Online PhD in Rehabilitation Science

An online PhD in rehabilitation science is an excellent fit for people with professional backgrounds in physical rehabilitation who want to transition into research and teaching careers. A doctoral degree in rehabilitation science would also be a good choice for rehabilitation professionals who wish to remain in clinical practice, but who also want to take on new leadership roles that are informed by extended research in the field. Ideal candidates for such a program would be those with a professional background in physical therapy, occupational therapy, athletic training, rehabilitation nursing, or even communication disorders/speech-language pathology. These licensed professionals already have the skills and knowledge base necessary to help people regain physical function and improve their physical abilities, and are prepared to build on that foundation in a doctoral program.

Online PhD programs in rehabilitation science tend to be interdisciplinary, combining core theoretical concepts from disciplines like physical therapy, neuroscience, occupational therapy, biokinesiology, sports medicine, and more. The curriculum is designed to equip students to be scholar-practitioners who not only draw from their research background when working with patients and clients, but who are also capable of conducting high-quality, independent research. Rehabilitation science PhD programs also build a student's skills in running a college classroom, and often require students to teach classes under supervision. This valuable experience prepares students for future careers in teaching in universities.

About Online PhD Programs in Rehabilitation Science

Online PhD programs in rehabilitation are seldom offered 100% online primarily because most programs incorporate a teaching apprenticeship that takes place on a college campus, and because clinical practice courses in rehabilitation will often require students to put their skills to work in clinical environments. Beyond this, doctoral students will need to work closely with professors on their dissertation research, and some dissertation preparation courses may be better-suited for face-to-face learning. However, many lecture-based courses can be delivered at a distance. For example, the University of Kentucky, in conjunction with three other universities, offers a rehabilitation sciences doctoral program in which certain courses are delivered online through the Kentucky distance learning network. Here is a sample of some of the course work used in this particular program:

Year One:

  • Rehabilitation Sciences Theories and Applications through the Life Span. This course is an in-depth survey of the theoretical approaches taken by the different disciplines within rehabilitation science, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, communication disorders, and athletic training. The course has applications in both research and clinical practice.
  • Clinical Appraisal of Research in Rehabilitation Sciences. In this course, students learn how to find relevant research in the rehabilitation sciences, how to separate useful and high-quality articles from irrelevant and lower-quality articles, and how to synthesize the research of others' effectively when conducting their own research.
  • Research in Rehabilitation Sciences. This course introduces students to the methodology used by researchers in rehabilitation sciences, emphasizing contemporary research methods and those that have been proven to be more effective than others. Students also learn how to predict the outcomes of their research.

Year Two:

  • Professional Seminar: Introduction to Grant Writing. Since grant writing is an essential component of obtaining funding for research in rehabilitation science, students in this seminar learn how to write grants effectively and explore the sources of grant funding.
  • Professional Seminar: Issues in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. In this seminar, students learn about the challenges they will face when teaching clinical and didactic courses in rehabilitation science. The seminar is great preparation for a future teaching apprenticeship.
  • Professional Seminar: Surviving and Thriving in an Academic Culture. This seminar gives students a thorough overview of how to successfully navigate an academic career in rehabilitation science, including how to assemble a career plan and what it takes to get promoted and achieve tenure.

After students have completed their doctoral course work and passed a comprehensive exam in their field, they dedicate the remainder of their time in their Ph.D. program to dissertation research and writing. Students typically begin developing a relevant research question with the assistance of faculty long before this point, however. Students must thoroughly review the available literature related to their thesis, conduct their own research using a well-defined methodology, and explain both their findings and the implications of their findings. After the dissertation is completed, the student must orally defend it in front of a panel of experts that includes faculty and other clinical professionals.

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Rehabilitation Science

Earning a PhD in rehabilitation science is a solid move for people who want a career in academia, as a doctorate is the qualifying degree to work as a professor in the field. A Ph.D. program is also excellent preparation for research careers, since such programs teach students essential skills in research methodology and statistical analysis that are necessary to research complex issues related to brain injuries, physical disabilities, sensory motor performance, and more. To receive research fellowships, you will need to demonstrate that you are competent in your field and capable of conducting independent research, both of which are cultivated in a Ph.D. program. A Ph.D. may also be beneficial for a consulting career, where it is often necessary to demonstrate expertise in a field.

However, a Ph.D. program may not be necessary if you are satisfied with a clinical or professional career in one of the rehabilitation sciences, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, or athletic training. In fact, depending on your level of experience, you may have higher earning power if you choose a clinical career over an academic career. Many people find it more rewarding to work on improving the physical capabilities and quality of life of patients and clients than to teach or conduct research. If you enjoy a higher level of patient interaction and do not think it's feasible to devote four to seven years of your life to doctoral study and dissertation research, you may just want to stick with a professional degree and seek to advance in more of a clinical capacity instead.

