Now that I’ve completed the process of earning my DPT, obtaining my license, and practicing as a physical therapist, I’ve learned the truth behind 10 common physical therapy school myths. Let’s walk through these myths one by one, comparing what’s commonly believed against what I’ve learned as a PT school graduate.
Myth # 1: Higher-Ranking Physical Therapy School = Higher Starting Salary
Inevitably as you browse physical therapy school websites, you’ll encounter a school ranking, brandished like a guarantee of success, smack-dab on the university home page.
Don’t be fooled by these numbers. A school ranking is merely a vanity metric; it only matters to the school and its staff. A school’s ranking is determined by easily-manipulated data (such as standardized test scores among accepted students) and can distract a university from truly improving the quality of education.
As far as you’re concerned, that well-ranked school will not bring you any special treatment throughout your PT career. Overpaying for a renowned school will not result in a higher starting salary.
Rather, in determining your worth to the clinic, a future employer will look at you – your clinical experience, hard and soft skills, and specialization or work flexibility – not where you went to school.
Myth #2: Grad School Debt is Good Debt
I won’t mince words here: No debt is good debt.
Sure, you’ll unavoidably need loans in life for milestone purchases such as a home. But physical therapy school is supposed to prepare you for a career. Borrowing six figures in loans in order to earn $65k works against this objective.
If you must take out loans to go to PT school, keep them under a 1:1 debt-to-income ratio. That means that the starting salary you can expect as a PT in your state should determine how much debt you amass.
On average, new PT grads earn between $65-75k annually; so as a rule of thumb, avoid borrowing more than $75k of student debt (including your undergraduate debt!).
Does that sound impossible? Then stop looking at expensive private schools and consider earning your DPT from a public university.
The resident tuition at state schools is often half the cost of a private school. You can also minimize debt by winning scholarships and fellowships, funded privately and through your school. If you don’t mind an Active Service Duty Obligation, the military offers a completely debt-free DPT through Army-Baylor.
Burying yourself in debt isn’t the only way to go to school, and it’s time we stopped making it the norm.
Myth #3: Large Class Size is Bad; Small Class Size is Good
In addition to a misleading ranking, many physical therapy schools brag about their small class size, insinuating that a large class size is less desirable. But class size only tells you how many students are in the program, not how many educators are available.
A DPT program comprises a variety of courses and formats which may or may not benefit from a small class size. For instance, in a lecture course of just one teacher, the students are generally none the better for being in a small class. Whereas, in a lab, a smaller class size could imply a smaller proportion of students to the teacher. The proportion and format tells you more about what the classroom experience will be like.
Ultimately, no matter the class size, look for schools which retain a small student-to-teacher ratio, such as 7:1. That way, regardless of how many other students are accepted, you’ll be guaranteed a more personalized experience and a more accessible instructor.
Myth #4: Grades Matter
I know that debunking this myth might feel a bit earth-shaking, but here goes: Your grades don’t matter to a future employer.
Before you blow off your final exams in a flurry of newfound freedom, let me qualify: Your grades matter, to an extent. You need to know the material and pass the classes in order to graduate and obtain a license.
You don’t need a 4.0. Unless you are on some sort of academic scholarship, you don’t need all As. And if you’re killing yourself to achieve a perfect record for personal satisfaction, then reconsider what that might be costing you in other areas of your life.
Think of grad school as a project in Time Management: you only have so much time to meet the demands of all your classes. Obsessing over grades will lead to mismanaged time and unnecessary stress, even burnout.
Instead of fixating on an overall GPA, identify the areas in your coursework that need focus. Accept that it’s ok to get a B+ in other areas if that means you avoided sacrificing your mental health for a letter on your transcript that no one will ever look at again.
Myth #5: State Physical Therapy Schools (or Cheap Physical Therapy Schools) are Lower Quality
We’re all familiar with the phrase, “You get what you pay for.” When it comes to physical therapy school, that’s not always the case.
Every CAPTE-accredited DPT program satisfies certain requirements and shares the same goal: to equip generalist PT graduates to pass the NPTE and obtain physical therapy licensure.
You’ll take the same boards exam regardless of whether you went to a private school or a state school. And a private school isn’t going to teach you some mysterious new treatment or insight that a state school won’t also.
So let’s amend that old phrase. When it comes to physical therapy school, it’s not “You get what you pay for,” but “You get what you put into it.” If you expect the institution to do all the work in shaping you into a well-rounded, experienced PT, then you should rethink this career.
In the clinic, our patients realize sooner or later that their growth and rehabilitation is entirely determined by their efforts and only partially influenced by the quality of their therapist. It’s the same with PT school.
Myth #6: You Must Accept an Offer Immediately
Congrats, you were accepted into a physical therapy school! Your first course of action should be to celebrate. However, PT schools will pressure you to immediately accept their offer before you’ve had time to fully consider it.
Truthfully, PT schools are concerned about their budget and their ranking. They’ll give you an offer and just a 2-week window in which to make your decision, regardless if you have outstanding interviews or pending applications to other (or, in their eyes, “inferior”) schools.
Not every PT school puts pressure on applicants like this, but the ones that do are usually more expensive and “higher ranked.” You may feel as if you’ll miss out on a coveted seat if you don’t accept their offer right away.
