There is no way around it … tuition is expensive.
Doctor of physical therapy programs in particular, because of their length (three years) and level (graduate), require a huge financial commitment; at least $100,000 in student loans for most graduates, when tuition and living expenses are factored in.
It would be one thing if a new physical therapist (PT) could easily expect to earn enough money to pay student loans and other bills, but increasingly, PTs are finding it difficult to pull that off. Reimbursements by insurance for physical therapy are decreasing, which means salaries in physical therapy aren’t rising very much, if at all.
But it’s not all bad news. There are some things you can do to mitigate the financial drawbacks, and pursue the career you love.
Get a financial education too
One of the best things you can do, is educate yourself about your finances. There is a dearth of financial education provided to teens and young adults, and as a result, most of us leave high school, college and even graduate school with no idea how to do our taxes, invest money or create passive income, let alone balance a checkbook!
But, if we invest in a financial education for ourselves, we can not only survive, but thrive, financially, even in a time when reimbursements for physical therapy are declining.
To be fair, most of us do not get into the profession of physical therapy to make money. We want to help people. And let’s face it, we love science, not economics. But, it’s hard to help others when you are in a constant state of anxiety over you financial situation, which is happening to more and more new physical therapy professionals, with overwhelming student loan debt and lackluster salaries.
Luckily, there is no shortage of quality financial education resources. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Investopedia, and in particular, their YouTube channel. I also highly recommend reading “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. This book will change the way you look at income. For the better. Guaranteed. This book presents an entirely different way to look at your finances than most of us were taught. For a preview of the book, check out the video at the end of this post.
Choose your program wisely
If you are still considering which physical therapy program to attend, make sure that you are taking into consideration the cost of the program. It’s OK to want to attend a highly-ranked (expensive) program, and to make sure that you are getting a high-quality education, but the reality is, you don’t need to attend a top tier program to have a successful career. More about how to choose a physical therapy school can be found in this post.
Student loan debt can hamper your ability to buy a house, save for retirement, or even get married and start a family. Before you choose a program, do extensive research on tuition, fees and living expenses associated with the schools you are considering. Calculate the amount in loans you intend to borrow, and what your estimated payment, with interest, will be once you start repaying those loans. Then compare that monthly bill (plus other bills like rent/mortgage, utilities, car payment, etc.) with the take-home pay you can expect as a new graduate.
Some resources are available within the website of the U.S. Department of Education, such as a repayment calculator. Again, most of us are not in it for the money. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the financial aspects before jumping in.
Loan Repayment Programs
If you have federal government-backed student loans (SallieMae/Navient) and you work in certain settings (VA facilities, e.g.), in 10 years those loans can be forgiven. There are other programs that help you pay back your loans if you work in a rural area that is underserved by PTs.
These programs change from time to time depending on what the government’s needs are and what they are trying to incentivize. So you’ll need to do some research to see what is currently available. APTA has a page on this topic.
It sounds wrong, maybe disloyal, but one of the best ways to increase your salary fairly quickly is to “job hop.” Look for a new opportunity once every 12 to 24 months. Negotiate with each employer so that your salary increases at least 5-10% from your last position (way more than the 0-3% you’d get by staying put). Do this 3 or 4 times and then settle into a more long term position once you are at the level you want to be.
If you’re worried about how moving around from job to job will affect your employment prospects, don’t. These days, people do it all the time, especially in the early stages of a career, and it’s not as bad for your career as it used to be.
In most areas of the country, there are plenty of jobs. More jobs means the employers need you more than you need them, and job-hopping becomes less of an issue. I’m sure I’ll get flack for that in the comments section from hard working clinic owners and hiring managers, but it’s true.
A word of caution: make sure you can back up your increased salary with increasing expertise and value. Take continuing education courses. Obtain certifications or special training. Be good at your job and get stellar references from employers and patients. If you’re “all hat and no cattle,” this strategy won’t work.
Another strategy to increase your income after you graduate, is travel physical therapy. There are so many tax breaks for travelers that you end up pocketing way more cash. Housing and relocation costs, as well as some other stipends are tax-free as long as you travel more than 50 miles from your permanent residence, netting you potentially hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars in tax savings. More information on travel PT can be found in this post.
Wait until you have at least a year or two of experience and give it a try. I have had travel contracts with facilities that provide a comprehensive week-long orientation; but I have also been to facilities that hand you a list of patient names, without so much as a tour of the building. The expectation, most of the time, is that you can function independently as a traveling PT.
You can maximize your situation by traveling with a friend who is also a traveling PT/OT/SLP/RN. Since your housing is paid for when you travel, if you travel with a roommate, you can split one person’s housing stipend.
