Is Another Degree for Me?

Catherine Ortega, EdD, PT, ATC, OCS
Posted 7/ 1/24

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Having reached this point in your physical therapy career, completing your degree and passing your licensure exam, it is common to sit back and enjoy doing patient care while making a solid income. Perhaps, though, you have thought about pursuing an additional certification or enrolling in a residency. Both are good thoughts with pros and cons that you will need to consider when making a decision.

Should I Get Another Degree?

A common question you may find yourself trying to answer is “Should I get another degree?” The motivation to do this may not be very high, especially because it has been a long path to get to this point in your life where you are a licensed, practicing professional. Even so, physical therapy professionals continue to pursue life-long learning and continue to improve skills to provide excellent patient care. Therefore, should this question enter your mind, ask yourself “WHY would I do this?” The motivation is important, because the reason you want to enroll in another degree plan will not only determine whether you SHOULD start another degree, but also what type of degree would be appropriate for you.

Teaching Requirements

Let’s explore some reasons for an additional degree. Maybe you are thinking of completing another degree so you can teach. As you know the entry-level degree for a PTA is an associate degree and for a PT it is a clinical doctoral degree, the DPT. If you are looking at a full-time position to teach in post-high school education, a general rule-of-thumb often cited is that you should have a degree higher than the degree that will be obtained by the students you are teaching. If you are teaching students who will be obtaining a bachelor’s degree, as an instructor, you should have a master’s degree. That said, this does not seem to carry over to clinical degrees, such as physical therapy degrees.

A licensed PTA can teach in an accredited PTA program. To be a program director of a PTA program, a PTA would have to hold a master’s degree. Therefore if you are a PTA interested in leading a PTA program, you should pursue a master’s degree. If you want to be a faculty member, you don’t necessarily need an additional degree. As with most positions, having an additional degree when others do not can make you more competitive as an applicant, especially in an academic setting. As a PTA with an associate’s degree, getting a bachelor’s degree may be sufficient to move you to a more competitive position for a PTA program, but as previously mentioned, you do not HAVE to have an additional degree to teach in a PTA program if you are a licensed PTA. A licensed PT would also be able to teach in a PTA program. To qualify as a Program Director of a PTA curriculum, the DPT is sufficient for a PT.

Clinical Doctoral Degrees

Another question may be, “Should I get a doctoral degree?” To answer this, it is important to realize that not all doctoral degrees are created equal.  A number of professions have a clinical doctoral degree as the entry-level degree, meaning a doctoral degree is the requirement to enter the profession. You would pursue this type of degree if you wanted to adjust a specific profession. Examples of these degrees include the DPT, MD, DDS, and DVM, required for physical therapy, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine, respectively. There is no research requirement for these degrees as they are considered “doctoring professions” with a certain level of autonomy in practice. If pursuing this type of doctoral degree you would apply to a school or program and, when accepted, enter into the corresponding professional degree plan for that profession. So you would enroll in a PT school, medical school, dental, or veterinary school, to attain this type of doctoral degree. When earning this type of clinical doctorate, the focus is on learning about practicing the profession and much less about conducting research.

Academic Doctorates

An academic doctorate, such as a Ddoctor of Pphilosophy degree (PhD), or Ddoctor of Eeducation degree (EdD), typically has a research component. Deciding to pursue this degree,Your decision to pursue this degree should be based on your desire to do participate in and understand the research process. If you have a “burning question” within a topic area that you would like to answer; if you are open to putting in dedicateddedicating time to take courses to figure out how to answer that question, and if you can dedicate time and effort to study that topic, then a PhD or EdD are degrees you should may want to consider. 

Research for a PhD
Research done to attain a PhD is theory-based research, discovering original ways to answer questions and testing possible theories to answer a question. Completing this type of degree requires the performance of research as part of a research lab and with a supervising faculty mentor. Typically, because you must have a faculty mentor, having conducted research prior to entering this type of program is helpful to get acceptance, but not required. Completing a PhD takes a minimum of 4 years but typically takes 6 years.

Research for an EdD
Research done within an EdD curriculum plan is applied research. It relies on and uses theories, however, theories are not necessarily constructed, per se. Course work and research can take between 4 and 8 years to complete. Individuals with a PhD are primarily hired to perform research and are experts in a more narrowly defined area, though they will also teach. Along with individuals with EdD, they are commonly employed as ‘specialized field experts’ within colleges and universities. 

Other Applied Doctoral Degrees

Other applied doctoral degrees can include the Doctor of Health Science (DHSc). One of the main differences between the PhD and the DHSc is the research component. The DHSc will focus less on research and more on practical applications and will provide you with knowledge to become a leader in healthcare. Common areas of focus are administration or leadership. 

Matching Your Goals

Whether you are considering pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree, the key question to answer is “Why?” If you can determine why you want to pursue an additional degree, you will be much better equipped to match the degree that is needed. You may even discover that you don’t need another degree. By answering that “Why?” question, you will be able to match your goals and resources (time, commitment, money), with the degree that is right for you. Alternatively, maybe you will discover that you do not need to pursue an additional degree at all.

As a licensed physical therapy professional, you are in a great place, making a living by helping people move through life. You are in a vital profession to make lives better. As you continue to expand your skills and knowledge, it is normal to question whether additional credentials or degrees might make your life better. Hopefully this information has provided you with insights that will help guide you in your decision making.