Earning a physical therapy degree online is a convenient, affordable way to launch your career in this expanding industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects physical therapist positions to grow by 28% between 2016-2026, while employment for physical therapy assistants should grow by 30% in the same time frame.
Students in physical therapy online courses learn to help patients recover from injuries, illnesses, or diseases that affect their mobility and ability to live pain free. Degree candidates also explore various therapeutic modalities, gaining a nuanced understanding of individualized treatment plans and practices.
Schools make physical therapy degrees available at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. All degree types and program levels provide graduates with opportunities to enter the field and pursue fulfilling, challenging professional roles. At minimum, candidates must possess an associate degree and state licensure to work as a physical therapy assistant. Individuals who complete a bachelor’s degree enjoy many additional career opportunities, including a variety of administrative and clinical positions.
In the following guide, we answer some common questions regarding physical therapy degrees and the professional benefits of each degree. Read on to learn more about opportunities in the industry, along with information about licensure, certification, and professional organizations.
Earning a physical therapy degree online holds many advantages over traditional programs. Flexible web-based programs allow busy individuals to earn a degree without traveling to campus multiple times per week or scheduling their personal and professional responsibilities around set class times. Many online programs also cost less than their on-campus counterparts. The list below includes a few of the benefits to pursuing your physical therapy degree online.
Completing physical therapy online courses allows candidates to further their educations from any location with a secure and steady internet connection. Most programs provide all course materials and assignments through an online learning platform, removing the need to carry books and supplies.
Many institutions offer their physical therapy degree online in an asynchronous format, meaning students can review materials, interact with peers and professors, and complete assignments at the times that best suit their unique schedules. This flexibility provides significant benefits for learners juggling work, school, and personal responsibilities.
Distance learners do not need to limit their options to schools within driving distance. Instead, they can earn a physical therapy degree online from any institution in the country, selecting a school based on prestige, course availability, notable faculty, and concentration options. Some out-of-state programs may also cost less or offer better funding opportunities than the applicant’s home state institutions.
Students who want their education to provide a true melting pot experience often enroll in online programs, which unite learners from around the world through shared study and experiences. Those hoping to work outside their home state can also build useful professional networks.
Using sophisticated digital learning platforms, online programs transmit course materials through innovative delivery methods, allow distance learners to remotely access university resources, and seamlessly manage testing. They also allow students to interact with classmates and teachers through text, audio, and video.
Types of Physical Therapy Degrees
Prospective students can enroll in physical therapy online courses and pursue degrees from the associate to doctoral levels. The type of degree you ultimately pursue should align with your educational history and career goals. Generally speaking, individuals who earn advanced degrees enjoy more job opportunities and enhanced earning power. Many students who want to test the waters start by pursuing an associate degree, which takes only two years to complete. Others know they want to work in the field and earn a doctor of physical therapy after finishing their bachelor’s or master’s degree. The following sections describe each degree level in further detail.
Online Associate’s Degree in Physical Therapy
Associate degrees provide prospective physical therapists with the foundational education needed to take on entry-level roles. Most associate-level programs expect applicants to supply their high school diplomas and transcripts from any previously attended high schools and/or colleges. They must also provide biographical information such as name, address, and birthdate.
The majority of physical therapy assistant programs online require 60 credits and two years of full-time study, although some institutions offer part-time options. General curriculum focus areas include anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and neuroscience. As you explore potential programs, look for those accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which uphold the field’s highest educational standards.
Upon graduating, candidates can sit for the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy’s (FSBPT) licensure exam and work as physical therapist assistants. Some graduates decide to continue their education, entering bachelor of pre-physical therapy programs and spending an additional two years in school.
This introductory course familiarizes learners with common professional terminology, vocabulary related to diagnostics, lab tests, and surgery. Coursework emphasizes words’ roots and stems to help students identify unknown terms.
In this class, students explore common treatment techniques, paying close attention to hot and cold therapies and their respective effects. Candidates also learn to treat patients using compression, massage, and traction.
Physical Therapy Trends
Typically taken in the student’s final year, this class looks at emerging modalities in the discipline and how practitioners can use new techniques and strategies to provide better rehabilitation services. Coursework may also cover specialty areas.
