Earning an Online Ph.D. in Physical Therapy

If you possess a passion for scholarly research and want to improve patient care provided by physical therapists and related healthcare professionals, an online Ph.D. program in physical therapy may be an excellent fit for you. Professionals with a doctorate can fill high-level positions at research institutions, universities, and healthcare facilities. A Ph.D. requires graduate students to become an expert in a particular area of the field. As a result, degree holders move on to highly specialized and rewarding careers.

Physical therapists are in demand, in part, because of the aging baby-boom population, general occupation-related injuries and body ailments, and athlete injuries. A professional with a Ph.D. in physical therapy works as an essential researcher and scholar who helps to identify, disseminate, and instill the most up-to-date physical therapy practices in the U.S.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs in physical therapy will grow 28% between 2016-2026. That increase is four times greater than the median projected growth for all occupations in the U.S.

In the section below, we address some key factors to consider when exploring Ph.D. programs, including funding opportunities, professional organizations, and what it takes to earn this advanced degree.

Why Get an Online Ph.D. in Physical Therapy?

Pursue Deeper Knowledge and Specialization

Ph.D. programs afford learners the time, resources, and faculty support to develop expert-level knowledge in specialized areas. Furthermore, this advanced degree enhances your professional credibility and positions you for leadership roles in physical therapy. Most programs require doctoral students to write dissertations based on original research. With a strong committee of faculty members as support, your dissertation can become the foundation on which you build a successful career.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Most high-level research and teaching positions require a Ph.D. The top colleges and universities typically pursue candidates with doctorates to fill tenure-track professor positions. Professorships typically include both research and teaching responsibilities, and higher education institutions need well-trained individuals who can handle strenuous roles in both areas. More complex job responsibilities often yield higher salaries. Ph.D. holders can take comfort in the fact that they hold the highest degree in their field and can take advantage of the opportunities it generates.

Online Learning Technology

Students in online Ph.D. programs in physical therapy enjoy working with the latest tools and technologies in the field. A diverse and modern education allows Ph.D. holders to seamlessly transition into the workplace and put their knowledge to immediate use. Whether you find yourself in a research, teaching, or patient care role, today's online learning technologies will give you the diverse technological skill set needed.

What's the Difference Between a Ph.D. in Physical Therapy and a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)?

People who are unfamiliar with the academic tracks available to physical therapy graduate students may not realize the difference between a Ph.D. and a doctor of physical therapy (DPT). The Ph.D. is an academically focused degree designed to help students develop high-level research and critical-thinking skills. These professionals build on existing practices and research in physical therapy and strive to make improvements with their original research projects.

Alternatively, the DPT is a clinical degree that prepares candidates to work directly with patients. These professionals can diagnose and treat patients, providing practical guidance to promote healing, develop treatment plans, teach patients how to carry out exercises, and maintain records of their patients' progress.

For students who wish to put their minds to work in both the academic and clinical sides of their field, some colleges and universities offer dual or joint DPT/Ph.D. degrees.

Prerequisites for Online Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Programs

A student pursuing an online Ph.D. program in physical therapy must meet certain prerequisites for admission. While the number and type of prerequisites will vary depending on the college or university, the list below offers a solid outline of what to expect when compiling your graduate school applications. Be sure you understand each school's requirements before you apply.

