The physical therapy field is on track to be one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States, and colleges and universities across the country are ready to prepare the next generation of care providers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of physical therapy jobs in the country is expected to grow by 21% between 2020 and 2030, which amounts to more than 49,000 new positions.
Luckily for students interested in that career, the U.S. is home to several outstanding doctorates of physical therapy (DPT) programs.
According to rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report and published in 2021, prospective students can find top DPT programs in nearly every part of the country. The publication based the rankings on peer assessment surveys sent to school officials, and it only ranked fully accredited programs in good standing.
All of the top-ranked schools provide their DPT students with a blend of in-classroom work and clinical experience, often with chances to go abroad or join research projects to enhance their studies.
While DPT programs can be pricey, many schools have scholarships and other financial aid opportunities available. And the cost seems to be worth it in the end.
The median annual pay for physical therapists in 2020 was $91,010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Here are the best physical therapy schools in the U.S., as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.
9 (Tie). UNC School of Medicine (Chapel Hill, NC)
The University of North Carolina’s DPT program is open to anyone regardless of background, making it a great option for people looking to change the direction of their career. Applicants need to have a bachelor’s degree, but it doesn’t need to be in PT or any other specific field, and they should have an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0.
Prospective DPT students also don’t have to submit GRE scores with their application. Wanting to attract a more diverse group of candidates, UNC noted that it eliminated the obligation because “requiring GRE scores may present a barrier to our goal of attracting the best candidates.” Finalists then have to interview with UNC.
“If two applications are essentially equal, preference will be given to the North Carolina resident,” the university noted.
Once they enter the program, students will have 36 consecutive months of study ahead of them. That includes more than 100 hours of courses, a comprehensive exam, and a capstone project.
They also get plenty of hands-on, real-world experience through 36 weeks of clinical experience, which exposes them to musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, and acute care.
UNC partners with around 200 facilities for these rotations, and students must do some of their clinical work in an underserved area or facility.
UNC’s graduation and alumni employment rates show just how well the program prepares its students. For four straight years, from 2017 to 2020, more than 93% of students who started the program ultimately graduated from it. And every graduate of the classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019 was employed within a year of earning their license.
9 (Tie). Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (Columbus, OH)
DPT students can choose from several clinical residency programs at Ohio State University.
The program gives students a chance to begin specializing in a particular field during their hands-on, with opportunities available in areas including sports, orthopedics, neurology, and geriatrics.
OSU has spent more than six decades educating future physical therapists, and it also offers a combined DPT/PhD program for students also interested in doing research.
The full-time DPT program starts in the summer and takes three years to complete. Students can focus their studies on one of three specialties (pediatrics, global health, and research) which are similar to undergraduate minors.
To apply to the DPT program, interested students need a bachelor’s degree and an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0. They must have successfully completed a dozen prerequisite courses or their equivalents and submit a GRE score. OSU usually requires applicants to have observed a licensed physical therapist for at least 40 hours, although it waived that requirement for 2021-22 application period because of the global pandemic.
9 (Tie). Creighton University School of Pharmacy and Health Professions (Omaha, NE)
DPT students will soon have another place where they can earn a degree from Creighton University.
The university has offered a DPT program in Omaha, Nebraska, since 1992, and in fall 2022, it will launch a DPT program in Phoenix, Arizona.
Creighton has a prestigious history, having offered the nation’s first DPT program. The eight-semester, three-year program begins each August.
Students get hands-on training with in-class labs as well as 44 weeks of clinical education experiences, which starts in the second year of study.
They can gain clinical experience across the country or around the world, as Creighton offers overseas opportunities through the Physical Therapy Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) Program and China Honors Immersion Program (CHIP).
Ninety-nine percent of its students are employed within a year of graduation.
Applicants must provide their GRE scores, take specific prerequisite courses, complete at least 60 hours of observation supervised by a licensed physical therapist, and interview with Creighton officials.
9 (Tie). MGH Institute of Health Professions (Boston, MA)
MGH Institute of Health Professions stands out not only because of its reputation for excellence but also because of its unique program that provides students with paid physical therapy internships.
While many DPT programs last 36 months, MGH students earn their degrees in 32 months. After completing two full-time, 10-week clinical experiences in each of their first two years alongside coursework, DPT students do a final clinical training in their third and final year. This is when they have the opportunity to take a full-time paid clinical internship over the course of a year.