Online Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Therapy
Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Therapy
Associate degree holders and new freshmen alike find success in clinical and administrative roles after earning bachelor’s degrees in pre-physical therapy. Most prospective students begin the application process after locating a CAPTE-approved program. Typically, colleges and universities require applicants to hold a high school diploma and provide official transcripts from any attended high schools and colleges, SAT/ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay/statement.
Most physical therapy schools online expect bachelor’s degree candidates to complete between 120-130 credits over four years of full-time study. In addition to coursework, most degree seekers must take part in a semester-long internship. Distance learners who live far from their institution can usually find an approved internship site in their region.
After completing a bachelor’s degree, new graduates work directly with patients or on the administrative side of the industry, finding employment as athletic trainers, exercise physiologists, physical therapy managers, and rehabilitation directors. Often, those who aspire to high-level or managerial positions go on to pursue a doctoral degree.
This course introduces fundamental topics related to human physiology and anatomy, emphasizing the ways in which physical structure influences bodily functions. Learners also examine the integumentary, skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems.
Surveying the mechanics of physical movement, this course focuses on the human muscular and skeletal systems. Candidates explore different treatment modalities related to improving musculoskeletal function, mobility, and wellness.
In this class, degree seekers apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills to real-world settings as they work under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. Online students typically fulfill clinical requirements at nearby medical facilities.
Online Doctorate Degree in Physical Therapy
Doctoral Degree in Physical Therapy
Recently, the American Physical Therapy Association deemed master’s in physical therapy programs obsolete and mandated doctoral programs as the base educational level for prospective physical therapists. As the field’s terminal credential, a doctorate in physical therapy (DPT) prepares graduates to sit for the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT ) physical therapist examination. Prospective doctoral candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field.
Applicants usually need to provide their official transcripts demonstrating a minimum GPA, GRE scores, proof of completing prerequisite coursework, a personal essay, and letters of recommendation. Some programs also require candidates to possess some previous work experience.
A DPT usually requires three years of full-time study, including 32-40 weeks of clinical work. Clinical components provide students with the chance to build hands-on therapeutic skills as they practice under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. Online programs typically allow distance students to fulfill internship requirements at an approved internship site near their home. Due to their emphasis on clinical experience, most online physical therapy programs do not expect candidates to produce a dissertation. Instead, students sit for comprehensive exams after fulfilling all clinical and internship requirements.
DPT programs accredited by the Commision on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education help foster students who pass their final exams and seek state licensure to work as physical therapists. Depending on their state, prospective therapists may need to meet additional educational or professional requirements. However, the American Physical Therapy Association mandates that all physical therapists must hold a doctoral degree to obtain licensure. In addition to performing clinical work, some graduates pursue teaching roles at colleges and universities.
Providing insight into the professional world and its practices, this class examines the physical therapist’s many roles. Lectures explore relevant legal and ethical considerations, communication strategies, and professional development requirements for licensed Physical therapists.
This course introduces diagnosis and treatment strategies for musculoskeletal problems, emphasizing specialized treatment modalities and emerging trends in the field.
Exploring major concepts in movement science, this class surveys kinesiology, motor control and learning, and abnormal movements. Candidates learn to assess patient needs and develop individualized exercises and treatment plans as needed.
Physical Therapy Licenses and Certifications
Prospective physical therapists in all 50 states must meet certain licensure requirements to work with the public. While licensing guidelines vary by state, all require that candidates pass the FSBPT National Physical Therapy Examination. The 250-question physical therapist exam takes five hours, while the PTA exam takes four hours and includes 200 questions. Individuals pursuing PTA licensure must possess, at minimum, an associate degree; a doctor of physical therapy degree is required for physical therapist licensure.
In addition to the main examination, some states expect applicants to pass a legal exam and submit to a criminal background check. Once licensed, individuals must fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain their status. Students should check with their state board to learn about any additional licensing strictures or unique requirements.
Physical therapists who wish to earn specialty certifications must pass additional examinations. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties currently provides credentials in nine different focus areas: cardiovascular and pulmonary therapy, clinical electrophysiology, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, orthopaedics, pediatrics, sports, and women’s health.
