Is a DPT Degree Worth it?

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, then you know that I’ve written in depth about how I’ve been able to leverage my career as a physical therapist to achieve financial independence rapidly. I’ve written about how it’s possible to make a full time salary while only working half of the year and about how I saved over $100,000 in less than 1.5 years after graduating. I’ve written about how I will be semi-retiring this year at 29 years old and about how I’ve saved over 85% of my after tax income each year since graduation. I’ve even made the case that travel therapy as a new grad is a great way to get ahead financially.

But, one thing I haven’t written about to this point is whether or not I think my degree was worth it, or if I would choose to go the same route if I could go back and do things over again. This is a question that I’ve gotten multiple times in emails and Facebook messages. Is it worth it to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy?

I want to tackle this question here, but there are obviously many different factors to take into account for anyone considering what is best for them.

Financial Considerations

First let’s take a look at the financial aspects of becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Educational requirements include a bachelors degree, followed by three years of grad school. For most this means seven years of higher education in total, although there are some programs that allow this to be completed in six years, and for some it could take longer if you spend extra years getting your bachelors or getting accepted into PT school. The first cost to consider of pursing a DPT is the cost of tuition and living expenses while in school. Based on talking to other therapists and my own experience as well, $100,000 in student debt is on the low end for new grad physical therapists. The average seems to be closer to $150,000 when considering undergrad and grad school debt combined, and I’ve spoken to some new grads with $300,000+ in student loans between undergrad and PT school. I luckily finished undergrad with no debt due to grants, scholarships, and part time work. I then chose to go to PT school in my hometown to minimize my living expenses, and I still ended up with over $90,000 in debt just from costs for tuition, books, and food during my 3 years of grad school! Student debt is a massive problem for new grad physical therapists.

Now you may be thinking, with that much accumulated in student debt, pay must be pretty good though, right? My answer here would be that for the amount of debt and school required, not really. Based on my own experience and hundreds of interactions with other recent graduates, I’d feel safe saying that a new grad can expect to earn an average of $65,000-$70,000/year. There are certainly jobs that pay more than this amount, and I’ve talked to some new grads making $90,000+ their first year out of school. But on the other hand, I’ve spoken to many more that are earning in the mid to upper $50,000’s. Based on data from Payscale.com, median salary for physical therapists with varying degrees of experience is about $70,000/year. Glassdoor.com also agrees that $70,000/year is the average. For new grads without any experience, the average definitely seems to be a little lower than that.

Opportunity Cost

So $65,000-$70,000/year in income with student loans in the $120,000-$150,000 range… that doesn’t sound great. But wait, it gets worse. In addition to student loans, we must consider opportunity cost. This is a cost that is often overlooked by those choosing to pursue their DPT degree, but it is an extremely important aspect to consider. By opportunity cost, I mean the seven +/- years spent in school not earning an income which could have been spent working full time in another field. To further display why this opportunity cost is a big deal, I’ll include a graph comparing a Doctor of Physical Therapy to a similar field which requires less education, Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA).

Let’s see what happens when we compare a DPT to a PTA in terms of debt, income, and opportunity cost.

PT vs PTA earnings

Ouch! What we see here is that it takes about 20 years for a DPT (entry level doctorate) to catch up to a PTA (entry level associates) financially. Here are the assumptions used in these calculations/graph:

  • PTA:
    • Two years of community college at $6,000/year
    • Starts education right out of high school at age 18 and is able to achieve degree in 2 years by age 20.
    • Average salary $52,000/year.
  • DPT:
    • Two years of community college at $6,000/year, followed by two years of finishing up undergrad at a 4-year university at $22,500/year, and three years of PT school at $30,000/year.
      • Note this would be an even higher debt if you went to 4 years of undergrad at a university instead of 2 in community college and 2 at a university
    • Starts education right out of high school at age 18, and is able to achieve degree in 7 years by age 25.
    • Average salary $70,000/year.

The PTA finishes school at 20 years old with an associates and starts earning $52,000/year with $12,000 in debt. The PT finishes school five years later with a doctorate at 25 years old earning $70,000/year with $147,000 in debt. Those five extra years earning $0/year while accumulating debt in undergrad and PT school is opportunity cost.

Different Healthcare Professions

A PTA degree is easy to compare to the PT degree since the job is similar (besides more responsibility, extra paperwork, and often more hours as a PT), and PTs work closely with PTAs.