Students interested in the paid program interview undergo a matching process to find the right internship for them. An average 80% of students over the last three years matched and completed a paid internship.
Students receive their doctorate part-way into their paid internship and then take their licensure exam, so they end up finishing their training as licensed physical therapists.
Students interested in the DPT program must have earned a bachelor’s degree, taken prerequisite courses, submitted their GRE, and complete observation hours, although requirements for observations have changed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Once they enter the program, students learn through examples of real-life cases.
MGH’s DPT program has excellent outcomes as well, with a graduation rate of 98%.
8. Emory University Division of Physical Therapy (Atlanta, GA)
DPT students find a diverse environment with smaller, more personal class sizes at Emory University.
Students come from across the country to attend Emory’s DPT program, whose alumni have enjoyed a 100% employment rate within six months of graduation for 11 straight years.
The DPT program starts each June and lasts 35 months. Alongside traditional lectures, students experience group activities and labs, which feature mannequins that simulate real health care encounters. Classes have at most 65 to 70 students.
The university also emphasizes research, so DPT students work with a faculty mentor to complete a research project during their final year.
Some students can even get a graduate assistantship to help faculty with other research projects. Students who want to position themselves even better for their future career can pursue several dual degrees: DPT/Master’s in Business Administration, DPT/Master’s in Public Health, DPT/Master of Arts in Bioethics, and DPT/PhD.
Emory encourages prospective students to observe licensed physical therapists working in different specialties and tracking their experiences. They also need to have taken several prerequisite classes and take the GRE to be eligible for admission.
7. Duke University School of Medicine (Durham, NC)
Duke University takes a unique approach to giving its DPT students experience in the field.
The STEPs program is a full-time clinical experience in which students get a chance to practice what they’ve learned with actual patients in two settings as part of a four-person team.
Duke also looks out for its DPT students starting in the admissions process, when they meet current students and faculty. Once they begin their studies, students are paired with second- or third-year students in the Big Sib program.
Students spend half of the three-year DPT program doing class and lab work and the other half doing clinical work. After finishing the STEPs program in their second year, DPT students then have three terminal clinical experiences in their final year.
The location of Duke’s DPT program also puts students at an advantage. It’s within walking distance of the Trent Semans Center for Health Education and an anatomy lab, and it also is by Duke Medical Center, where students can study, do research, and use other staff facilities.
Students interested in gaining a perspective of the field beyond North Carolina can take advantage of the global studies program, a service-learning opportunity in which they travel abroad to volunteer in a clinic to help people in need.
4 (Tie). University of Southern California Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy (Los Angeles, CA)
Students can choose from joining the traditional residential DPT program or participating in a hybrid option that mixes online learning with in-person experiences at the University of Southern California.
Both programs use the same admissions requirements, faculty, and three-year curriculum, but in the hybrid program, students can learn and earn a degree from USC while living anywhere in the world.
USC students also benefit from mentorship opportunities, with not only faculty but also fellow students. The school assigns a faculty mentor to each student who will meet with them each semester and advocate for them.
Second-year students also are teamed up with an incoming DPT student to serve as his or her “buddy” and help guide them so they get started on the right foot.
It seems to have helped recent graduating classes, too; the average first-time pass rate on the state licensing exams was 94% for the classes of 2018 and 2019.
4 (Tie). University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine (Iowa City, IA)
University of Iowa DPT students can earn their degrees in less time than many of the nation’s other top programs.
Students start the program in July and complete it in 2.5 years. The curriculum focuses on a general study of physical therapy, but students have the opportunity to focus on specialties during their clinical work, which can set them up to pursue specialist certification down the line.
And they get that real-world experience from the start; students participate in half-day or day-long clinical experiences every other week during their first semester.
As they move through the program, students also will complete five full-time clinical experiences totaling 35 weeks, including hospital-based clinical work between their first and second years of study.
This all contributes to the stellar numbers the university has posted in recent years, too. Looking at the two-year average for the classes of 2018 and 2019, the DPT program has a 100% graduation rate, a 100% licensure examination pass rate, and a 100% employment rate.
Admission to the program is competitive, as it only enrolls about 45 students annually. Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of at least 3.0, complete certain prerequisites, and submit their GRE scores.
