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March 10, 2009

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Today, educational programs graduating physical therapists award either a Master's in Science or a Doctorate of Science. All physical therapy programs are at the graduate level and require a college degree. Depending on the number of required prerequisites an individual can transfer from their BS or BA degree, length of educational programs range from 2-4 years.

An undergraduate degree (BS or BA) is a must for applying to graduate school in physical therapy. There is no specific major looked on more favorably than another in terms of preparation for graduate school in physical therapy, but students applying to physical therapy programs often have undergraduate degrees in psychology or sociology, which can benefit future health care professionals as they may be more attuned to the psychosocial issues of health care delivery. Remember that all physical therapy graduate programs will require a certain number of prerequisites, often including chemistry, anatomy and physiology, physics and statistics, but depending on requirements for undergraduate majors, a student applying to grad school may have one or more of the prerequisites already taken care of. PT educational programs generally include classes in the basic sciences, therapeutic sciences, liberal arts and research education.

Where to Go

There are many physical therapy schools (more than 200) in the nation accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association. A school without this accreditation (CAPTE) is not worth a grain of salt because the association has standards with which all educational programs must comply. Find out about specific programs through each school's website. The American Physical Therapy Association is also a good source of information, as is the annual list of accredited physical therapist education programs in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada in the Physical Therapy Journal, which you can find in your local library.

The university and four-year colleges that currently have accredited programs are categorized in the appendix of this guide by state. All of these programs have unique strengths, but for the past 15 years, the following programs have been known as the best and the most competitive to get into: Boston University, Columbia University, Temple University, MGH Institute of Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University. The University of Puerto Rico's program is an excellent program taught in Spanish. As in other professions, the reputation of the physical therapy school matters. Among schools of physical therapy, the school's passing rate on licensure exam, employability of alumni, reputation of faculty, and age of program all factor in.

Programs differ in terms of class format; some programs are taught in the evening, some in the day, and some on the weekend. Programs also differ in terms of whether they culminate in a master's or doctoral degree. Some programs admit women students only, such as Simmons College in Massachusetts and Texas Woman's University; most programs allow transfer students, but transferred courses are weighed individually by each university admissions department; some are housed within a medical school and some are not. Other considerations you'll want to keep in mind include the geographic area, financial aid and scholarship availability, the size of the faculty, the relationship with the local community, cost of the program, and faculty to student ratio.

To learn more about a college/university that houses a particular program, a Barrons or Peterson's Graduate School Guide may be the best way to go. Do know that all programs have similar high standards for grade point averages (generally 3.3 or above) and also look for excellent references, great presentation at the interview (may be on-site or phone interview), examples of interest in participating in community health projects; and evidence that you've explored the field and are knowledgeable about what physical therapists do.

Admissions and Cost

In the mid-1990s there were more applicants to PT schools than there were spots available. Schools could be choosy. Admissions were highly competitive. Since then, PT educational programs have proliferated, and schools now have to market their programs in order to recruit applicants. Most programs leading to an entry-level degree in physical therapy are full-time, but programs are cognizant of the possibility that students need to work while going to school and offer flexible class and time schedules. Weekend programs hold classes Fridays-Sundays to allow students to continue to hold jobs while going to school. Students graduating from either a Masters or Doctoral level program must sit for a state licensing exam currently offered in written format only. Many educational programs encourage students to attend an exam preparatory course held at various locations throughout the U.S. in order to prepare for this challenging test.

Physical therapy programs are quite costly to attend. The average cost of a professional program (2 years for Masters, 3 years for Doctoral) is $54,083.25. The tuition is worth the investment, however, as the median salary reported by the PTA is $52,000 based on a 2,644 response survey (Redman-Bentley, 2004). Do know that this is a median national salary and salaries range widely based on urban and rural areas. (Hiring bonuses are sometimes offered to attract graduates to rural areas.)

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