PhD Collaboration to Combat a Nationwide Faculty Shortage in Physical Therapy Programs
The interdepartmental collaboration, within Baylor University's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, allows those holding a DPT degree to earn a PhD degree in Exercise and Nutrition Sciences. The Department of Physical Therapy hopes these PhD graduates will return as faculty.
Higher education is facing a nationwide faculty shortage within its physical therapy programs. The shortage is due, in part, to accreditation requirements set forth by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which requires a majority of a department’s faculty to hold a terminal doctorate degree, such as a PhD, DSc, or EdD. In response, the Department of Physical Therapy established an interdepartmental collaboration for its graduates to earn a PhD, with the support of Baylor University's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.
The Department of Physical Therapy, which doesn’t yet have its own PhD program, thoughtfully partnered with the Department of Health, Human Performance, and Recreation (HHPR), who graciously agreed to grant adjunct faculty status to select Physical Therapy faculty and allow them to serve as primary advisors for PhD students. The collaboration allows those holding a DPT degree to earn a PhD degree in Exercise and Nutrition Sciences.
“Our accrediting body requires more than half of our faculty have a terminal doctorate degree,” Shane Koppenhaver, PT, PhD, Clinical Professor, and Associate Chair, said. “In turn, we need more physical therapists to hold terminal degrees. The hope is that our DPT students will earn their PhD at Robbins College, and then return to teach for the Department of Physical Therapy.”
Faculty feel that it is mutually beneficial between the Robbins College departments. It is estimated that it will take several years for the Department of Physical Therapy to develop its own PhD program, so partnering allows DPT graduates to be quickly immersed in a PhD program. In addition, faculty and students believe the Exercise and Nutrition Sciences coursework nicely complements the physical therapy profession.
“Physical Therapy is about restoring wholistic health for individuals, and we specialize in musculoskeletal pain for which the causes are multifactorial,” United States Air Force Maj. Matthew Williams, BSC, PT, DPT, PhD, said. “Any therapist will tell you that an individual's lifestyle, mental health, diet, exercise routine, and spiritual health are as much a part of their healing process as biomechanics or pathophysiology. Furthermore, the primary tools which therapists use to treat individuals are exercise and nutrition, so having a more in-depth understanding of exercise physiology and nutrition sciences has a direct one to one relationship with the practice of physical therapy.”
To date, the PhD partnership has enrolled three students. Two military students have earned their PhD and returned to teach within the Army-Baylor Physical Therapy programs. Currently, one civilian student is newly enrolled and aspires to teach for the Department of Physical Therapy post-graduation.
“What I am most looking forward to is meeting and working with more of the HHPR faculty and fellow PhD students,” Josh Godfrey, DPT, and current PhD student, said. “My interactions during this first semester have been better than I could have expected. I am truly surrounded by excellent individuals – they all bring varying experiences, skills, and knowledge to the table, and I am fortunate to be surrounded by them.”
Baylor’s Exercise and Nutrition Sciences PhD program is recognized as a STEM program, with an emphasis in athletic training, exercise physiology, and nutrition. The four-year program follows a normal PhD course structure, consisting of coursework, dissertation research, and defense of dissertation work. Koppenhaver, who was granted a HHPR adjunct faculty role, serves as primary mentor to the physical therapy students.
In contrast to a hybrid DPT program, the Exercise and Nutrition Sciences degree is a traditional program, meaning courses are held entirely on Baylor’s campus. Godfrey, who began his PhD journey in 2023, moved with his family from out of state.
“Involvement in this PhD program is a unique and rare opportunity,” Godfrey said. “It was presented to me by Baylor’s DPT program, which spoke highly of the faculty involved with the PhD in Exercise and Nutrition Sciences. Additionally, I can continue working with patients in the clinic, participate as a mentor in a Baylor orthopedic residency program, and serve as associate faculty for several DPT courses. Despite these many positives, it was still a tough decision to uproot my family. However, God continued to make it abundantly clear this is where He wanted us to be.”
Koppenhaver acknowledged that those in the physical therapy profession know they should earn a terminal doctorate if they are interested in becoming faculty, but many struggle with figuring out how to achieve it. This is because they are often supporting a family and have debt from DPT school, and as a result, many find it to be a real challenge to balance the time and tuition it takes to earn a PhD.
Understanding that a physical move to Waco may be inaccessible to many PhD-seeking students, the Robbins College sought a way to help ease the financial burden. Robbins College Dean Jason Carter, PhD, is supportive of currently waiving tuition for civilian DPT/PhD students. In addition, Army-Baylor students have their tuition funded by the military.
“The Department of Physical Therapy does an outstanding job of preparing students to have a societal impact,” Carter said. “While many graduates become practicing physical therapists, some are interested in teaching or research, and we want to support those goals as well. Offering the opportunity to earn a terminal doctoral degree at Baylor opens the door for our high caliber DPT alumni to become the next generation of physical therapy faculty and researchers.”
Godfrey said he is thankful for the opportunity presented to his family, and he is looking forward to an eventual pivot from a practice to full-time academia.
“The PT profession allows unique opportunities to serve patients and share the love of Christ,” Godfrey said. “As a physical therapist, I strive to have a positive influence on my patients. As a professor, that circle of influence increases greatly. If I can inspire and grow future physical therapists to see their value in Christ, utilize their gifts, and help them serve and love their patients then the love Christ has shown me is spread to many others.”
Williams, who graduated in December 2023, focused his dissertation on major psychological factors that predict injury risk and recovery. He has returned as a faculty member for Army-Baylor Physical Therapy programs.
“The military has great opportunities to pursue fully funded graduate education, and this opened the door for me to pursue a PhD,” Williams said. “Baylor has a long history of working well with military students, in addition to being a top tier research institution. As a Christian, I was excited about Baylor's commitment to pursuing wholistic faith-based education. I am so excited to return to my alma-mater, to apply what I have learned in my PhD as an instructor, and to stay within the Baylor family.”
The Department of Physical Therapy is anticipating more growth in the coming years, as the need for the profession continues to strengthen. For anyone who is interested in the PhD partnership, more information can be found here or reach out to Shane_Koppenhaver@baylor.edu.
“Our intent is to accept two more students for next year,” Koppenhaver said. “Ideally, we’d like to target Baylor DPT alumni, but we’re open to any physical therapist interested.”