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE).

In Kentucky, you will apply for the NPTE examination through the Kentucky Board of Physical Therapy website. Fill out the application and pay the $225 fee, then wait for your testing date. You can also check your application status on the website to see if and when you are approved for the test. This state’s licensing requirements for a physical therapist include graduation from a CATPE accredited program before applying. Applicants must also submit a fingerprint scan for a background check.

This 250-question test covers body systems and non-systems related to physical therapy. You will take it online in a multiple-choice format, and you get five hours to complete the test. Exam dates are four times a year, so make sure you register when you are ready. You may take the test up to three times in a 12-month period and up to six times total. Because you have a limited number of times you can take this test, full and adequate preparation is vital to your success. After passing the exam, you will not have to take it again.

Once you pass the test, apply for your state licensure. Keep your license current through continuing education and physical therapy residency or fellowship programs based on your state requirements.

5. Consider Optional Residency or Fellowship Programs and Certification

Earning your license is usually all you need to start practicing, but many physical therapists will choose to take on a residency or fellowship program. This is particularly important if you are going to specialize in something like sports physical therapy that requires a more detailed understanding of the field.

Residency is necessary to be board-certified as a clinical specialist in a particular field within the physical therapy world. Fellowships allow physical therapists to focus on a subspecialty within a specialty area. Both are beneficial, depending on your career goals.

Certification in a specialty is also helpful, and you can pursue this with your residency, fellowship, or continuing education hours. Adding specialty certification can help bolster your resume and give you a foot in the door of the particular field of physical therapy where you wish to work.

Once you complete these requirements and optional programs, you are ready to start looking for work. Through your fellowships, internships, and hands-on training, you will make connections that often lead to potential career options. Tap into those connections and start putting in applications to work in physical therapy, or consider launching your own practice and working for yourself.

Start Your Physical Therapy Training

University of the Cumberlands offers an excellent training path for physical therapists that meets all licensing requirements in Kentucky and many other states. This starts with a pre-physical therapy undergraduate degree that fulfills the requirements for a DPT program. By completing this degree, you will be well-prepared to enter your doctoral program. The bachelor’s degree in Pre-Physical Therapy offers both a biology and a chemistry degree track and provides a well-rounded undergraduate education that will guide students into a doctoral program, while also giving them a solid foundation in science.

Our Doctor of Physical Therapy degree launches in January of 2023, and applications are now being accepted. This is an accelerated program designed to be completed in two years. It has both online and on-campus training as well as hands-on physical therapy work. It is CAPTE certified, so you will be well-prepared to start your physical therapy career with proper licensure after graduation.

If you are interested in learning more about the Doctor of Physical Therapy program offered at the University of the Cumberlands — or a pre-PT undergraduate program — contact an admissions counselor or request more information today.