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10 Ways to Know if Teaching in a Physical Therapy Program is Right For You

by F. Scott Feil, PT, DPT, EdD

Have you been a practicing clinician for a few years? Are you starting to get an itch to move on from your current career to something different? Do you love teaching and learning? Then a career in academia teaching in a physical therapy program may be right for you.

Here are 10 tips, tricks, and aspects to think about before diving head first into the world of academia.

1. Are you a lifelong learner?

We all strive to be lifelong learners, and for the most part physical therapists are pretty good at constantly seeking out the most up to date research articles and trends when it comes to treatments and best practices. If that sounds like you, then you may be a good fit for academia, as there is constantly new research coming out that professors needed to keep on top of (or perform themselves). However, if you were just happy to finish PT school and graduate, and never wanted to step foot back in school, then teaching may not be an ideal fit for you.

2. Research

At some point during your PT Schooling you likely had to do a bit of research. Whether it culminated in a Capstone Project, or you worked in a Research Lab as a lab assistant, you likely got a bit of a taste of what research is like. Depending on what type of school you teach at, research may be a mandatory part of your job as a professor. If you didn’t enjoy the research aspect of things all that much then perhaps teaching full time may not be for you, or at the very least, certainly not at an R1 university, but instead maybe more of a Doctoral/Professional University where research isn’t as strongly considered.

3. Mentoring

Do you enjoy listening to people and solving their problems? If you are a physical therapist then it is likely. However, with teaching, you must consider that you are going to have a full class of students year after year that are not only going to be coming to you with questions about anatomy and exercises, but about life issues and job concerns.

Are you ready to tackle them all head on, or would you prefer to remain more introverted and try to be the more silent, lead by example type?

4. Technology

Technology is changing by the minute. You have to be tech savvy these days in order to keep up with the pace of these adaptations, especially in healthcare. There are simulations, labs, virtual blackboards, discussion groups, and some newer programs are even taught predominantly online. Such as DPT programs like South College, Baylor, and Tufts University. So are you good with technology, or do you have to call up your niece or nephew to walk you on rebooting your computer? As student demands for higher technology evolves, so must you if you want to survive the current state of academia.

5. Rules, Red Tape, and Structure

These are three common themes found in the real world these days, and academia is no exception. Each department will have its own set of rules and policies you must follow, however, there may also be university rules and red tape you must navigate when trying to teach your students certain topics in certain ways. You may even have a relatively rigid structure laid out for your schedule. Several courses taught, office hours, research hours, faculty meetings, etc etc. So it is not exactly a world of freedom and summers off. You may just be trading four walls of a clinic for four walls of a classroom.

6. Credentials

Credentials are also a big concern when it comes to academia. CAPTE has implemented a recommendation that at least 50% of all faculty members have a terminal degree such as a PhD, EdD, or DSc. What does that mean for you? Well, a DPT may allow you to teach adjunct for a DPT program. It may even allow you to work your way up to teaching full time. However, it is already a very competitive field (244 programs at the time this article is published, multiplied by approximately 12 core faculty members per program (being very generous on this average) that is less than 3,000 Physical Therapy Educators in the nation!

There is a strong chance that A) a program will need someone with a terminal degree or B) somebody with your same credentials has been doing it longer and more successfully and will likely beat you out for a teaching position. So you have to weigh the cost of obtaining a terminal degree and if it really what you want to do.


CAPTE has implemented a recommendation that at least 50% of all faculty members have a terminal degree such as a PhD, EdD, or DSc.

7. Clinical Work

Are you just going to dive into academia full time and give up on clinical work for good? Is patient care simply a page in your past book? It is a strong possibility. Many professors are just that these days; professors. They enter the world of academia and begin teaching and before you know it, it has been ten years since they have been in practice. There is nothing wrong with this, but maybe to differentiate yourself you keep a part time job in patient care. This way you can teach and show your students that you are still in the trenches trying to both learn and apply best practices in the real world. However, if you try to teach full time and practice part time, that is a lot of time. With that said, beware of what you can handle when trying to be the golden unicorn who teaches and works with patients.

8. Tenure

The Long Game. I am of the belief that tenure track is slowly dying. I may be alone in this belief, but a large percentage of teaching opportunities are going to the growing population of adjunct professors (and it makes sense since a university doesn’t have to pay for benefits or retirement of adjunct professors). But in certain instances where tenure track is still an option, it is a very long commitment. In a very “publish or perish” world, professors have to map out a 7-10 year career plan or research, teaching, and service to the university just to get tenure, and it is not always a guarantee after submitting your accomplishments. But even if you are going to attempt to try for tenure track, you are locking yourself in to one place and one department for at least a decade or so.

9. Service

By this point in your career, hopefully you have figured out that physical therapy is all about service and being a servant to your patients. If you transition to academia, there is a strong chance that your service will transition to community service or service to your university. There are many committees and chair positions and areas of interest that your department may be responsible for or at the very least will have to send a representative. This may be something you enjoy doing, or it could be something you consider as a waste of your time and outside of your area of expertise and specialty, especially if you are not getting paid for it. What kind of extra tasks may be delegated your way in the realm of academia?

10. Teaching, Teaching, Teaching

At the end of the day, you are likely considering a position in academia because you love to teach. But if some of these tasks and challenges seem daunting, maybe the ivory tower of academia is not right for you. But have no fear, you could always teach through clinical instruction, continuing education, lab assistant, guest lecturer, the possibilities are endless. At the end of the day, I’m an educator, you’re an educator, we’re all educators. Just find the setting that seems like the best fit for you!


This is the thought process that goes through my head when I try to navigate my future in teaching and in academia. I hope you were able to see some of the issues and concerns that arise when making a big decision like whether or not to pursue a job in academia. I hope this was helpful to you in your search for answers, and for more information or tune into The Healthcare Education Transformation Podcast for all of your educational needs!


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