  • Fulfillment of Prerequisite Coursework While prerequisite coursework demands vary between schools, colleges and universities often provide an online list of prerequisite classes for incoming learners. Most physical therapy programs expect incoming students to have a "B" or higher in classes such as critical inquiry, teaching, learning, health education, evidence-based practice, and independent research strategies.
  • Admission to the Graduate School In many cases, colleges and universities require Ph.D. students to apply to graduate school first and then seek admission to the physical therapy program. Acceptance into the graduate school does not guarantee a student admission to a particular program. Rather, students receive candidacy to enter a physical therapy program after a period of coursework and compliance with any departmental rules.
  • Proof of Graduation From an Accredited Program Many schools require their incoming physical therapy students to have degrees from programs approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Most of the time, this means that each applicant needs to possess a master's degree in physical therapy or a related area. Incoming graduate students must complete their master's programs before starting doctoral coursework.
  • Competitive GPA Pursuing a Ph.D. is highly competitive. A prospective student needs to possess an above average GPA and, if applicable, outstanding GRE scores. Doctoral programs may not place significant emphasis on an applicants' GPAs. Some colleges and universities, however, list their GPA expectations on their admission requirements web page. In general, a student interested in an online Ph.D. program in physical therapy should have a 3.0 GPA or better.
  • Letters of Recommendation Applications for online Ph.D. programs in physical therapy typically require letters of recommendation. The individuals who write your letters must speak to your likelihood of success in a physical therapy doctoral program or a research/teaching role upon graduating. Ideally, these letters come from professors or professionals in the field who can address specific topics in physical therapy and highlight your pertinent attributes.

How Much Can I Make With an Online Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Degree?

A learner pursuing an online Ph.D. in physical therapy has many career options upon graduation. These careers require professionals to hold advanced degrees with specialized skill sets and they offer room for advancement. Similar to many specialty careers, which offer security and longevity, a physical therapist's value and earning potential increases with experience. As such, jobs in this field are often lucrative. For example, the lowest 10% of professionals in this field earned $60,390 in 2018. Comparatively, the highest 10% of physical therapists earned more than $123,350.

Potential Careers

Careers Stats Description

Clinical Director of Physical Therapy

Median Annual Salary: $81,151

These professionals are high-level administrators who oversee patient care in healthcare facilities, including physical therapy clinics. They interview and hire staff members and other physical therapists, monitor patients' progress, and ensure the facility meets all regulatory standards. A Ph.D. in physical therapy helps them gain the essential knowledge to understand diverse patient needs and stay current with the latest research and advancements in the field.

Physical Therapist

Median Annual Salary: $70,307

These professionals work one-on-one with patients and help them actively work toward recovery from various medical conditions. They serve patients of all ages in rehab facilities, hospitals, and physical therapy clinics. A doctoral degree allows them to develop valuable knowledge in a specialized area, learn a diverse set of patient care techniques and exercises, and stay up to date with research in the field.

Professor of Physical Therapy

Median Annual Salary: $86,826

Accredited online Ph.D. programs in physical therapy need professors with advanced degrees and experience. The doctorate prepares students for high-level instruction in physical therapy programs and related areas in colleges and universities. These professionals work with undergraduate and graduate students, physical therapy majors, and non-majors at all skill levels.

Paying for an Online Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Program

Tuition rates and the duration of online Ph.D. degree programs vary greatly between schools and students. In some cases, graduate students receive funding from their physical therapy programs for the duration of their time in school. In others, colleges may offer learners merit-based funding every year.

Applicants can obtain additional funding in the form of internal financial aid through their schools or from a federal grant or work-study program. The amount of available federal aid changes yearly, but many Ph.D. physical therapy students receive some form of federal support, especially if they do not obtain scholarships.

Scholarship money can come from a variety of internal and external sources to provide financial awards that students do not need to repay. You can apply for as many financial awards as you see fit. The list of scholarships for physical therapy students below provides an excellent starting point for your search.


Colleges and universities reserve scholarship money for learners of all backgrounds. Prospective graduate students should apply for every scholarship for which they qualify. In particular, all pupils should conduct online searches for financial awards based on ethnicity, location, academic major, hobbies, family history, or proposed career upon graduation. The following list contains scholarship offerings for physical therapy students based on a wide variety of criteria.

What to Expect From an Online Ph.D. in Physical Therapy Program

Ph.D. degree seekers can complete classes in categories such as foundations of physical therapy, research methodologies, pathokinesiology research practicums, and analyses of human motion. While each student's scenario is different, most online Ph.D. programs in physical therapy require about 3-5 years to complete.

If a student's dissertation process takes longer than expected, they're allowed to take up to seven years to finish their program. Online students in asynchronous, self-paced programs or learners with a substantial number of transfer credits may finish more quickly than other physical therapy students.

