The arms are the atria, and the legs are the ventricles. Which one of your professors is brave enough to teach it this way?
Recently, I received an email from a reader of The PT Student. Danny from Missouri asked me if physical therapy school ratings are important when choosing a school. Here, I answer his question, and provide an overview of the most important things to consider when choosing a physical therapy school.
Do National PT School Ratings Matter?
When I answered Danny’s question, I told him that the national ratings don’t matter much, for a few reasons.
First, every doctor of physical therapy (DPT) and physical therapist assistant (PTA) program is required to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). This means that each program must have just about the same curriculum, and teach the same topics. This way all of the graduates are prepared for the same national licensure exam. (More important to consider, is teaching methodology, which is addressed below.)
Second, the job market for physical therapists (PTs) and PTAs is so good right now, it doesn’t much matter where you went to school, in terms of your employment prospects. In 99.9% of cases, it’s not like law or business school, where someone who graduated from Harvard might get more consideration than someone who went to a lower-tier state school.
Lastly, if you take a moment to click on the Methodology link for U.S. News and World Report’s physical therapy schools ranking page, you will find that the data collected is shaky at best. The data are just surveys sent to “deans, other administrators and/or faculty at accredited degree programs.” So, all of the programs were judged by someone at another program, and whoever filled out the survey may or may not have had enough knowledge about that other program.
Further, the last time the publication conducted this survey was in 2011. They sent it to 201 physical therapy schools and only received responses from 40% of them. U.S. News and World Report doesn’t disclose the questions on the survey, and clicking on the link doesn’t provide any further information about why that school is rated so highly. There is not enough information provided for a student to make an informed decision.
There is a slightly better ranking website called StartClass. This set of rankings does take into account things like the program’s license exam pass rate, average GPA of incoming students, employment rates, graduation rates and student-faculty ratios.
Interestingly, this website also takes into account the faculty that have won awards from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). However, these awards may or may not translate into a better program from the student’s perspective.
Plus, faculty change schools all the time, and all of those statistics change annually, so unless StartClass has a team of people monitoring all 561 physical therapy programs, it is doubtful that these ratings are completely accurate. Plus, StartClass also factors in U.S. News and World Report rankings. And since we have already determined that those are fairly useless, it reduces the helpfulness of these rankings.
So, if the national ratings aren’t that helpful for picking a physical therapy school, what can future PTs and PTAs use to help decide where to apply?
With the soaring cost of education, the price tag of the program is one of the most important things to consider, because it has such a long term effect on your finances. Unfortunately, not many students take this aspect into account.
Student loans, whether they are public (federally insured) or private, will be with you until you pay them off; usually a minimum of $600 a month for 30 years. If you are considering a DPT program at a public institution, your total tuition and fees cost will be $50,294. If you enroll at a private institution, it nearly doubles to $94,251.
Remember, going to a DPT program means that you will probably also borrow money for living expenses, because you’ll be in class or studying more than 40 hours a week. So, unless you are able to support yourself with savings, depending on your lifestyle and where you live, you can tack on up to $30,000 a year, or $90,000 to the total. So, that’s about $140,000 for a public DPT education and about $185,000 for private.
It would be one thing if paying more for your education guaranteed a better program or a better job when you graduate, but it doesn’t. So, do some research on the cost of your education before choosing where you will apply.
Most institutions have this information right on their websites, so it’s easy enough to gather and factor into your decision. You can potentially reduce your costs with scholarships and grants. Ask each potential school what types resources are available. These are the resources that will truly help you financially, because most grants and scholarships don’t have to be paid back.
One of the great things about PTA school is that the average cost of a public institution (in-state tuition and fees) is $10,359. That’s for the whole program, and many can be completed part-time, so you can keep working. For some more information on deciding between a PT and a PTA degree, check out this post.
Location, Location, Location
For many people, location is the most important factor. You may need to stay in a certain area, because you are planning on living with family, or you have other commitments. In that case, you’re probably more willing to pay a higher tuition amount to stay in your preferred area. For others, a move to a new state is fine or even desired. Just keep in mind that you’ll make the majority of your networking contacts in and around your school, which may help in your job search.
You’ll be spending more time then you ever imagined at the school so make sure the commute is convenient.
Beyond the commute, there are some other things to think about when it comes to location, such as your internships. Unlike nursing and other similar programs, physical therapy schools generally do not pay clinical instructors to supervise students during internships for 7, 16 or even 24 weeks. These PT and PTA instructors do it for free. Not only do they not receive compensation, having a student means that the clinical instructor can’t get as much work done and makes less money for the facility.
