Patients who need ongoing assistance with improving and maintaining their mobility often work closely with physical therapists. Though physical therapists work in the field of health care, they do not require a medical degree as physicians do; accordingly, they generally attend fewer years of school. Students who wish to complete a shorter educational path can consider degrees leading to employment as a physical therapist assistant. Either choice leads to a career with vibrant job growth: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted 39 percent growth in jobs for physical therapists and 45 percent growth in the employment of physical therapist assistants.
Associate Degree Programs
In much the same way that nurses collaborate with physicians, physical therapist assistants help physical therapists by observing patients and providing exercises and treatment. Most states require physical therapists to have associate degrees, which generally require two years to complete following a full-time schedule. As of 2013, the Commission on Accrediting Physical Therapy Education listed 309 physical therapy assistant programs, with 11,650 students enrolled in the 2012-2013 academic year.
Bachelor's Degree in Physical Therapy
Students preparing to become physical therapists or work in a related position can earn a bachelor's degree in a field similar to physical therapy. Often designated as a health sciences degree, clinical health degree, or exercise science degree with a concentration or track in physical therapy, these bachelor's degree programs usually require four years to complete. There is no professional bachelor's degree in physical therapy, so all such programs require further graduate study for students to qualify for licensure.
Graduate Physical Therapy Degree
Though the field of physical therapy formerly offered a professional master's degree, nearly all master's-level programs have been discontinued or transitioned into doctorate programs. In order to maintain accreditation status, all programs need to offer the Doctor of Physical Therapy by 2015, as this is the new minimum requirement for students to be eligible for licensure. Most doctoral programs require three years of study. On average, doctoral students spend 80 percent of their time on classroom work and 20 percent in clinical practicums or rounds. CAPE listed nearly 26,000 students enrolled in 218 different accredited physical therapy doctorate programs in 2012-2013.
Combination Degree Programs
Recognizing that the doctoral degree is becoming the standard for work as a licensed physical therapist, many schools offer joint bachelor's/doctoral programs. Some schools admit students into a 3+3 program, in which students complete three years of prerequisite work for a bachelor's degree before advancing to the three years of the professional doctorate. Some of these programs may admit students directly from high school. After earning the doctorate, physical therapists need to have at least 2,000 hours of clinical practice in a specialty area before they are eligible to sit for that specialty's certification examination.