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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