What Can You Do With a Physical Therapy Degree?
Individuals who earn a physical therapy degree online pursue many different career paths. While those who wish to enter the field may quickly earn an associate degree, others decide to seek a doctoral degree and take high-level positions. Regardless of degree type, most prospective physical therapy professionals enjoy working with and helping others. Unless they specialize in emergency medicine, they typically enjoy working standard 9-5 hours.
Working under a licensed physical therapist’s supervision, these assistants help patients regain mobility while recovering from illness and/or injury. They teach patients therapeutic exercises, provide other therapies when necessary, and help patients use walkers and other mobility devices.
Physical therapists develop treatment plans to help patients improve movement and reduce pain. They collaborate with other medical professionals to devise holistic, individualized recovery paths and evaluate patient progress. They also oversee physical therapist assistants.
Working primarily with athletes, these professionals identify and treat bone and muscle injuries. They diagnose musculoskeletal issues, create rehabilitation programs, and develop preventative plans to ensure that clients avoid injury-causing situations.
Working in both medical facilities and private homes, exercise physiologists assess patient mobility before developing exercises and fitness plans to aid in recovery. They also monitor vital signs during exercises to prevent overexertion.
These specialists assist children and adolescents who suffer from mobility issues due to injury, disability, disease, or illness. Working alongside students, families, and schools, they create exercise plans and provide ongoing services to help young patients improve physical abilities over time.
Instead of working on the clinical side, these managers oversee the administrative aspects of physical therapy. They hire and train staff, coordinate continuing education programs, develop and implement budgets, and monitor operational resources. They also ensure that therapists in their facility maintain licensure and comply with all state, federal, and trade regulations.
Much like physical therapist managers, rehabilitation directors oversee the business responsibilities of the practice. They direct financial affairs, manage human resources, ensure customer satisfaction, and manage lower-level staff. In smaller facilities, they may provide some rehabilitative assistance under the supervision of licensed professionals.
While even newly licensed physical therapists enjoy salaries above the national average, earning power tends to increase significantly over time. Although an advanced degree may lead to a higher salary, professional experience often provides just as much value. Take a look at the following table to get a sense of how salaries grow over time.
Salaries for Physical Therapists by Experience
Where Do Physical Therapists Work?
Physical therapists work in many different professional settings, depending on their interests and education level. According to the BLS, 33% work in physical, occupational, and speech therapy offices, while a further 26% hold positions in state, local, and private hospitals. Home healthcare services employ a further 10%, while 7% work in nursing and residential care facilities. Physical therapists employed in long-term care facilities earn the highest wages, drawing a median annual wage of $92,940, while median annual salaries for those working in therapy offices approach $82,620.
Physical therapists spend much of their day on their feet, assessing patient needs and developing exercises and care plans. Professionals who work in offices usually follow traditional schedules, while those employed in hospitals or care facilities often work variable hours.
While experience level, individual employer, and industry all play a role in salary expectations, geographical location can also influence a physical therapist’s earning power. As the table below demonstrates, Nevada offers physical therapists salaries far above the national average. However, make sure to consider an area’s cost of living. For example, although professionals in California enjoy higher wages, the state’s cost of living ranks higher than that of many other locations.
Recreational therapists assist individuals with illnesses or disabilities by planning and executing treatment plans and programs. These can include social outings, arts and crafts, sports, music, water/swimming exercises, and more. Recreational therapists also provide their patients with strategies for reducing stress and improving independence. These therapists have natural leadership skills, are excellent listeners and communicators, and are sincerely compassionate and caring individuals. Patience and understanding are also important qualities in this role. Earning a physical therapy bachelor’s degree online will advance career entry.
Physical therapist assistants and aides work closely with physical therapists. They provide some direct care to patients, including certain exercises, stretching, and massage techniques, along with reporting of patient progress to physical therapists. They also set up equipment, move patients to and from therapy areas, clean, and schedule appointments. Successful physical therapist assistants and aides have empathy for others, are good communicators, and are physically strong (due to the position’s demand for constant physical activity). Many choose to pursue a physical therapy degree online to enter this profession.