Major Milestones

Online schools in physical therapy guide doctoral students through a process of predetermined steps, beginning with introductory course requirements and ending with the submission of the final dissertation draft or completion of licensure requirements. The section below highlights typical milestones Ph.D. students may encounter on the way to graduation.

  1. Completing Coursework

    Most students complete their coursework at the end of their second year, although this depends on the student's availability and workload. Additionally, learners may need to take classes during their summer semesters to finish all course requirements within two years.

  2. Dissertation Proposal

    During their second or third year, students typically propose a dissertation topic to several faculty members. The proposal shows the committee that the student can design a feasible research project that, if carried out as planned, will contribute to scholarship in the field.

  3. Qualifying Exams

    This process can vary greatly between schools. Qualifying exams are often a week-long process during which the student writes essay-style answers to several questions posed by a committee of faculty members. Learners often take the exams during their third year or later.

  4. Exam Defense

    Also during the third year, remote students may need to defend the answers they wrote for their qualifying exams in person or through a video chat. This meeting provides faculty members with the opportunity to ask the student about specific information in their exam answers and to discuss their proposed dissertation topic further.

  5. Dissertation Defense

    After a committee reviews the dissertation draft, each student must attend an in-person or video chat defense to answer additional questions from faculty members. This provides an opportunity for students to clarify any gray areas in their work and receive feedback for final revisions. Defenses usually take place during the third or fourth year of the program. Some remote Ph.D. students need up to seven years to finish their dissertations.

  6. Licensure Exams

    The National Physical Therapy Examination is a 250-question exam that takes five hours to complete. Many students choose to sit for licensure exams after they complete their qualifying exams or finish their dissertations.


Courses at the doctoral level vary between schools, but many offer similar foundational courses for online students. Remote learners are likely to find the following courses in online Ph.D. programs in physical therapy:

Functional Anatomy

This class helps students explore body motion, neuromuscular activity, kinematics, and the anatomy of the body. The class typically includes both lecture and laboratory work. In some cases, students dissect a cadaver for a closer look at muscles, joints, and upper extremities.

Promoting Health and Wellness

This interdisciplinary course helps students develop customized wellness plans for individuals and families. Enrollees can learn how to identify and promote community resources through public education initiatives. Additionally, the course assists each physical therapist in developing a positive rapport with patients.

Introduction to Diseases

This class educates students on basic pathology, signs, symptoms, and presentations of common diseases and conditions. Faculty members emphasize common musculoskeletal conditions in home healthcare, outpatient, and rehabilitation scenarios.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Professional organizations can provide valuable resources for both students and seasoned professionals. These membership-based groups typically offer up-to-date news in the field and host annual conferences. Conferences are often the biggest events of the year and provide opportunities for physical therapists and scholars from around the globe to convene in one location to share research, expand their professional networks, and collaborate. Professional organizations also offer unique benefits for their members, often including exclusive online resources, a member database with contact information, and an active job board.

  • American Physical Therapy Association: APTA members can take advantage of annual conferences, an active job board, online discussion boards, and relevant news in the field. They can also take advantage of discounts on certification exams, continuing education courses, and conference registration fees.
  • American Council of Academic Physical Therapy: Focused on promoting physical therapists and related teaching, research, service activities, and scholarship efforts in clinical and academic settings, ACAPT offers its members an annual conference, dozens of online resources, and virtual and in-person networking opportunities.
  • International Federation of Orthopaedic Manipulative Physical Therapists: IFOMPT is a group of physical therapists specializing in neuro-musculoskeletal disorders. This federation helps establish clinical standards for practicing in this area of therapy. It also provides a platform for professionals to collaborate and share research findings through its peer-reviewed journal.
  • Academy of Pediatric Physical Therapy: APPT supports physical therapists who provide specialized care for children with movement dysfunction. Members can take advantage of various online resources and professional development opportunities. The academy also provides up-to-date job postings and research opportunities.
  • Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy: AGPT provides education for its members in every geriatric-focused area of physical therapy. Most importantly, it keeps its members up to date on service and volunteer opportunities in this specialized area so they can actively help aging members of their communities.