It’s much more difficult to compare PT financially to completely different professions due to the vast differences. But, if you do make these comparisons, it’s often even worse for the DPTs.

Let’s consider two other healthcare professions to PT: occupational therapy and physician’s assistants. Both of these jobs require entry level masters degrees, instead of doctorate degrees, meaning less student debt and less opportunity cost (finishing school one year earlier on average). But, to make matters worse, they both have higher average pay than a PT! According to Payscale, an occupational therapist makes an average of $6,000/year more than a physical therapist, and a physician’s assistant makes an average of $22,000/year more! Comparing to an RN or BSN leads to similarly disappointing results. The comparison to an MD is difficult due to drastically differing pay and time in residency based on specialty.

For these reasons, if the financial aspect of a career is the primary factor, I usually recommend looking elsewhere in the medical field. RN, PTA, OT, and PA all look more promising for a sound financial future.

Completely Different Career Paths

Now if you were considering in general what would be a good career path based solely on finances, there are many, many better options than PT. There are numerous careers you could pursue that involve only trade school or no education at all that would not involve the high student debt or opportunity cost that comes with pursuing a DPT degree and career. Due to the fact that I have many passions outside of physical therapy, I have often wondered if I should have pursued a completely different path right out of high school that would have led to earlier financial independence. Pursuing a career that does not involve as much school might be a great option for many people. Unfortunately for me, this was not something I strongly considered when I was in high school because I thought that I had to go to college to have a good career. But realistically, this is not the case.

Career Happiness

One thing that I think trumps all other considerations is what will make you the most happy in your career. This is probably common sense to most of you, but in the end finances don’t mean anything if you’re miserable everyday. Depending on the setting, I think that physical therapists have a good work-life balance and overall high satisfaction with the work. Often times physical therapists get to spend more time with patients than anyone else in the healthcare domain, which leads to valuable and trusting relationships with ample time for education and encouragement. Personally, that means a lot to me and is one reason that I chose to pursue physical therapy as my career (instead of pursuing medical school or other options I had considered). Being a physical therapist is also not as physically demanding as a lot of trade or labor jobs, which may lead to better overall health and longevity. And, there is a lot of flexibility in a career as a physical therapist in terms of working full time vs part time/PRN, which is a consideration for many. So, if becoming a physical therapist is your passion and your dream, you may not be as concerned if it’s going to be the best financial option.

Would I Change My Decision?

This is something that I’ve thought about a lot in the past three years since graduating and starting my career, and my thoughts on it have evolved during that time. Ultimately, I am very happy with where I am now in life, and I don’t believe that any other career path would have led me to where I am now even if I could have been in a better financial situation going a different route.

I learned valuable lessons in grad school that go far beyond the realm of physical therapy. I learned to critically appraise research and to think for myself. This has paid dividends in all aspects of my life including: health, fitness, finance, and investing.

So Is Pursuing a DPT Degree Worth It?

The best answer is: it depends. It depends on a lot of factors. It depends on who you are and what your goals are. If your goals are strictly to pick a career that’s going to help you reach financial independence the quickest, it may not be the top career choice. But if you want a career with decent financial potential while also having good job satisfaction and making a difference in the healthcare field, it may still be for you. But I will say, be smart about it. Not all those who pursue the path to DPT follow a financially savvy route.

What do you think about my opinions on pursuing a DPT degree? Do you have questions about how to be financially savvy while trying to become a physical therapist? Please feel free to reach out to be with feedback or questions!

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4 thoughts on “Is a DPT Degree Worth it?

  1. Hi, I really enjoyed reading your article, and the chart is eye-opening. I’ve been a licensed physical therapist assistant since 2005. It wasn’t what I intended, but I’m really glad I chose that path. In my 30s, I decided I wanted to go into the medical field but RN didn’t appeal to me, speech pathologist and PA were too long and intense a program as a single mom. I wanted to work daytime hours too. I’m older, I started college when I was 40 planning to get a bachelor’s of physical therapy. Unfortunately all the programs had transitioned to the MPT and all colleges are an hour away from me. I was glad to learn of the PTA degree. It was perfect, so I went with it. It was the perfect combination of my love of working with people and my love of working out and having some medical knowledge. It took me 3 years from start to finish. Two of those years were driving an hour each way for the PTA program. Many people think it’s an easy program, but it’s not. We had a 50% wash out rate. I had an A average and graduated with honors. My student debt was around $36,000, luckily I had some grants. I passed the board exam the first time. The NPTE for PT has 250 questions/5 sections, the NPTE for PTA has 200/4 sections. Here’s a link for those who want to see the comparison of content that’s on the PT and PTA board exams. http://www.fsbpt.org/freeresources/nptedevelopment/nptecontent.aspx

