What You Should Know About Getting Your Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree

Why you should consider getting your doctor of physical therapy.
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It takes us places, never stops, manages itself, and does not require any oil or batteries to keep it running.

What is this contraption that I’m talking about? Have we finally created a 100% eco-friendly car? Sadly, no.

The vehicle I’m talking about is the human body—the most important vehicle of all and the one we use every single day. With all that we put our bodies through, it should come as no surprise that every once in a while, they need some maintenance, just like your car needs the occasional check-up.

Physical therapists are here for just that reason. They are the mechanics of the body.

And just like auto mechanics who attend programs that teach them to fix cars, physical therapists enroll in physical therapy programs that teach them to fix bodies. Sounds cool, right?

Want to know a bit more about what it’s like to pursue an education in this field?

We spoke with Veronica Glen, doctoral candidate in physical therapy at Columbia University, about what you need to know about applying for a similar program and what you can expect once you begin your studies.

What interested Veronica in this career path?

Originally, Veronica was on the pre-med track. But then she realized that the time commitment and intensity of that career path was not something she was willing to go through; she wanted to focus on having a family and a social life.

A professor who knew about her interest in exercise and fitness recommended that she shadow a physical therapist who worked nearby.

Veronica fell in love with the field instantly!

What are the educational requirements for becoming a doctor of physical therapy candidate?

You have to have a Bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a related field like Biology, Exercise Science, or Kinesiology, but those majors do help for getting all of your prerequisites out of the way. Not every program requires the same pre-reqs, but in general they’re the basic sciences: a year of biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, psychology, stats, etc.

Why did she choose to pursue a doctor of physical therapy degree instead of a master’s degree?

Actually, the Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MPT) is being phased out and the Doctor of Physical Therapy is now becoming the only acceptable degree. The APTA (American Physical Therapy Association) says that there will be no more MPT programs by 2020, and it will all be Doctorate level.

Because it’s a clinical doctorate (it’s a DPT, Doctor of Physical Therapy instead of a PhD), it’s a little different from PhD programs. Students do not have to do a dissertation or a final project. In Columbia’s program, students do have to complete a systematic review with a professor and a few other classmates, but that requirement differs from program to program.

What internship/volunteer/work experience does a student need to apply for a doctor of physical therapy program?

You need to have completed a lot of observation hours in order to apply to get your doctorate. Veronica volunteered at an outpatient orthopedic clinic, outpatient pediatric clinic, and in a hospital setting. Schools like to see a wide variety of volunteer hours from multiple physical therapy settings. And it’s not just for the sake of your school. It’s also good for you to explore the different areas you can take your physical therapy degree.

Veronica has chosen to focus on pediatrics. She’s always wanted to work with children and tried it out as an undergraduate. Now that she’s enrolled at Columbia University, she’s found that the pediatric courses are the most interesting to her and so she’s decided to focus her studies on that area of the field.

Students aren’t required to pick a focus. As a physical therapist, you can work in any setting without a specialized degree. In fact, Columbia’s program is one of the only ones in the country that does offer specialized tracks during the third year. Even then, it’s not a binding process. For example, Veronica could choose to focus on pediatric physical therapy at Columbia, but that doesn’t mean she has to go into pediatric physical therapy after she graduates. Because that specialized study occurs during the last semester of the program, it doesn’t affect the rest of your physical therapy studies very much and you don’t have to be defined by it.

[Editor’s note: If you want a little more information about different types of physical therapy, check out our post that covers the basics of this field.]

As for the required number of hours spent working/volunteering as a physical therapist, there is no exact number, but Veronica completed 150 hours as an undergraduate. Those hours met the criteria at all of the schools that she applied to. Just be sure to look into the requirements for the programs that you’re interested in to make sure you have the minimum amount of hours completed.

What is Veronica’s favorite part about studying PT?

Veronica’s favorite part about studying physical therapy is all of the hands-on experience she gets in the lab. Yes, students attend a lot of lectures, but in order to prepare for clinical rotations, they spend a good amount of time actually practicing manual techniques on other students in the class.

What are the biggest challenges she’s faced while pursuing her doctor of physical therapy degree?

The course load and study time in this profession are intense. School is a full-time job. You’re in school almost every day from 9:00am–5:00pm.

What advice does Veronica have for students interested in pursuing a doctor of physical therapy?

Veronica recommends that students who are interested in pursuing their doctor of physical therapy make sure to get their prerequisites done early (especially if they’re majoring in something other than Health Science).

She also recommends applying to a variety of different schools in all sorts of locations. She’s so happy with the amount of travel she’s been able to do just because of the schools that she has attended. She grew up in Hawai’i, moved to Los Angeles for her undergrad degree, and now lives in New York City while attending Columbia University.

“I’m seeing so much more of the US than I would have ever imagined!”

The school you attend does not necessarily dictate where you work after you graduate. There is such a growing need for PTs all over the country, Veronica is pretty secure in her job choices. Her program is well connected to the physical therapy settings in New York City, New Jersey, as well as within the dance community. Still, if she wanted to work outside of these three areas, Veronica feels that she could find a job elsewhere without much trouble.

Homework time! Veronica started out on the pre-med track but realized it wasn’t the right direction for her. If you’re interested in working in the health industry (but don’t think med school is the right choice), spend some time looking into other healthcare careers. We’ve explored some of them like nursing, occupational therapy, public health, and physical therapy. Take a look to see if any of those career options appeal to you.

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