The metamorphosis of physical therapy education in America has happened fast—almost caterpillar-to-butterfly fast, it seems. Not so long ago, you could enter the PT market with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree. Then, as the push for graduate-level PT programs picked up steam, more and more physical therapy students started pursuing master’s degrees. And by the time the APTA released its Vision 2020 statement, entry-level PT doctoral programs were already starting to pop up—and so began the demise of the PT bachelor’s degree.
These days, the bachelor’s of physical therapy degree is a relic, and the MPT is well on its way to extinction, too. In fact, according to the APTA, “The Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) and Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT) degrees are no longer offered to any new students in the United States.” Instead, those students must earn doctoral degrees—DPTs—in order to become licensed physical therapists.
What’s Up, Doc?
That transition is all part of Vision 2020, which, as this TherapyJobs.com post explains, states that “by 2020, physical therapy will be provided by physical therapists who are doctors of physical therapy.” Of course, requiring all new PT practitioners to obtain doctorate-level educations is one thing, but getting those who already are practicing to up their educational ante is quite another. There are still plenty of therapists out there treating under MPTs or even bachelor’s degrees—and providing exceptional care to boot. In fact, many of those PTs would argue that their years of experience have taught them more than any DPT program ever could. So, why dig out the old Trapper Keeper and hit the books all over again?
Transitional DPT Programs
For Kimberley Blauch, the answer to that question came when a colleague questioned whether her treatment approach for a patient recovering from knee replacement surgery was in line with evidence-based practice. As Blauch explains in this Today in PT article, she had developed that particular plan of care based on what she had learned in school two decades prior. “That was really a turning point for me,” Blauch is quoted as saying in the article. “In that moment, I realized that some of the things I had learned may be outdated.”
So, while there is no requirement mandating that non-DPT physical therapists obtain doctoral degrees, the transitional DPT—or tDPT—movement has caught on strong among the old school (pun intended) PT crowd. Aside from getting up to snuff on the latest and greatest in evidence-based PT practice, tDPT graduates and enrollees commonly cite the following reasons as justification for pursuing a post-professional education:
1. It increases your respect among PTs and within the healthcare industry at large.
In case you were wondering, tDPT recipients—like DPT grads—earn the right to call themselves doctors. But it’s not just about the title. It’s about moving the entire PT profession forward. It’s about instilling in healthcare consumers and providers alike the idea that physical therapists are not only the neuromuscular experts, but also fully capable care coordinators. That is, they have the breadth of knowledge necessary to serve as a patient’s first point of medical contact—and refer to other specialties when appropriate.
2. It provides a chance to meet, and learn from, other veterans in the PT field.
Whereas entry-level DPT programs are full of students with very little clinical experience, transitional DPT programs bring together a variety of clinicians with several years of practice under their belts. As this APTA page suggests, this fosters “a valuable and exciting context for learning, including rich and diverse interactions between PTs whose respective experiences provide an invaluable source of shared learning.”
3. There’s a limited window of opportunity for obtaining a tDPT.
Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today—especially if that “what” is earning your tDPT. After all, transitional DPT programs have a finite pool of potential students, which means demand for those programs is only going to decrease with time. And once supply outweighs demand, those programs will start closing up shop. As the APTA points out, “…it is unlikely these programs will exist beyond 2020. While the trend from 1999–2006 was of increasing enrollment in postprofessional DPT programs, since 2007 programs have reported enrollment declines.” In fact, while Today in PT reported that there were nearly 80 post-professional DPT programs nationwide in 2011, the APTA revealed that 27 of those programs closed between 2005 and 2013.
What to consider for tDPT programs
Of course, committing to a tDPT program is a big decision. So before you hightail it to the admissions office, make sure you consider the following drawbacks:
1. Getting your DPT doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make more money.
Insurers don’t adjust reimbursement rates according to the clinician’s educational level, which means PT practices have no concrete financial incentive to offer higher salaries to doctoral degree-holders. In fact, according to TherapyJobs.com, only 25% of therapists with DPTs believe “the advanced degree has increased their earnings.” So, if you’re just looking for a fast-track to a higher paycheck, the tDPT route probably isn’t your best bet.
2. Transitional DPT programs aren’t cheap.
Depending on the length of the program—and whether you’re attending an in-state or out-of-state institution—obtaining a tDPT will cost you anywhere from $6,200 to $28,000, according to the APTA. Cost differences also may reflect the degree to which programs account for students’ professional backgrounds. For example, a program that requires several generalized credits may be more expensive than a more focused program that aligns with learners’ specific skills and educational goals.
3. Completing a tDPT program requires a hefty time investment.
Regardless of which program you choose, getting your tDPT is going to take work—and time. We’re talking several months to several years, depending on the format of the courses (i.e., onsite or online), the number of credits required for graduation, and whether you attend full-time or part-time.
While there’s no cut-and-dried answer as to whether obtaining a tDPT is the right move for you, it’s definitely something worth considering. After all, as I mentioned above, these programs won’t be around forever—so if you’re going to spread your educational wings, now’s the time to do it. Have you looked into any tDPT programs? What’s your motivation for earning a doctoral degree? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
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