    Many people don’t know what a PTA is or that we are licensed clinicians, they think we’re an aide or tech. I’ve known a few PTs who have no idea what our schooling is like and they think we’re like techs too. PTAs learn many of the same things as PT, like how to do evaluations, even though we don’t do them in the clinic we still have to know them. My program required at least a B or better in high school biology and at least A&P 1 to start; I had all my prereqs done. We don’t get years of differential diagnosis training, and there are some things we’re not licensed to do. I work in outpatient orthopedics and sports medicine and I love it. I treat patients from head to toe and with many different dx . I do reassessments and discharges too. We take the same continuing ed classes but there are certain certifications I can’t get. I have worked with many different diagnoses. In my clinic, the PTs make up the basic POC, and because of my experience level, the PTs allow me to develop the rest of the patient’s treatment. It’s their call. Of course, they co-sign my notes and approve them, we work together closely and respect each other. We all can learn from each other too.

    The pay is very good for an AS degree. I had a job with a $1500 sign on bonus before I graduated and started at $21/hour my first year and gradually went up to $27, and now just over $30/hr, but I’m PRN now and don’t have benefits anymore (my choice) I really don’t need them. I’ve only worked part-time, but I can make around 60K a year if I choose to work full-time, and over 70K if I added a few home health patients on the side. (Home health and SNFs pay more) I was in an online Exercise Science bachelor’s program planning to be a Clinical Exercise Physiologist but I stopped. I would be doing the same type of work, but without having to work under anyone else’s license. I learned that the salary is about the same or maybe less than a PTA, and my tuition was out of state and pricey. No benefit other than personal satisfaction. People have asked me why don’t just go for the full PT? I guess I would have if I were much younger. I did consider a bridge program years ago but there are none locally. At this point in my life, it isn’t worth it because I’m an empty-nester now and have a lot more freedom. I can enjoy vacations with my husband and we also have a business.

    Here’s my take, it’s been my experience that the PTs are primarily eval machines and us PTAs do almost all the treatments. Regardless of who does the treatment, PT or PTA, the treatment is still the same. We do the fun part, and have less paperwork and responsibility. Some of my patients don’t remember who evaluated them, and vice versa. Personally, I’m disappointed that PT is now a doctorate only because insurance companies don’t reimburse at a higher rate when someone has a DPT vs. BsPT. Starting pay for new grads isn’t any higher with a DPT and the license still says Physical Therapist to the insurance companies . It’s not like nursing where you earn more with each degree progression. New PT grads make a little more than I do, but have more paperwork and responsibility and huge student debt they’ll be paying for years. Some have over $1200/month student loan payments. But, PTs have more career opportunities than PTAs for the future. PTA pay will max out at a certain point (like me) unless they have other degrees to take them on a different path. When I’m asked by young people trying to decide what to do, I say if I could start over, I’d go for a PA and work in an orthopedic surgeon/sports medicine practice. (Or, if in a rush, go for the PTA to get to work sooner take as many continuing ed classes as possible to gain experience, confidence and credibility, get some certifications. Then get a bachelor’s and masters to give you more options in the future. Also, PTAs can, and do, manage or own physical therapy clinics.) But, if PT is their passion, then go for it and find a way to avoid accumulating high student debt. Both are rewarding.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Not sure if I missed this but does your chart include the PTA investing the additional funds they make before the PT starts working? The 20 year number is already pretty insane, just was wondering if it included saving and compounding at an average S&P 500 return rate. If it doesn’t, those numbers could get completely crazy in terms of time lost.

    Bottom line is you better be sure you want to be a PT for the rest of your life AND work for a long, long time. If both those criteria aren’t a firm 100% yes, then PTA or even another profession is likely a more lucrative course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Jon! That doesn’t include interest earned on the money just because I was looking solely at income and not factoring in expenses. Much of the reason I didn’t go the extra step is because it would involve a lot of assumptions about living expenses being the same between a PT and a PTA which isn’t always the case since people who earn more usually spend more on average. Accounting for compounding on the extra money earned early in the PTAs career, the outlook is even more grim for PTs.

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