Unfortunately, for this reason, many clinical instructors are being told by their administrators that they may not host any more students, due to the financial constraints it puts on the organization. This is a challenge for physical therapy faculty who are in charge of finding enough clinical placements for every student in the program. It’s even harder in places where there are not a lot of placements to choose from, like in rural areas.
What this means is, if you choose a physical therapy school in a rural area, you can expect to do at least one of your rotations out of the area because there may not be enough internships to go around. Even if you are in a more urban area, if there are a large number of physical therapy programs nearby, all fighting for limited internship slots, there still may not be enough to go around.
If you are required by your program (yes, they can require it!) to travel out of state for an internship, you’ll be responsible for paying for your travel and housing during that time. This can be a financial hardship for many students, so it’s best to find this out before you apply, and not after investing two years in a program.
As mentioned above, all physical therapy programs are required to essentially teach the same content. So, if they all teach the same thing, the real difference between programs is in the teaching philosophies and methods.
For example, my program (University of Maryland, Baltimore) had a traditional lecture/lab structure. But, at Sacred Heart University, they use problem-based learning, where students are assigned a case, come up with a plan for what they need to research, and report back to the group and teach each other.
More and more programs are harnessing technology and offering “flipped classrooms” where you watch a lecture video on your own, and use in-class time to discuss, question and practice. This is another area to research about potential programs.
Some students are most comfortable with the traditional lecture format. Some students find lecture to be a snooze-fest, and would rather teach themselves in a self-directed learning format. Make sure you are comfortable with what your potential program offers before applying so you don’t wind up in a curriculum that makes learning physical therapy any harder than it already is.
Graduation, Employment and Exam Pass Rates
CAPTE tells all physical therapy programs that they must make student outcomes available to everyone. This means that any prospective student who asks is entitled to the program’s graduation rates, employment rates and pass rates on licensing examinations.
Since most programs are required to provide this information, it can usually be found on a website. Make sure you look into this information. If 40% of the program’s students fail out or otherwise leave, that is a sign that the program is either very tough, has crappy faculty, or something else is wrong with it.
Look for a graduation rate of at least 75-85%. That’s about the national average for DPT programs.
For PTA programs, the national average is about 70%.
The three year ultimate pass rate on the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is also a good measure.
The national average for the PT version of the exam is 88-90% passing on the first try, with 99% eventually passing it on a subsequent try.
For PTA schools, the national average is about 81-84% on the first try, and 94-95% eventually passing on a subsequent try.
If the school you are considering is well below the national average, it could be that the faculty are just not that great. Or, it could be that the application pool is small and the school is admitting students that are not as strong academically. Or, that the faculty are allowing students to pass through the program when they really haven’t demonstrated the appropriate levels of knowledge. Whatever the reason, you might want to avoid a program with dismal NPTE pass rates.
If the employment rates are low, that’s a red flag too. The unemployment rate for physical therapy is so low right now, that there is virtually no reason for a large number of graduates to be without a position. If you’re seeing employment rates below 98%, something is wrong. It’s either a rural area, with not many jobs to begin with, or the graduates of that program have a bad reputation.
Here are a few resources that will help you to collect more information about potential programs. Good luck and leave a comment if you have any other helpful pointers.
In 2006, I was working as a physical therapist in acute care in the Boston area. One day, as I was evaluating a polite, older gentleman after hip replacement surgery, he said, “this is a nice job for you girls.” You girls. He didn’t say it in a “this profession offers so many opportunities for career growth and success” kind of way. Let’s just say that the connotation was … old-fashioned.
After taking a few seconds to resist the urge to rattle off a list of reasons why his comment was so offensive, I simply said, “It better be. It took me 8 years to earn my doctorate.” He looked stunned for a moment, as if he was under the impression that a physical therapist license could be obtained after a weekend of training. For the next two days, we worked very well together, though he did refrain from offering any additional commentary about my career choices.
Our History: Women Only … At First
Upon reflection, I realized that this patient spent his early years, and most of his adult life, in a vastly different world than we live in today. When he was a young boy, his mother, grandmother and aunts probably didn’t have the right to vote or hold public office in the United States, depending on the state they lived in.
The 19th amendment wasn’t ratified by all 50 states until 19201. In fact, Mary McMillan, one of the founders of physical therapy, earned the right to vote just months before becoming the first president of what is now the American Physical Therapy Association.2 The association was founded exclusively by women, because early on, women were the only candidates admitted to programs that trained Reconstruction Aides. It wasn’t until many years later that men could become physical therapists, and they were not members of the association until the 1930s.2
Back then, it was not uncommon for women to have to fight for equal rights and status. Colonel Emma Vogel (Ret.), spent years fighting for equal pay and rank as a physical therapist in the Medical Department of the U.S. Army, finally winning and earning the rank of colonel.3
Physical Therapy Today
These days, women still comprise about 70% of the profession.4,5 While we don’t face all the same issues that our predecessors did, contemporary physical therapy practice is not without challenges for women. For example, like most jobs in the U.S., women in physical therapy earn less than men. The median earned income of a female PT is $80,000 per year, while men earn $92,000.4
In addition, those who tend to make the most in physical therapy, are usually private practice owners; close to a third of private practice owners report making over $100,000 per year. However, men own physical therapy practices at about twice the rate that women do.5 Unfortunately, the disparities don’t end with salary and practice ownership.
