Continuing education for physical therapists can mean more than earning units every year to maintain licensure. There is a significant need for practitioners, even those with a terminal clinical degree such as the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), to earn a terminal academic degree—a Doctor of Education (EdD), Doctor of Health Science (DHSc), or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)—so that they can contribute to the future of the profession as researchers, faculty members, or leaders.

In 2013, 1.2% of physical therapists had a DPT or tDPT and a PhD or equivalent, and 5.6% reported a PhD or equivalent as their highest degree earned. Also in 2013, 10.4% of physical therapists were working in a postsecondary academic institution.1 The shortfall in physical therapy faculty with terminal academic degrees is an enduring issue.2

A look into the future sets up an even more pressing demand. To quote directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 36 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.”3 The clinical professions, especially physical therapy, need faculty members who can succeed in the classroom, succeed with a research agenda, and who also have that terminal academic doctorate.

Differences by Degree

At their core, the EdD and DHSc both share university teacher preparation as their principal focus. In addition to teacher education core courses, DHSc students often have opportunities to take advanced clinical courses and engage in a clinical dissertation. In contrast, EdD students typically expand their teacher preparatory courses and produce an educational dissertation that will assist them in assuming research and administrative leadership roles inside of the university. In addition to university professor and teaching roles, the DHSc is often sought by students seeking to further their clinical skills or clinical research or students who want to enter or advance in healthcare leadership positions.

Many EdD programs primarily enroll students from primary and secondary institutions, but there are some institutions that enroll students only from clinical professions such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and athletic training. Similarly, at some institutions, the DHSc is focused on disciplines such as finance or organizational leadership, rather than the rehab professions.

Many academic doctoral degree candidates have professorial roles. However, they cannot qualify for the rank of associate professor and tenure until they have earned an academic doctorate. People who are teaching now should talk to a member of their promotion and tenure committee. Those who have a university in mind where they would like to work should speak with the department chair. For EdD and DHSc candidates who are teaching presently, “evidence-based practice” takes on a subtly different flavor once they have completed the large research methods and statistics course. What once passed as reasonable science and principled conclusions comes under a more learned scrutiny after having completed that very demanding course. As professionals, they can now ask more critical questions of themselves, and their discipline, and help their students do the same.

Educational Horsepower for the Classroom and Beyond

Principles learned in the teaching sciences courses diffuse positively into other facets of candidates’ lives. The first and most obvious advantage is for the candidates who are also parents. Candidates report being able to help their children with their study skills in a way they had not anticipated and take on occasional advocacy roles inside of the school systems. Knowledge of human learning and motivation allows them to take on more powerful mentoring positions with their own university students or employees. The same can be said for candidates’ clinical work and what passes for patient education. All of the clinical disciplines put a premium on the role of patient education and compliance. However, they do not seem to borrow readily from the teaching sciences in specifically how to succeed in getting these ends accomplished. Candidates report a great deal of satisfaction with their expanded sense of efficacy for empowering their patients and teaching their students how to do the same.

There is a tremendous number of university professors who excel in the classroom who have never taken a graduate course in the teaching sciences. Ken Bain’s book, What the Best College Teachers Do, is testament to this form of excellence. However, there is no denying that having a rock-solid understanding of human learning and motivational theory informs one’s teaching decisions in a way that would be difficult with obtaining craft knowledge. Having an understanding of individual differences that is grounded in good science allows for more varied and principled teaching options. Knowing how to leverage educational technology to powerful ends and having a thorough understanding of online teaching principles are also well-received among hiring managers.

Financing the Degree

Individuals considering an academic doctorate often have to decide between attending a residential campus or seeking the degree online. The trade-offs between the two options are not trivial. Often, residential students at the doctoral level can negotiate a waiver of tuition, and even a small salary, for the work they would do as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) or graduate research assistant (GRA). Both the teaching and the research can add nicely to one’s curriculum vitae, making graduates even more attractive for a future faculty post. Attending a residential campus generally means that candidates will be pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) rather than a terminal academic doctorate, sometimes colloquially referred to as a D degree.

Residential life is rich in terms of the direct relationships one can have with faculty and fellow students. However, most reading this essay have heard the horror stories of graduate students being overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. While there are both federal and university-sponsored protections in place to keep GTA/GRA experience from becoming overly difficult, once the tuition is waived, doctoral candidates can plan on working hard for the privilege. PhD graduates whose experience was almost entirely research focused have a burden-of-proof challenge to make the argument that they are able classroom teachers.

Generally, a full-time residential PhD will take between 3½ and 5 years. Online terminal academic doctorates often require fewer credits, but because the student is not full-time, it too can take between 3½ and 5 years. Obviously, not being able to trade tuition for teaching or research assignments means that full tuition will be required. And, finding the right online degree does not necessarily mean a less intimate working relationship with faculty and classmates. Prospective students are well-advised to talk to others who are in, or have gone through, an academic program and to make sure these relationships are possible, if not probable.

Residential or Remote Learning

An academic doctorate, whether a residential PhD or online D degree, is understandably challenging, and therefore students in both types of programs run the risk of losing their momentum and not completing the degree once it is started. The best way to not lose momentum is to enter into an environment where candidates have the ability to begin thinking and communicating with their faculty about dissertation ideas as early as the second or third semester. Few things are more compelling for students than to get started in a scholarly line of inquiry that is meaningful to them personally and professionally.

The research supports the idea that online graduate students are generally internally motivated self-starters. For students, the advantages of online learning with asynchronous (not at the same time) communication with classmates and faculty are tangible; however, it does require discipline to remain caught up with degree expectations. Yet, for many adults who have high-demand professional obligations and busy family lives, the opportunity to get online and to share ideas with colleagues is a welcomed change of pace. Almost universally, the technology used by online universities is fully mature, user-friendly, and stable. Even students who do not consider themselves technology savvy should not be intimidated by online learning. However, for all of the advantages of online learning, there is one condition where any online degree is probably not advisable.

There are approximately 108 universities that have a Carnegie classification of “RU/VH: Research University (very high research activity).” If prospective students believe they would like a faculty appointment to one of these universities, they are actively encouraged to obtain a residential PhD. Individuals considering any academic doctorate are well-advised to consult employer preferences for one degree offering over another.

A Purpose of Building Minds

Taking on an academic doctorate is not a decision any person should take lightly. Most find their way to a Doctor of Education or Doctor of Health Sciences because of a previous opportunity to do some teaching or to rise in the ranks administratively. Once the idea of teaching or leading has taken hold, it can be a vision of oneself that must be satisfied. There also comes a time in the life of a clinical professional where it seems appropriate to give back to the discipline that has given so much to them. To obtain an academic doctorate, to join the professoriate and a life-of-mind, and to give to the next generation of professionals one’s passion and knowledge, can be a compelling impetus to pursue this life-changing course. RM

Daniel Lofald, PhD, is the director of the Doctor of Education and Doctor of Health Science programs at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. His 20 years in higher education includes both teaching and administrative roles, including 10 years working with physical therapists and occupational therapists.