Don’t fall for this tactic. The “act now, before it’s too late!” ploy of consumer marketing needn’t influence your college admissions. Instead of acting under pressure, ask the school for a 2-3 week extension, especially if you have an interview elsewhere.
Finally, resist the temptation to rely on expensive, private schools as “backup schools.” Maybe your top choice programs are cheap but hard to get into. Maybe you think it’s better to be accepted somewhere, and pay through the nose for it, than to be rejected everywhere.
But that logic can really sabotage your financial future. Only apply to schools that meet your financial criteria – which I recommend as being within the 1:1 debt-to-income ratio. Don’t reward your application efforts with six figures of student loans.
Myth #7: You Must Apply to Every Physical Therapy School Possible
People like options, and when it comes to college applications, it might feel prudent to cast your net wide with a long list of schools. However, this isn’t a smart move. Not only is it expensive to apply to so many schools, it could potentially harm your career by setting you back with a mountain of debt.
If you’re not careful, PT school rejection could make you apply to schools regardless of their tuition price. I can understand the fear of rejection, especially if you’ve applied in the past and didn’t get in. Maybe you think a wider net will guarantee a better outcome.
Instead, think of it like dating. The solution to rejection is not necessarily to lower your standards, accept more potentially harmful flaws, or take whatever you can get. You’ll be more likely to end up hurt – not happy.
If you settle for a pricey backup school, you’ll set yourself up for a shorthanded start to your career. Once you’re a PT, you’ll earn the same income as every other graduate. But that debt balance of $150,000 in student loans will take a $1,500 chunk out of your $4,000 monthly starting pay.
Myth #8: Taking a Year Off Will Hurt your Application
If you’re smart, and you don’t settle for a financially-harmful “backup” school after your top choices reject you, then what you’re left with is a year off, or a “gap year,” before you can reapply. You might feel some shame or stress about this, but it’s really nothing to worry about.
In fact, a gap year could benefit your application next year and boost your resume for future employers. It all depends on how you use that extra time, so seek out opportunities now that will help you develop transferable skills and enhance your application next year.
Financially speaking, a gap year can be a net positive. You don’t have to sit on your butt and wait until you’re a DPT graduate to start working. Even if you eke out $30k working retail during your gap year, that’s significantly better for your finances than taking out a $100,000 student loan to attend an overpriced “backup” school.
If you plan it right, taking one or even two years off to boost your resume and reapply to an affordable school could save you $50-100k in loans – sometimes even more. So you needn’t worry about any “lost” income from delaying your PT career. That’s a myth, too.
Myth #9: There are No Physical Therapy School Scholarships
Just because a DPT is a specialized degree doesn’t mean funding is nonexistent. Almost every PT school has scholarships available, both need-based and merit-awarded. Plus, there are innumerable graduate scholarships you can apply for on sites like Fastweb and Gograd.
Applying for graduate scholarships is a case in which you do want to cast your net wide. Many private estates, academic organizations, and Greek clubs offer small scholarships of $300-$1,000. These opportunities are often unlisted – so yes, you’d need to go to a research library to find them – but winning even a few of them will more than make up for the work you put in to apply.
Haven’t won any scholarships? Then make your own; cut your finances a break by going to a cheaper school.
Imagine a scenario in which you’ve been accepted to two schools: one that charges $125,000 in tuition and another that charges $75,000 in tuition – a difference of 50 grand. Instead of attending the more expensive school on $20k need-based aid, give yourself a $50k scholarship by attending the cheaper school.
Remember: when you borrow money to attend school, you’re essentially borrowing not from the government but from your future self. By choosing the cheaper school, you will lower your overall PT education costs by $50,000 – leaving more money for future you.
Maybe I sound like a broken record, but the best way you can dodge half of these myths is to always choose a cheap PT school.
Myth #10: You need a PhD or Residency to Stand Out
One of the best things about the field of physical therapy is that the education process is concise: students can finish grad school in just 3 years and begin their practice without long residencies or fellowships. Compared to other health professions, that’s lightning fast.
For some reason, many schools like to push their residency, PhD programs, and other opportunities for specialist certification as part of the DPT experience.
If you’ve already started your career and decided you want additional education, that’s one thing; these opportunities are sometimes worthwhile. But for the average DPT candidate, needlessly pursuing additional credentials is like going down a rabbit hole.
The truth is, you don’t need these certifications to jump-start your career. Don’t keep yourself in a PT-school holding pattern just because your university offers a good residency program.
Rather, if you’ve determined to specialize in a certain area like pediatrics, neurology, or even electrophysiology, then find a job that provides the training and sit for the specialty exam. You don’t need a PhD to stand out from other applicants, and you don’t need to sign up for a residency program to land a job in the field you want.
Physical Therapy Career Tips
Want more tips on how to navigate your career as a PT? Check out the Career resources on this blog, including 3 Ways to Boost Your Physical Therapy Job Offer.
I like to not only debunk physical therapy school myths, but also demystify personal finances for PTs. Take a look at my 9 Financial Tips for Physical Therapists so you can continue making smart decisions toward long-term success.