Et Tu, APTA?
Only males have filled the role of CEO of APTA for more than 20 years, with the exception of an interim CEO in 2003. The APTA Board of Directors is 63% women, but for the elected executive positions – president, vice president, secretary and treasurer – only 50% of those positions are filled by women.6 There hasn’t been a female president of APTA in over a decade.
According to the APTA bylaws, the president is the official spokesperson for the association.7 It is troubling that an organization that is made up of 70% women, has been officially represented on a national level by a man for more than 10 years.
In physical therapy education, things aren’t much better.8 While only 30% of the profession as a whole is men, 40% of physical therapy program director positions are filled by men.9 Female physical therapy students’ first exposure to a leadership position in physical therapy involves a disproportionate number of male role models.
And while 60% of physical therapist (PT) program directors are women, more than 76% of physical therapist assistant (PTA) program directors are women.9,10 This fact reveals that women are more likely to fill leadership roles at smaller programs, where they are more likely to earn less money, participate in less in research activity, and, due to smaller budgets and staffs, generally have less influence than directors of PT programs.
Trailing in Online Influence
Another area in which women in physical therapy are under-represented is online. In the past few years, the physical therapy community has embraced social media and blogging as a way to connect and communicate.
A quick search on Google for physical therapy blogs reveals that the vast majority are run by men. Of the 17 prominent blogs that are run by physical therapy professionals (excluding those run by students and organizations), only four, including this one, are run by women. The other 13 are run by men. This means that while women make up 70% of the profession, 70% of the blogs are being run by men. Since blogs exist to help us communicate with the world, it is significant that women’s voices are under-represented in this arena.
But Hey, Is This Really Such A Big Deal?
Given the examples above, should we be concerned? Is it really all that bad? After all, there are worse industries. Certainly women in computer science and finance experience significantly more inequality. And there are many positive examples of women in leadership roles in the physical therapy community:
- The Speaker of the APTA House of Delegates is Shawne Soper, PT, DPT, MBA.6
- Mary Jane Harris, PT, MS has been the Director of the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) for 14 years.11
- Selena Horner, PT, MS, GCS, ATC is a leader in social media, running the #solvePT Tweetchat.12
- Ann Wendel, PT, ATC, CMTPT is a prolific blogger and contributor throughout the web.13
There has also been an APTA Task Force on Women’s Initiatives since 2012. In fact, there is a whole page on APTA’s website with the title: Career Considerations for Women in Physical Therapy.14 The thing is, why is there no equivalent page for male physical therapists? Men are the minority and the relative late-comers here. Shouldn’t they be the ones that need more help? It begs the question: why do we need a Task Force on Women’s Initiatives if nothing is wrong?
What’s Wrong, Dear?
The real danger here, is not the present. It is our future that is vulnerable. In female-dominated professions, often the assumption is that parity is a given; i.e., a higher proportion of women naturally means more women in leadership positions. At the very least we should expect to see a balanced leadership that reflects the demographics of the profession, shouldn’t we? We should. But we don’t right now. And it’s possible that it could get worse.
This can be attributed partially to the fact that this may be our elephant in the room. There have been few, if any, articles on the topic in PT in Motion, physical therapy trade magazines, or scholarly journals. Given that both the editor, and the associate editor of PT in Motion are men, it is fair to say that these issues are probably not foremost on their editorial calendars. Or is it, perhaps, a function of PT in Motion’s editorial board, which is 80% men? 15
What Does This Mean?
Raising this issue is not to suggest that men have any less right to pursue as many leadership posts and high paying positions as they care to; or rebuke the notion that the most qualified among us ought to occupy those roles, whether they are male or female.
Nor does simply raising this issue suggest that the challenges surrounding women in society and the workplace are anything other than longstanding, multifaceted and complicated. Indeed, the Task Force for Women’s Initiatives came to the same conclusion.14
It also doesn’t preclude us from accepting the status quo, if we are happy with it. But, just in case there are some physical therapy professionals out there– male or female – that are concerned about this issue, at the very least, an open dialogue is long overdue.