Is it worth it?
A lot of PT students find themselves asking that question, when they consider the high cost of student loans and the relatively low salaries. There certainly has been a lot of discussion on the topic in the last few years, and quite a few PTs who wouldn’t recommend this profession.
But I think it’s worth it, if you do it right. It’s still a job where you get to help people all day long, without sitting in a cubicle. And, to some, that is priceless.
No, it’s not worth it and anyone living in reality would see that. PT with year 16 now about to end.
Don’t go to PT school–ergo “DPT” the entry level program with a bachelor’s in nothing related at all to PT. We could argue the legitimacy of the “doctor” all day long but the real issue is the debt.
100K and up to 200K —for the average salary of 60-80K a year. Be strategically smart–that’s a total of 250-300K you’ll pay back with interest. That’s a house loan–a large house mind you. Don’t do it–I wouldn’t have if it were “DPT” long ago. That’s 1200 a month–for the rest of you’re working days most likely–at least until your late forties or fifties. No matter how much you “want to be a PT!!” It’s just foolish to rack that up.
Also there is the profession itself:
The problem is most of the entire PT organization lost its ethics a decade and a half ago.
First the DPT. That was brilliant APTA–getting students 100-150K in debt on a hope of direct access. Well thought out. As I’ve said in other comments my mission in life is to talk as many 19 year olds out of PT school. I was in the BSPT in 1999-there is NO way I would get in debt that high for DPT for a salary of 60-70 starting. I still have PTs telling me not to talk kids out of PT school. They aren’t living in reality.
Now for that 150K debt. You will be chained to a profession where most clinics see multiple patients at a time. Do that 10 years and you’ll have lost all skills. I’ve heard all the rationale–it’s nonsense, unethical, ineffective and immoral to treat like that. The APTA promotes direct access. I am wholly against direct access. Until I can go out and 80% of therapists are NOT unethical I will not change my stance on direct access. I’m a travel therapist–I can promise you it is 80%.
The DPT–is there a thesis? No. Not the end of year research paper that we all do but a real thesis written over the course of a year or two in post grad. No, the DPT doesn’t have that with a real defense. And you certainly don’t take a series of advanced statistically analysis courses that say a PhD would for their very real thesis vs your very watered down end of term paper we all did.
Are there orals? No
Does the DPT teach the lower level courses to undergrads. No
Do you go to PT school then advance schooling? No. You go to PT school which has been extended with a few fluff courses and largely more internships than you need to justify it somehow being a “doctorate.”
In short the DPT does nothing that even a post grad in sociology would do for the doctorate. It’s that simple. It is an expensive farce that backfired when insurance companies didn’t support direct access. It’s a lie to the public.
Will I join the APTA? Never have and never will. Until they re organize the DPT to a real post grad school–like say a fellowship and address the lack of ethics in this profession then I will never support them.
And again the cost is not worth the DPT–at all. I feel only sorry for the kids in PT school–which by the way I teach now.
Go to RN school–get 10K-15 in debt with more options besides patient care. Don’t be foolish and rack a large house in loans to be a PT. I wasn’t and can now retire anytime I want thank God as the profession deteriorates more with every passing year.
Hi Charles. Can I get in touch with you via email? I’m planning on heading to DPT school this fall and I just looked at my program’s comprehensive cost, and it seems pretty overwhelming. My email is email@example.com
Please shoot me an email if you wouldn’t mind sharing your advice with a worried student.
This is a good read. Here to offer a frank response. I am a PT, DPT, OCS who went to a top school (aka $$$$$) and was residency trained. Been practicing 4 years now and decided to go back to school to get an MBA. It’s a risk, more time and money spent but hoping for a better pay out at the end. Why? Because I don’t believe the much needed change for better reimbursement is going to happen any time soon.
Look, I love the profession and enjoy what I do. It is simply not sustainable to be a caregiver who can’t care for themselves (ie. Inability to pay back loans while trying to reach other life goals… that is unless you are the fortunate few who had help from family).
I question why the issue of high tuition and low pay with poor growth rate even exist. I was young, dumb and naive to believe that “things will just work out” when applying to PT school. I challenge the system and I am curious how we as a profession can make a change. How can we advocate for ourselves more? Should we unionize?
Ps to put perspective out there… my twin sister who went through same education prior to grad school, no a PA, earns 2x more than I do. Her 2-year grad school loans is obviously way cheaper.
Good luck everyone
Gerald wilkes jr says
Hi Fj, I am currently an undergraduate student planning on applying to PT school. If you don’t mind, could I email you for further questions?