Online Master's Programs in Physical Therapy

If you're seeking a career path in a stable industry with good pay, you should consider physical therapy. The current job outlook for physical therapists shows great projected growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A graduate degree in physical therapy can start your journey to becoming a physical therapist or it can prepare you for similar professions, like athletic training or recreational therapy.

This guide provides information about what to expect from an online master's degree in physical therapy. It also lists possible careers, expected salaries, and professional associations that can help with the job search. Keep reading to learn more.

What to Know About Online Master's in Physical Therapy Coursework

Many students aspiring to become physical therapists go straight from undergraduate to a professional doctorate or a doctor of physical therapy program. However, students who want to focus on research and theory rather than practice may enroll in physical therapy master of arts programs. These degrees, including the online master's in sports medicine, usually resemble physical therapy programs and teach many of the same concepts.

Master's candidates learn the scientific and anatomical reasons behind injuries, disabilities, and illnesses that cause people to struggle with physical movement. They study the nervous, musculoskeletal, and cardiopulmonary systems. They also learn about methods to treat these conditions. The curriculum typically requires 30-36 credits and students usually graduate in 1-3 years, depending on whether they enroll full- or part-time.

Common Courses

What Common Courses are Offered in a Master's in Physical Therapy Program?

Each program offers a unique curriculum. Electives and advanced courses often depend on faculty members' research interests, but foundational concepts are mostly the same across programs. All physical therapy students must learn about musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary systems, for example. The list below outlines a few common courses found in physical therapy programs.

  • Neuropathology: Neuropathology is the science of nervous system diseases. This course expands upon basic neuroscience concepts learned in undergraduate or introductory coursework. Course material often covers the central and peripheral nervous systems, exploring how these systems affect physical therapy practice. Learners also learn about lesions, tumors, and injuries.
  • Musculoskeletal Physical Therapy: Students examine the mechanical properties of musculoskeletal tissues and different types of dysfunctions, diseases, and disorders. The course teaches physical therapy intervention models, including how to evaluate and treat musculoskeletal conditions. Professors may split this course into two or three parts, since it covers many vital concepts.
  • Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy: The cardiopulmonary system involves the heart and lungs. People with cardiopulmonary conditions require specific physical therapy intervention strategies, which students learn during this course. Instructors teach how the cardiopulmonary system works and how it can dysfunction. This course may include multiple parts or a laboratory component.
  • Disability Studies: Learners in this course study physical disabilities. The material usually goes over disabilities in the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems. Students also learn about the differences between chronic conditions and acute disturbances. They study therapy and intervention techniques and the cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural implications of living with a disability.
  • Essentials of Rehabilitation Practice: This course introduces students to physical rehabilitation strategies. It trains them to clinically assess physical dysfunctions and identify treatments. Rehabilitation practice may require physical therapists to respond to the effects of diabetes, spinal cord injury, or neuromuscular diseases, for instance.
Specializations

What Specializations are Available in a Master's in Physical Therapy Program?

Not all online master's degrees in physical therapy allow students to choose concentrations. However, specializations help learners focus on a specific field within physical therapy. A student interested in studying sports rehabilitation, for instance, could work in athletic training after graduation. However, concentrations vary by school. Read about a few common specializations below.

  • Sports Rehabilitation: This concentration focuses on treating athletes with injuries. Students learn about concussions, ACL tears, shoulder injuries, and other common damages from athletic activities. They also study treatment techniques such as manual therapy, hydrotherapy, and strengthening and stretching therapies. People who choose this emphasis area often become athletic trainers.
  • Geriatrics: Geriatrics specialists concentrate on caring for people suffering from conditions related to old age. These conditions may include arthritis pain, joint stiffness, and osteoporosis. Physical therapy professionals with expertise in geriatrics help patients ease their pain and strengthen their muscles. As more baby boomers enter old age, physical therapists with this concentration may find themselves in high demand.
  • Neurology: Students focusing on neurology become specialists on the nervous system. They learn to treat patients suffering from spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions that hinder patients' movement. All physical therapy students take courses on neurology, but learners with this emphasis may take advanced courses and pursue research projects on the nervous and spinal systems.

What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?

A master's in physical therapy online typically requires students to complete a thesis. A physical therapy thesis focuses heavily on research, meaning students must take research methods courses before beginning their projects. Schools also usually require the same basic three steps: thesis proposal, research, and defense, with an advisor overseeing the process. Throughout the research process, students work with their advisor to ensure they stay on track.

At the end of their programs, master's candidates must successfully defend their projects in front of a faculty committee that they assemble. This thesis defense typically serves as the final exam, which students must pass before they can graduate.

How Can I Choose a Quality Online Master's in Physical Therapy Program?

When searching for a quality master's in physical therapy online, prospective students should keep an eye out for accredited programs. Accreditation ensures that a school offers a quality education. Students with degrees from unaccredited programs experience difficulty applying to graduate school or finding employment. It's best to choose schools that hold regional accreditation. For physical therapy programs, students should also look for programmatic accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

Other factors that indicate education quality include how many faculty members hold doctoral degrees along with each school's rates for acceptance, retention, and graduation. Particularly low retention and graduation rates may be red flags. For deeper research, prospective students should look into what jobs previous graduates landed after earning their degrees.