Application & Admission Requirements

Most traditional or online PhD programs in rehabilitation science only admit certified and/or licensed health care professionals who work in one of the established areas of rehabilitation, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, or a related area. Students will need to submit a completed application, and arrange to have official transcripts sent from all colleges and universities previously attended. Official transcripts will need to show a strong grade point average at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Other than transcripts, students will need to submit their official Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score, personal statement of goals in pursuing the Ph.D., and letters of recommendation from people who can vouch for their clinical experience and aptitude for doctoral study. Some programs will also ask for a resume and require that you sit for an interview.

Career Options & Job Market

Most people who pursue a PhD in rehabilitation science wish to pursue careers as college professors and researchers. Postsecondary teachers in health specialties have higher earning power than college educators in other fields, and reported an average yearly salary of $99,210 in May 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Postsecondary teachers can expect 17% job growth between 2010 and 2020, which is considered average compared to other occupations, the BLS explained. Over time, some rehabilitation science professors may achieve tenure and advance to administrative roles in their department. Postsecondary education administrators can expect 19% job growth through 2020 and reported average yearly salaries of $97,170 in May 2011.

As an alternative to an academic career, some people with doctorates in rehabilitation science will remain in clinical practice or advance to clinical leadership or management roles. Physical therapists reported average earnings of $79,830 in May 2011 and should experience astounding employment growth of 39% through 2020, which is much faster than the average of other occupations. Similarly, the field of occupational therapy is also expected to grow dramatically through 2020, with 33% job growth projected, the BLS notes. Occupational therapists commanded an average salary of $74,970 in 2011. Keep in mind that whether you choose an academic or clinical career, salaries can vary greatly depending on the part of the country you live in, your level of experience, and other factors.

Where to Find Information

  • International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals This professional organization is dedicated to rehabilitation professionals who work in the private sector, and features an abundance of resources for members, including a job bank, educational webinars, continuing education resources, and an online community.
  • American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine This organization's mission is to promote rehabilitation research, and has special groups devoted to various areas of clinical rehabilitation, such as geriatric rehabilitation or neurodegenerative diseases.
  • American Physical Therapy Association's PhD Directory The APTA maintains a state-by-state directory of Ph.D. programs in rehabilitation science, movement sciences, physical therapy, biokinesiology, and related areas.

How to Get Funding

Many doctoral students get help paying for their Ph.D. by accepting fellowships from their universities. In a fellowship, as doctoral student receives full or partial tuition reimbursement as well as a stipend in exchange for conducting research for the university in conjunction with the university's faculty. However, students may also look for financial aid through external resources or through government loans.

  • Federal Direct Stafford Loan. At a fixed interest rate of 6.8%, this aid program offers students loans while they complete their Ph.D. You can take out a maximum loan of $20,500 each academic year.
  • Federal Perkins Loan. If you are a full-time student who needs financial assistance, you may want to seek a Federal Perkins low-interest loan, which provides an average of $3,500 per academic year at a fixed interest rate at 5%.
  • Campus-Based Aid. Last but not least, campus-based programs are managed by the financial aid office of your university. You should explore these options, since all accredited schools actively participate in financial aid programs offered through the federal government.

Essential Advice

  • Before you apply to a traditional or online PhD program in rehabilitation science, make sure that you meet the admission requirements. You will need to make sure your license is up to date and that you are current with any continuing education requirements required to maintain that license. In addition, make sure that you have completed any necessary prerequisites.
  • If you want to be admitted to a rehabilitation science Ph.D. program, make sure you've acquired a significant amount of clinical experience beforehand. This will ensure that you not only meet requirements for admission, but that you also have personal experience to draw from as you explore clinical practices and theory in greater depth in the doctoral program.
  • If you're currently pursuing a master's or professional degree in a rehabilitation discipline, focus on maintaining a strong GPA, and take advantage of every opportunity to conduct research. This will demonstrate to the doctoral admissions staff that you have what it takes to complete doctoral-level courses and are ready to explore more advanced research methods.
  • Don't save the writing of your dissertation for the last minute. Instead, break it apart into sections so that it doesn't overwhelm you. Certain parts of your dissertation, such as the introduction, background, literature review, and even methodology, can be written in draft form long before you begin a written discussion of your research data analysis. While these may need to be revised later, it will be reassuring that you've made progress on a good chunk of the required writing even before your research is complete.