How is the success of an academic program defined?

Is it the reputation of its faculty and the quality of its curriculum? The success of its alumni? The number of applications received and the acceptance rate?

If the answer is “all of the above,” then Clarkson’s Doctoral Program in Physical Therapy (DPT) is an unqualified success.

Physical Therapy statisticsThis year marks the 10-year anniversary of PT graduates at Clarkson. But the alumni, current students, faculty and administrators involved with the program know they have a lot more to celebrate than an anniversary. The real reason to cheer is found in the program’s numbers: a 100 percent job placement rate for graduates; a growth in applications to over 200 a year, leading to an acceptance rate of less than 12 percent; and the diversity of ethnicity and gender that the PT program brings to campus, which is reflected in the higher number of female than male students in the program.

The program’s success has also paved the way for other graduate health care programs. This January, Clarkson welcomes its first class in the new Master of Physician Assistant (PA) Studies program.

For Clarkson President Tony Collins, the development of the new PA program and other graduate health care offerings is a logical step in building on the success of the physical therapy program and further developing Clarkson’s reputation in health sciences. “We have excellent working relationships with our regional health care providers and the right facilities to provide training in this fast-growing field,” says Collins.

Origins of a Program

Back in the mid-1990s, administrators and professors saw an opportunity to capitalize on two of Clarkson’s greatest research and educational strengths: engineering and the biosciences.  Supporters of integrating health sciences into Clarkson’s areas of excellence believed that physical therapy would open up new opportunities for interdisciplinary research at Clarkson, including biomedical and rehabilitation engineering. At the time, student interest in pre-professional programs in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy and chiropractics was accelerating.

Quote from Leslie RussekThe creation of the PT program began in earnest in 1996, when Samuel Feitelberg, a highly respected leader in the field of physical therapy, was recruited as Clarkson’s first associate dean of health sciences. His mandate was to design and build a fully integrated PT degree, research and clinical program. Feitelberg had spent the previous 26 years at the University of Vermont (UVM), where he established the PT Department, served as department chair, and was also associate dean and director of the Health Sciences division in the School of Allied Health Sciences. He was soon joined by the Clarkson program’s first professor, Leslie Russek, who was his physical therapy graduate student at UVM and who also happened to have a Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering.

The two-year Master’s of Physical Therapy (MPT) program welcomed its first class in 1999 and immediately enjoyed great success training quality physical therapists prepared to enter the workforce. At the same time, Clarkson offered its undergraduate students the option of a pre-PT concentration, giving qualified students a reserved spot in the MPT program upon graduation.

From a Master’s to a Doctorate Program

As more universities began to offer doctorate programs for physical therapy, Clarkson administrators and faculty decided to do the same and in 2006, the doctor of physical therapy program was created.

In 2004, the PT department had welcomed two new faculty members who would prove to be instrumental in helping the University develop the doctoral program — Scott D. Minor and Mary Alice Minor. At the time of the transition, Scott Minor, who had been a faculty member at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and whose research interests are related to biomechanics and rehabilitation engineering, had replaced Feitelberg as the associate dean of health sciences and chair of the physical therapy department.

“The opportunity to enhance the growth of Clarkson’s leadership role in North Country health care, and to extend the scope of health professions programs at Clarkson, were the most important considerations in my decision to accept a position here,” recalls Scott Minor.

Problem-Based Learning

The DPT curriculum is one of the most important factors in the program’s overall success today. Rooted in a concept called “problem-based learning” (PBL), the program promotes the development of clinical skills as well as skills in problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork, which leads to well-rounded health care providers who are lifelong learners. In the PBL format, student teams are presented real-life cases to evaluate. They must assess all the factors involved and create the best possible outcome for the patient. The goal is to develop better clinicians for the future.

For Associate Professor of Physical Therapy George Fulk, current chair of the department, the PBL curriculum is what makes Clarkson’s program unique. “The health care industry is very team-based, so to reflect this, our students have to learn how to work together productively while solving complex health problems.”

Jennifer FraczekStudents are also required to have six clinical internships throughout the program, of which the last four are full time. This is made possible by the strong relationships Clarkson faculty and administrators have developed over the years with clinics, hospitals and rehabilitation centers around the United States. “Our program allows students to integrate their internships throughout the program’s duration, rather than just at the end of the program,” explains Russek. “We also provide unique offerings such as a two-week, in-house neurological clinical where we invite patients from the community to our facilities.”

Jennifer Fraczek ’06, DPT ’09 participated in four internships, including three that were out of state — in Kilmarnock, Va.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and Allentown, Pa. “By going outside of New York state, I had the opportunity to meet many people and experience different Practice Acts, or rules that govern the practice of physical therapy in individual states, as well as create a great networking system,” she says.

In addition to coursework and clinical experiences, DPT students are encouraged to participate in ongoing research projects in physical therapy and rehabilitation engineering. “Our students will spend their careers having to keep up with the most up-to-date information in the field,” explains Fulk. “We want them to get comfortable with it as soon as possible.”

Michael Richards ’08, DPT ’11 worked with Fulk and two other DPT students on a project involving the psychometric properties of gait speed.

“After someone suffers a stroke, the recovery of the ability to walk is often an important goal during rehabilitation,” Richards explains. “For this reason, it is critical to measure walking ability using measurements that are clinically meaningful and reliable. We looked at the psychometric properties of gait speed and found that gait speed is reliable and sensitive to change in individuals who have suffered a stroke. These findings are important as they can assist clinicians in developing goals and in interpreting patient progress during rehabilitation following a stroke.” 

Quote from George FulkThe team’s research was also presented this fall at the New York Physical Therapy Association conference. “Having the opportunity to perform research was a rewarding experience because I know the skills I learned will be very useful as I begin my first job,” Richards adds.

All of these opportunities lead to successful alumni like Staci Miller ’02, MPT ’04, DPT ’06.

After spending seven years working for various physical therapy clinics and facilities in Vermont and North Carolina, the New York native opened her own outpatient orthopedic clinic, Full Motion Physical Therapy LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her brother, Bradley Miller ’07 (e-Business).

“Clarkson’s DPT program did a wonderful job of preparing me to enter the field of physical therapy with the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed — both as a health care provider and a new business owner,” she says.

“Physical therapy is just the beginning,” says Fulk. “We want to continue to build bridges between engineering, science and business with the health sciences. We want to create the best health care providers out in the field today.”

Three photos of PT students and professors with captions.