Plenty of financial aid is available for those who make it through. The university grants about 120 scholarships worth approximately $400,000 each year to DPT students.
4 (Tie). Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine (Chicago, IL)
One of the largest physical therapy schools in the nation, Northwestern University offers a 2.5-year DPT program whose curriculum is based on an approach developed by university faculty.
Students enter the program in September 2022, taking courses built around the Motor Control Framework, which teaches them how to diagnose and treat movement issues. Students have four full-time clinical experiences, starting in their first year and continuing through the rest of the program. They also begin part-time integrated clinical education experiences in the fall of their first year.
The university enrolls 90 to 95 DPT students each year and also offers two dual-degree programs, the DPT/Master of Public Health and DPT/PhD in engineering. Its most recently admitted group, the class of 2023, was a diverse bunch, too, with 43% identifying as people of color.
Northwestern has joined several other schools in eliminating the requirement for prospective students to submit GRE scores, although applicants must meet other academic requirements and complete physical therapy observation hours.
The university also has a special option for its undergraduate students: the Northwestern Undergraduate Pre-Physical Therapy Scholars Program.
Undergrads can apply to the DPT program in their junior year, and those selected then start the program after earning their bachelor’s degrees. The program admits up to five students annually.
1 (Tie). Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, MO)
DPT students move through four phases of development as they learn at top-rated Washington University.
The midwestern university offers what it describes as “a learner-centered approach to education,” which gives students flexible, personalized learning opportunities along with mentoring and assessments to help them grow and succeed.
The DPT program lasts almost three years, and students build their knowledge through case studies, classroom learning, and both part-time and full-time clinical experiences. The university encourages them to travel outside the St. Louis area for part of that clinical education.
Students also can take advantage of research opportunities to add to their experience. These can involve applying for an assistantship or participating in a research study.
The School of Medicine also has received an NIH-funded pre-doctoral research training grant that makes it possible for some students to get involved with faculty-guided research projects.
The program has rolling admission and accepts applications until Feb. 1 of the enrollment year. Prospective students are not required to take the GRE but do need to have successfully completed prerequisites and undergraduate science and math courses.
Washington’s DPT program has received accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which shows that its curriculum meets the necessary requirements for its alumni to pursue PT licensure throughout the United States and its territories.
1 (Tie). University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (Pittsburgh, PA)
Students can attend this top-rated program in person or partially online.
The University of Pittsburgh offers both a traditional residential DPT program as well as a recently begun hybrid option, both of which are full-time.
Much about the programs is the same.
Both start in August, require about 50 to 60 hours of work per week, require 42 weeks of full-time clinical education, and take seven consecutive terms to complete.
Hybrid students will complete some lab activities remotely and have to visit campus twice per semester during their first five terms for some lab work. Each on-campus “immersion experience” runs six to nine days.
Additionally, DPT students in both versions of the program complete four clinical experiences (two six-week sessions and two 15-week sessions).
For students who want to add even more to their career prospects, Pitt offers a dual DPT/Ph.D. in bioengineering. That program is geared toward students who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering or a related discipline.
DPT program alumni have proven they have what it takes to succeed.
The classes of 2016 through 2020 all had a 100% employment rate within six months of graduation. More than 96% of the class of 2020 passed the licensure exam.
1 (Tie). University of Delaware College of Health Sciences (Newark, DE)
University of Delaware DPT students gain one-of-a-kind, hands-on experience on campus.
The university is home to two full-service outpatient physical therapy clinics, the Sports & Orthopedic Clinic, and the Neurologic & Older Adult Clinic.
Faculty members and clinical specialists oversee the clinics, where students get to put their knowledge into practice with actual patients during their Integrated Clinical Education (ICE) courses.
Students also can work with children through a pediatric ICE, located at a local children’s hospital. In addition to the ICE opportunities, students later undergo three 10-week, full-time clinical educational experiences.
UD has a well-respected research program with such illustrious organizations as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation providing funding, and students can take part in faculty-led research projects.
When it comes to admission, UD accepts the best of the best. Its most recently admitted class had an average undergraduate GPA of 3.8 and average GRE scores in the 74th percentile for verbal and the 63rd percentile for math.
Prospective students also need to do several observation hours and interview with the admissions committee, an opportunity extended by invitation only.