Career Opportunities With a Master's in Physical Therapy Degree

A master's degree can lead to a job as a physical therapist for students who earn doctoral degrees and certifications as well. However, master's graduates can put their skills and knowledge to use in the professional world without a doctoral degree. Their expertise in anatomy and physical intervention strategies can help them find jobs as athletic trainers, recreational therapists, and exercise physiologists, for example. Read more about potential jobs below.

Career Profiles


Physical Therapist

Physical therapists help people improve functional problems with movement. They may use exercises or stretching maneuvers to ease people's pain and treat injuries. PTs must hold a doctor of physical therapy to earn licensure, and an online master's degree in physical therapy prepares students for that final academic step.

  • Median Salary: $87,930 per year
  • Currently Employed: 239,800
  • Expected Job Growth in Next 10 Years: +28%

Physical Therapy Manager

Physical therapy managers supervise operations and staff at hospitals, nursing homes, private clinics, and rehabilitation centers that offer physical therapy services. They set departmental goals, like ensuring patients receive the most efficient care possible. These professionals also oversee department or clinic finances. They may see patients, but their responsibilities tend to focus on administrative duties.

  • Median Salary: $83,000 per year
  • Currently Employed: N/A
  • Expected Job Growth in Next 10 Years: N/A

Athletic Trainer

These professionals treat muscle and bone injuries for people who play sports. Athletic trainers may work with professional athletes, but they can also work with soldiers or children. Athletic trainers typically need just a bachelor's degree, but some employers prefer candidates with master's degrees. In addition, most states require athletic trainers to hold licensure.

  • Median Salary: $47,510 per year
  • Currently Employed: 27,800
  • Expected Job Growth in Next 10 Years: +23%

Recreational Therapist

These professionals use recreational programs like swimming, arts and crafts, music, and dance to help treat people who suffer from injuries or disability. They create treatment plans and track patient progress. They also show patients how physical activities like aquatics, dance, and sports can help them deal with anxiety or depression. Most employers prefer recreational therapists with certifications.

  • Median Salary: $47,860 per year
  • Currently Employed: 19,200
  • Expected Job Growth in Next 10 Years: +7%

Exercise Physiologist

Exercise physiologists develop exercise and fitness regimes for patients with poor cardiovascular or pulmonary health or chronic conditions. They review patients' medical histories and perform their own physical tests to determine the best treatment plans. They also use medical equipment to track patient progress through blood pressure, oxygen usage, and heart rhythm.

  • Median Salary: $49,270 per year
  • Currently Employed: 15,100
  • Expected Job Growth in Next 10 Years: +13%

What's the Expected Job Growth for Physical Therapy Careers?

Physical therapists can expect a bright job outlook over the next decade. From 2016-2026, the number of physical therapists is projected to grow 28% -- much faster than the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS credits this projected growth rate for physical therapists to aging baby boomers. Elderly people are more prone to injuries, heart attacks, strokes, and other health conditions, potentially increasing the demand for physical therapists.

Professional Organizations for Careers in Physical Therapy

Professional associations offer useful resources for both physical therapy students and seasoned professionals. Most groups offer career services or online job portals, which can help recent graduates find employment. Professional organizations also host networking events. Members can learn about the latest research in the field by attending conferences and subscribing to industry journals.

  • American Physical Therapy Association: Physical therapists join this organization to connect with each other and stay current on industry news. APTA membership comes with networking opportunities, conferences, access to job listings, and discounts on certification courses.
  • American Council of Academic Physical Therapy: ACAPT promotes education and professional development for physical therapists. Members can attend several educational events throughout the year, and students can apply for funding through research fellowships.
  • American Therapeutic Recreation Association: Founded in 1984, ATRA represents recreational therapists. Student members can apply for scholarships and grants. Professional members may participate in continuing education programs or apply for certification and licensure through ATRA.
  • American Society for Exercise Physiologists: This organization publishes several research journals and hosts an online job portal. The society also offers exercise physiology licensure for professionals and accredits exercise physiology academic programs.
  • The National Rehabilitation Association: This association offers membership to rehabilitation professionals who work with people with disabilities. Members can also join one of its many regional chapters or its annual conference.

How to Pay for a Master's in Physical Therapy Degree

Pursuing a master's in physical therapy online can require a hefty financial commitment. However, students can find financial aid options to help cover the cost. For example, they can take out loans or apply for scholarships. Schools often offer fellowships or assistantships to graduate students, as well.

Federal Financial Aid

Everyone enrolled in higher education -- including graduate students -- should apply for the FAFSA. This helps students determine whether they qualify for federal loans, which millions of Americans do. Federal loans come with much lower interest rates than private loans, and they also come with consumer protection laws.

Foundation for Physical Therapy Research

The sole function of this foundation is funding physical therapy research. Students can apply for scholarships and fellowships sponsored by the foundation, and learners who need funding for their theses can find research grant opportunities. These usually focus on a specific topic within physical therapy research, like pediatric or women's health research.

APTA Scholarships

APTA offers two major scholarships for physical therapy students. The Mary McMillan Scholarship Award gives $3,000-$5,000 to students in their last year of study. The Minority Scholarship Award offers funding to minority students. Applicants must demonstrate good academic standing and commitment to APTA membership.

Assistantships and Fellowships

Most graduate schools offer assistantship and fellowship opportunities for graduate students. The details differ, but universities often waive tuition costs and provide small stipends for grad students. Assistantship and fellowship recipients must typically conduct research or work as teaching assistants for undergraduate courses in their programs.