Growth Rate 2014-2024
Number of Jobs: 2014
Occupational therapists assist disabled, elderly, or injured patients with improving their daily lives. This can include recommending removal of objects that pose fall risks for elderly patients, teaching others how to use wheelchairs, or making a disabled child’s classroom more accessible. Patient and home evaluations, treatment plan development, caregiver/family education, and hands-on patient assistance are required. Occupational therapists are patient, flexible, compassionate, and have excellent communication and writing skills. A doctorate in physical therapy online will provide the education necessary for this career path.
Growth Rate 2014-2024
Number of Jobs: 2014
Physical therapists are compassionate, resourceful, and active individuals. They work to improve the health and well-being of their patients, whether due to an injury, medical incident (like a stroke), or debilitating disease. Physical therapists must diagnose their patients, develop treatment plans, and improve mobility with exercises, stretching, massage, and/or equipment. They evaluate their patients throughout their recoveries, adjust treatment plans as needed, and communicate regularly with patients and their families. Physical therapy degrees at the required doctorate level for this position are available online.
Online Physical Therapy Degree in Action
Vivian Eisenstadt M.A.P.T. Physical Therapy
Vivian Eisenstadt is an orthopedic and sports physical therapist working at Vivie Therapy in LA. She earned her master’s in physical therapy and an orthopedic specialization from Touro College in New York. When Vivian earned her master’s, that degree was the standard credential for practicing physical therapists. Today, physical therapists must earn their doctorate.
When and why did you begin pursuing a career in physical therapy?
I was an athlete. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life when I hit college, so I became a phys. ed major. My athletic training instructor took us on a class trip to an outpatient orthopedic Physical Therapy Center and the lightbulb went off. I went back to school and went straight to the HR office to find out what courses to take for pre-PT and that was that.
What were the most important skills you gained or built upon while earning your master's degree?
I was told "know your anatomy" and you can figure everything out, so I really worked on my knowledge of the muscles, where they are located, where the pain radiate from trigger points and which nerves innervate different muscles and parts of the skin (dermatomes and myotomes).
What's the most rewarding part of a career like this? And the most challenging?
Rewarding -- getting people out of pain and back to their lives. Most challenging -- working with the insurance system and payment issues. People don't have good insurance any more, and believe that because they pay insurance that physical therapy should be free. You don't think about that with a personal trainer or cosmetologist, but because physical therapy is under the medical umbrella, people don't want to pay for it.
What type of person is a good fit to become a physical therapist?
[They should be] empathetic; patient; good with figuring out causes and not symptoms; loving; caring; did I mention patient?
What advice would you give to students considering earning a degree in physical therapy?
Do something because it lights you up and the money will come. Don't go into physical therapy because you just want the money. You have to love what you do. Keep yourself in good physical shape and mental shape, as physical therapists' bodies take a lot of pounding and emotional pressure as well.
Resources for Physical Therapy Students
Professional Physical Therapy Organizations
Professional physical therapy associations provide both recent graduates and industry veterans with a variety of helpful resources. Individuals earning a physical therapy degree online can take advantage of student resources and scholarships, and current professionals can peruse exclusive job boards, participate in continuing education programs, and strengthen their industry network by attending events. Many organizations also publish journals and newsletters to keep members abreast of emerging technologies and therapies.
American Physical Therapy Association: The largest professional group of physical therapists, APTA serves members by providing continuing education, career support, advocacy, trade publications, industry news, and student resources.
American Council of Academic Physical Therapy: ACAPT supports physical therapy professors and postsecondary instructors. Along with regional events and national conferences, the council offers exclusive continuing education opportunities and networking opportunities.
Indiana Chapter, APTA: APTA’s state-level organization chapters encourage partnership and collaboration among local physical therapists. State chapter members benefit from educational programs, special events, and career assistance services.
American College of Sports Medicine: ACSM sponsors certification and continuing education programs, hosts annual meetings and networking events, and publishes emerging research in trade publications.
World Confederation for Physical Therapy: This international group unites practitioners through collaboration opportunities and resource development programs, providing members with publications and educational resources.