Becoming a licensed physical therapist is a huge milestone—but it’s just the beginning of your career. The best PTs are always looking for the next step. That’s what PTs do, after all—they encourage their patients to move forward, one step at a time.
Once you have earned your Doctor of Physical Therapy degree and are practicing in the field, there’s always another level of career advancement to strive toward. Whether you’re looking to increase your salary or broaden your skill set in physical therapy, there are several options available to you.
In this comprehensive guide to physical therapy advancement opportunities, we’ll look at the ways you can further your physical therapy career.
1. Complete a Post-Professional Program Through the ABPTRFE
The American Board of Physical Therapy Residency & Fellowship Education (ABPTRFE) accredits PT residency and fellowship programs. Recognized by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the agency sets the standards for post-professional physical therapy programs nationwide.
There are two paths for physical therapists who are looking to further their skills in a clinical environment. Let’s look at each one.
Physical Therapist Residency
Many medical professionals engage in a residency program after graduation, and physical therapists have a similar opportunity. In a PT residency, you’ll work one-on-one with a mentor in your specialty.
Residency programs are more than on-the-job experiences. They are an excellent way for PTs who have graduated from a physical therapy graduate program to apply their knowledge of evidence-based orthopaedic techniques within their workplace, under the guidance of an onsite or virtual mentor. Throughout the process, you’ll also complete coursework that you can apply in the clinic. USAHS has a Clinical Orthopaedic Residency program that is designed to graduate clinicians with superior post-professional clinical skills, advanced knowledge of clinical practice, and the ability to serve as PT consultants, advocates, and educators.
Physical Therapist Fellowship
Designed for PTs who have already completed a residency, a fellowship takes the experience one step beyond. In a fellowship, you’ll further hone the specialized skills you explored in your residency.
At present, ABPTRFE accredits fellowship programs in the following ten areas:[i]
- Critical care
- Hand therapy
- Higher education leadership (nonclinical)
- Movement system
- Orthopedic manual physical therapy
- Performing arts
- Sports division
- Upper extremity athlete
USAHS’ Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy Fellowship offers PTs the opportunity to focus on the subspecialty area of orthopaedic manual physical therapy and prepare for the Manual Therapy Certification exam. Its mentorship structure is similar to the Residency program; learn more about the difference between our Residency and Fellowship.
2. Become an ABPTS-Certified Specialist
The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) is another APTA-recognized organization that offers certification to PTs who undergo specialized training.
At the time of writing, there are ten specializations that physical therapists can become certified in. You can choose from:
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary – In this area, you’ll focus your practice on treatments that benefit a patient’s heart, veins and lungs.
- Clinical electrophysiology – As technology advances, so do the possibilities for physical therapists. A PT who specializes in clinical electrophysiology uses devices to measure, analyze and produce physiologic responses in patients.
- Geriatrics – If you want to help clients maintain wellness as they age, or regain function after strokes and other age-related conditions, geriatrics is an ideal choice.
- Neurology – In the in-demand specialty of neurology, you’ll treat patients with various neurological disorders, injuries and impairments.
- Oncology – The field of oncologic physical therapy involves managing the needs of patients with cancer and related conditions.
- Orthopaedics – The most popular specialty, orthopaedics focuses on treating injuries and conditions of the bone, muscle, tendons, ligaments and joints. Specialists also see patients with systemic musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis, as well as those recovering from surgery.
- Pediatrics – Pediatric specialists focus on treating physical conditions in young people from newborns to teenagers. They may see patients with conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism and cystic fibrosis.
- Sports – This specialization focuses on the prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of sports injuries from a physiological and psychological perspective.
- Women’s health – In this relatively new specialty, you’ll learn how to help women who are experiencing pregnancy, post-partum conditions and menopause, as well as other health issues across a woman’s life span.
- Wound management – The newest specialty, wound management encompasses both superficial and deep wounds with emphasis on the relationships between body systems and how treating one system impacts another.
How to Earn a Specialty
If you’re hoping to become board-certified in any of these areas, you’ll need to meet the requirements, which include:
- Experiential hours – Applicants need 2,000 hours of direct patient care in their chosen specialty area. They must have earned 500 of those hours in the past three years, while all 2,000 within the past ten years. Alternatively, you can show proof of attending an APTA-accredited residency within the past ten years in your specialty area.[ii]
- An unrestricted license – You must hold a valid, unrestricted PT license that allows you to practice in the United States.
Along with these general requirements, each specialty area may also ask you to meet specific conditions.