Call To Action
Not everyone wants to pursue a leadership position, and that’s OK. But if 175,000 of us are female, there are surely enough women to guarantee that our leadership is proportionally represented by both genders. So, if you are one of the ones who wants to lead, go for it, because we need you. We need you to run for office on the local and national levels. We need you to start a blog and become a voice of influence. We need you to become a private practice owner. We need you to pursue leadership roles in education and research. We need you to ask for what you need to get it done. We need you, because you know what? In the end, my patient was right. This is a “nice job” for us “girls.” But only because “us girls” made it happen in the first place.
About the Author
Jennifer Bresnick, PT, DPT practices what she preaches as a member of the Connecticut Physical Therapy Association’s Board of Directors, physical therapy blog owner and PTA Program Director. Jennifer lives in Shelton, CT, with her husband and two daughters, ages two and five.
- Wikipedia, Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution Accessed March 22, 2014.
- American Physical Therapy Association History, http://www.apta.org/history/. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History, http://history.amedd.army.mil/corps/medical_spec/chapterIII.html Accessed March 22, 2014.
- American Physical Therapy Association, 2013 Median Income of the Physical Therapist Summary Report. Last updated 2/24/2014.
- Advance Health Network, 2012 Salary Survey Results, http://physical-therapy.advanceweb.com/Archives/Article-Archives/2012-Salary-Survey-Results.aspx. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- American Physical Therapy Association, Board of Directors, http://www.apta.org/BOD/. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- American Physical Therapy Association, Policies and Bylaws, http://www.apta.org/Policies/. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- Sabus C. Engendered Roles in Physical Therapist Education: A Feminist Vision for Scholarship in Clinical Education. J Phys Ther Educ. 2010;24(3):44-49.
- Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, 2012-2013 Aggregate Program Data: PT Programs, http://www.capteonline.org/AggregateProgramData/. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, 2012-2013 Aggregate Program Data: PTA Programs, http://www.capteonline.org/AggregateProgramData/. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education Staff. http://www.capteonline.org/WhoWeAre/Staff/. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- #solvePT via SnippetPhysTher. http://snippetphysther.tumblr.com/whatis. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- Prana Physical Therapy Blog. http://prana-pt.com/blog/ Accessed March 22, 2014.
- American Physical Therapy Association, Career Considerations for Women in Physical Therapy. http://www.apta.org/CareerManagement/Women/. Accessed March 22, 2014.
- Masthead. PT in Motion, Mar 2014;6(2):8.
On the fence? Not sure if you should become a physical therapist (PT) or a physical therapist assistant? Take the quiz and get some insight!
For informational purposes only. For individualized advice, please contact your school administrators/advisers.
In our first article in this series, we discussed the differences in educational requirements; in our second installment, we outlined things to think about once you graduate. Beyond what it will be like immediately after you graduate, it is important to know what your choice (PT or PTA?) will mean down the road as your career develops.
Be The Boss
Many physical therapy graduates aim to be the head of a physical therapy or rehab department. Both PTs and PTAs can fill this role. However, if you are a PTA with an associate’s degree but no bachelor’s, you may need to go back to school before you qualify for one of these posts. Most managerial positions require a bachelor’s degree and sometimes a Master’s.
Some students in my PTA program plan to further their careers by pursuing a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree after graduation. I often advise these students to consider other pathways for their careers as well. These include pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business or management, or even a Master’s in Public Health. Both degrees will help you gain the skills you need to run a rehab department, where a DPT program has very little of the curriculum dedicated to these topics.
Be Your Own Boss
Another common goal of physical therapy graduates is becoming the owner of a PT clinic. Again, both PTs and PTAs are eligible to do this, however, there can be additional challenges for a PTA. Remember, PTAs must work under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist. PTAs cannot provide physical therapy unless a PT first sees the patient and sets up a plan of care.
Most private clinic owners start out by themselves, which means they are PTs – setting up plans of care, and executing them on their own. Since a PTA cannot do that, he or she will need to hire, or partner with, a PT from day one. This extra requirement can often make the path to clinic ownership more challenging, but not impossible.
Be the Teacher
One additional career choice is to join the faculty of a physical therapy program. Faculty and administrators of PTA programs are usually required to have a Master’s degree or higher, although it doesn’t necessarily need to be a Master’s in Physical Therapy. Some faculty have graduate degrees in education or public health.
To teach in a PT program, you’ll need an entry-level physical therapist degree and some sort of research credential, such as a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. You’ll also need a fair amount of experience working in the field. For this reason, PTs are more likely to teach in a physical therapist program than PTAs. PTs can have experience in, and teach about the patient examination, evaluation, prognosis, diagnosis and plan of care. Since PTAs are not allowed to perform those functions in the workplace, they do not have the experience level required to teach in a PT program in most cases.