Pathways to the PhD: The Future of the Academy


Physical therapy is among the fastest growing professions, with employment expected to rise 34% in 10 years. New physical therapy programs are being created and existing programs are increasing their class sizes. Educational training requirements for faculty have also increased. Thirty years ago, senior faculty were often master clinicians with a BS in PT and an MS. Now, CAPTE (F-18) requires >= 50% of core faculty to have advanced academic doctorates.

However, because students graduate with a clinical doctorate and substantial debt, the motivation and means to pursue the PhD may have diminished. Many universities have either allowed the DPT to count as the terminal doctoral degree for faculty or have expanded their use of appointments outside the tenure line to fill their teaching needs.

According CAPTE in 2016, there were 141 PT faculty vacancies, 94 projected vacancies, and 55 new positions expected, a total of 290. Presently, about 40 PhD programs have identified themselves through the Research Intensive Programs in Physical Therapy (RIPPT) consortium of ACAPT as appropriate for physical therapists to earn a PhD where engagement with physical therapy faculty and students is part of the program. Many of these programs are relatively new, and most are small. Is the current educational capacity for PhD trained physical therapists sufficient to meet the demand? Are the kinds of faculty being trained appropriate for the upcoming need?

A recent discussion among RIPPT members at CSM, 2017, revealed a common perception that enrollment of physical therapists into these PhD programs may be declining, especially for experienced, US trained clinicians. The RIPPT consortium has decided to address this problem. We have encouraged ACAPT and APTA to study supply and demand for future faculty. RIPPT has also begun advocacy with funding agencies to support PhD training for physical therapists. Here, RIPPT proposes an educational session at ELC to raise awareness and build support for a national effort to address this problem.

Methods and/or Description of Project

A survey was designed to identify factors that may be limiting the capacity to train future professors of physical therapy. The project was approved by the IRB at OSU as exempt educational research. The audience was PhD program directors for RIPPT programs that joined the RIPPT webpage (n=38) as a PhD program suitable for physical therapists and in which PhD trained physical therapists are among the faculty. The programs surveyed are listed at

At ELC, these data will be combined with information from ACAPT and the APTA, CAPTE, and other sources to define the scope of the problem for the audience. Following this presentation, a structured debate will feature three distinct viewpoints. John Buford, PT, PhD, will argue that the dual degree DPT/PhD option should receive priority as the most efficient and effective way to build the academy. Deborah Givens, PT, PhD, DPT, will present the case that getting experienced clinicians to return to academia should be the priority in order to train professors who have already proven themselves as master clinicians in order to advance the body of evidence for practice. Jules Dewald, PT, PhD, will argue that the PhD may not always be required, and that research fellowships and other forms of postdoctoral research training for DPT-trained PTs, a model that has worked well for MDs, is the best way forward. The moderator for the session will be Jim Gordon, PT, PhD, FAPTA.


Among PhD program directors surveyed, 36 responded (95%). The two most difficult types of students to attract into PhD programs were students completing the PhD immediately after the DPT (60%), and students who had a few years of clinical experience before returning for the PhD (70%). Difficulty recruiting DPT/PhD students was noted by 25% of programs (not all offer this option). Only 25% felt satisfied with recruiting. About 40% noted a decline in US trained PhD applicants, 25% reported no such decline, and 35% rated themselves too new to comment. 55% of respondents allowed a part time PhD as an option for at least some of the training; of these, 60% indicated that part PhD students sometimes have difficulty progressing, while 40% thought they progressed well. In all cases, the part time option was begun to allow working clinicians to pursue a PhD, not for its innate pedagogical value. Among programs without a part time option, 55% said it was never seriously considered, and the rest offered reasons like faculty opposition or fear of students losing momentum. Program directors estimated that about 60% of PhD graduates aspire to a research intensive, tenure track position, 30% hoped for a teaching position with minimal research, and 10% sought a position outside academia. For funding, 80% listed faculty grants and 90% listed departmental or university funding. About 55% listed teaching assistantships, and 60% listed outside scholarships or grants; 35% listed training grants and 30% listed clinical practice. Only two programs (5%) reported no funding for PhD students. Current expectations were to graduate 0 to 4 PT PhDs per year per program (mean 1.74); mean estimated full capacity was 3.5/yr. Funding limited capacity for 70% of programs. With unrestricted funding, capacity could increase by 2 – 12 students per year, with a mean of 4. Limitations in class size other than funding included recruitment and the quality of the applicant pool. Reasons the program directors had experienced when unable to recruit promising candidates included the low rate of pay for PhD students (70%), matriculation into competing programs (45%), or the student being unwilling to pursue a PhD (60-70%). About half of the open comments discussing general difficulty with getting physical therapists into PhD programs focused on funding, and the rest discussed changes among new US trained physical therapists (e.g., already have a doctoral degree, not interested in research, difficult research funding climate, etc.).

Conclusions/Relevance to the conference theme: Through the Looking Glass: Transforming Physical Therapy Education

There is a clear shortage of PhD trained faculty, and PhD program directors in most programs see difficulty in recruiting new PhD students. Among PhD programs listed on the RIPPT consortium website, current enrollment appears to be at about 50% of capacity. If funding were not a limit, that capacity could potentially double, but this would not necessarily increase the number of applicants. A funded PhD student position cannot compete with clinical income. Most programs found it difficult to recruit experienced clinicians, and many have allowed a part time PhD in response. The DPT PhD option has also gained acceptance as a way to get students into training sooner and to keep them engaged.

A presentation of these results will highlight the future problem of the shortage of PhD trained (or more generally, research-prepared) physical therapists, and the debate and audience discussion to follow will help develop solutions for the long term benefit of physical therapy education.


Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapist Education (CAPTE). Aggregated annual program data report. Online (accessed 3/27/2017).
Bureau of Labor Statics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physical Therapist. Online (accessed 3/27/2017).
RIPPT consortium webpage. (online, accessed 3/27/2017).

Course Objectives

Upon Completion of this course, participants will be able to:
1. Describe the current shortage of PhD prepared physical therapists who are qualified to enter and flourish within the academy.
2. Describe current models for training physical therapists to enter faculty positions where research and scholarship are heavy expectations.
3. Decribe factors that limit the recruitment and retention of high quality applicants to PhD programs where future professors of physical therapy can be educated.
4. Analyze strengths and weaknesses of the current educational models to train future professors of physical therapy
5. Advocate for a national effort to address the needs for the future of the professoriate in physical therapy education

Instructional Methods

A series of brief PowerPoint presentations interspersed with structured Q&A and debate
Audience Question and Answer

Tentative Outline/Schedule

5 minutes: Introduction and Welcome
10 minutes: The scope of the problem: the shortage of qualified faculty,
and the present rate of enrollment in PhD programs
15 minutes: The case for the DPT PhD dual degree program (John Buford)
Brief Presentation followed by Q&A with Moderator
15 minutes: The case for experienced clinicians returning for the PhD (Debby Givens)
Brief Presentation followed by Q&A with Moderator
15 minutes: The case for research fellowships for DPTs (in lieu of a PhD) (Jules DeWald)
Brief Presentation followed by Q&A with Moderator
10 minutes: Moderated Discussion Among Panelists
20 minutes: Questions and Answers with the Audience

BACK to Abstract Results

  • Control #: 2741301
  • Type: Educational Session
  • Event/Year: ELC2017
  • Authors: Dr. John Buford, Deborah givens, Julius Dewald, James Gordon
  • Keywords:

BACK to Abstract Results