Once you’ve satisfied the requirements for your chosen specialty area, you can apply through the APTA website. After your application has been accepted, you can take your certification exam. If you study rigorously, you should have no problem passing the exam and becoming a board-certified specialist in your area of PT.
3. Earn a Terminal Degree
Although the DPT is a doctoral degree, it’s an entry-level qualification. Some PTs wish to reach the pinnacle of education in their field by earning a terminal degree such as the EdD or PhD.
Doctor of Education (EdD) Degree
Many licensed physical therapists are motivated by the opportunity to help others. If your goal is to share the benefits of physical therapy with as many people as possible, consider becoming a healthcare educator.
When you enroll in a Doctor of Education (EdD) program, you gain the skills you’ll need to instruct the next generation of PTs in the classroom or clinic. And each physical therapy student will eventually go on to help thousands of patients.
The time it takes to complete an EdD varies by program and institution. The Doctor of Education program at USAHS is designed to take four years and four months (13 trimesters*), though acceleration options are available. USAHS’ program is dedicated to healthcare education, as distinct from other areas of education.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
If research is your passion, a PhD gives you the chance to delve into an area of PT research and thoroughly investigate it. The PhD is great preparation for a career in academia, whereas the EdD is more broadly applicable within academia, clinics and other healthcare organizations.
4. Join an APTA Chapter or Section
To continue your professional development through networking and advocacy, consider joining your local chapter of APTA.
Across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, APTA maintains chapters that host events and learning opportunities that advocate for physical therapists in local and state legislation.
Additionally, you’ll find APTA sections (also called “academies”) that offer courses, put on conferences and publish scientific journals. By participating in these think tanks, you can help shape the future of physical therapy in the United States—all while furthering your knowledge of the discipline.
Why Pursue Physical Therapy Advancement Opportunities?
Of course, if you’re happy with where you are, there’s no need to advance your career. But if you’re considering climbing the clinical ladder, here are some advantages you should know about.
Deepen Your Understanding of the Field
First and foremost, physical therapy advancement opportunities allow you to expand your passion for helping others. By furthering your education or pursuing a specialty, you open yourself up to exploring:
- Cutting-edge treatment strategies
- Research findings that shed new light on PT practice
- Technology that aids diagnosis and treatment
The better you understand the ever-changing field of physical therapy, the better you can help your patients. And that in itself is a reward.
Attract More Patients
By earning a certificate from an accredited residency or fellowship program, you can instill more trust in potential patients. For example, if an athlete is choosing between you and the other physical therapists in town, you can imagine that they’ll want to pick the more qualified professional!
Increase Your Salary
With more experience comes the possibility to earn higher wages. For example, the salary for a practitioner with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree will be higher than salaries for positions that require less education, such as physical therapist assistants and aides.[iii] According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for PTs nationwide is $95,620.[iv]
However, those with advanced qualifications can often command salaries above this median number. Physical therapists in the top 10% of earners can make upwards of $127,110 per year. Now that’s what it means to move forward!
The largest PT school in the United States,* the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a hands-on Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Join a collaborative cohort of peers who learn under the mentorship of expert faculty-practitioners. Practice with mock and real patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with a wide range of patients, as well as for advanced roles in research, practice leadership and policymaking. Residential (blended didactic courses + in-person labs on weekdays) and Flex (online courses + in-person labs on weekends) formats are available.
*Based on total DPT degrees conferred, as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Data is captured by IPEDS through interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
Doctor of Physical Therapy Candidacy Program (Launched Fall 2020) – Dallas Campus
Effective April 28, 2020, the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences’ Doctor of Physical Therapy program on the Dallas, Texas campus has been granted Candidate for Accreditation status by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), 3030 Potomac Ave., Suite 100, Alexandria, VA, 22305-3085; phone: 703-706-3245; email: [email protected]). If needing to contact the program/institution directly, please call or email Dr. Thomas P. Werner at 469-498-5740 or [email protected].
Candidate for Accreditation is an accreditation status of affiliation with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education that indicates the program may matriculate students in technical/professional courses. Achievement of Candidate for Accreditation status does not assure that the program will be granted Initial Accreditation.
[i] American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education, “For Physical Therapist Residency & Fellowship Participants or Prospective Participants,” n.d.: https://abptrfe.apta.org/for-participants.
[ii] American Physical Therapy Association, “Minimum Eligibility Requirements and General Information for All Physical Therapist Specialist Certification,” n.d.: https://specialization.apta.org/become-a-specialist/minimum-requirements.
[iii] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified April 18, 2022: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm.
[iv] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Physical Therapists,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified April 18, 2022: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm.