How to Become a Physical Therapist: Physical Therapy Schools & Careers

Become Team
Become Team
November 10, 2021

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Becoming a physical therapist requires years of education and training in areas such as kinesiology, anatomy, biology and physical fitness. Many physical therapists also receive extensive training in patient psychology to better understand and help clients cope with the emotional challenges associated with a physical ailment. As with most careers, the path to success can take many different forms. In physical therapy, what courses should an undergraduate take to prepare? Do aspiring therapists need to complete a residency? The following guide answers questions like these and offers detailed insight into the various academic paths one can take to become a physical therapist.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical Therapy Basics

People who have suffered serious injuries or illnesses often face difficulties with movement and pain management. They depend on physical therapists to help them recover. Through focused exercise plans and individual attention, these professionals help patients restore their range of motion, build strength, improve flexibility and manage pain as they recuperate.

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Physical Therapist Salaries and Job Outlook

Physical Therapist Earnings

According to 2014 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for physical therapists was $83,940, or $39.61 per hour. However, the top 10 percent of physical therapists earned more than $116,090.

State

Outlook for Physical Therapists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment opportunities for physical therapists will grow 36 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average of all occupations. The overall demand is expected to stem from the increase in physical therapy services for aging baby boomers. The aging population is more likely to suffer from heart attacks, strokes and injuries affecting mobility, all of which can require physical therapy as part of rehabilitation. More cases of patients with chronic conditions such as obesity and asthma are also expected, and physical therapists will be needed to help patients maintain their mobility.

Major advances in medical technology will also likely play a role in the increased need for PTs, as survival rates increase for trauma victims and newborns with birth defects. These patients will require rehabilitative care to recover from surgeries. The Affordable Care Act may also increase the number of individuals with access to physical therapy services.

Select a state below for more information about employment and job growth for physical therapists.

Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist

Step 1
Earn a Bachelor's Degree in a Health-Related Field
Before enrolling in a doctoral degree program for physical therapy, you must meet certain prerequisites. This normally includes completing a bachelor’s degree program with a heavy dose of the following courses:
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

Check with the doctoral degree program you plan to enroll in for specific prerequisite requirements.
Step 2
Complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree Program
In order to work as a physical therapist, you must complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree program. As of 2014, there were 228 physical therapy programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), most of which last three years.
It is usually necessary to apply for DPT programs through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). Students in DPT programs must complete a clinical internship in an area such as acute or orthopedic care with supervised experience.
DPT programs involve coursework in the following subjects:
  • Applied Physical Therapy
  • Functional Anatomy
  • Complex Conditions
  • Life Span Development
  • Pharmacotherapy
Step 3
Meet Your State’s Licensing Requirements
All states require PTs to become licensed. Licensing requirements are set by individual states, but include passing the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). The NPTE is a computerized, multiple-choice exam. Applicants may take the exam three times in a twelve-month period. The Practice Exam and Assessment Tool (PEAT), also developed by the FSBPT, allows applicants to practice taking the test using an exam that resembles the NPTE.
Other licensing requirements may include a law exam and a criminal background check. Most renewal programs require the completion of continuing education credits. Make sure to check with your state board for specific licensing requirements.
Step 4
Complete a Residency (Optional)
After earning a DPT degree, you can apply to a clinical residency program for additional training and experience in specialty areas of care. These programs typically last one year. You can then specialize further by completing a fellowship in an advanced clinical area.
Step 5
Obtain Board Certification (Optional)
After working in the field, physical therapists may apply to become a board-certified specialist in one of eight clinical specialty areas offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. In order to become board-certified, physical therapists must complete at least 2,000 hours of clinical work or an APTA-accredited residency program in the specialty area, and pass an exam.

Physical Therapy Degrees and Curriculum

Students who want to pursue a career as a physical therapist have several degree options to help them train for this career. Although physical therapy degrees are only available at the doctoral level, students can get the prerequisite education for these programs or train to be a physical therapy assistant by earning an associate or bachelor’s degree. Many schools, for example, offer a bachelor’s degree in pre-physical therapy, which is used as the foundation for advanced study. Few online options exist for these undergraduate degrees, but the possibilities increase when students reach the doctoral level. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, master’s programs are no longer offered.

Below are examples of how each level of degree can help students meet their educational and personal goals, and ultimately move into this rewarding career path.

Career Goal and/or educational needs Associate Bachelor’s Doctorate Online
I am looking for a program that will help prepare me for a career in physical therapy, but will also give me the flexibility I need to manage my other responsibilities.
I want to become familiar with the physical therapy field and train to either become a physical therapy assistant after graduation or continue my education and become a physical therapist.
I’m interested in becoming a physical therapist one day, so I need a program that will give me the preparation I need to gain acceptance into a graduate-level physical therapy degree program.
I earned a bachelor’s degree, and now I’m ready to further my education. I want to get in-depth instruction and hands-on training that will prepare me for a job as a physical therapist.
I have been working as a physical therapy assistant, or in a related health care profession, and I would like to get the additional education and training I need to make the transition into a physical therapy career.

Associate Degrees

In an associate degree program, students gain the knowledge and skills they need to assist physical therapists as they work on patients. Students learn the fundamentals of the profession through both classroom instruction and practical training with a licensed physical therapist. The following are samples of courses offered in a PTA associate degree program.

Physical therapist assistant procedures

This course introduces students to how the clinical environment works and the primary duties performed by physical therapy assistants.

PTA Skills & Knowledge Gained

Taking a patient’s vital signs Administering the Heimlich maneuver Mastery of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

Clinical kinesiology

This class explores the musculoskeletal and nervous systems of the body and how they work.

PTA Skills & Knowledge Gained

Ability to recognize a normal and abnormal patient gait Proper muscle testing Measuring joints

Therapeutic exercise

This course explores types of therapeutic exercises and how they can be applied to different medical conditions.

PTA Skills & Knowledge Gained

Developing exercise programs for a variety of medical conditions Keeping patients safe during therapeutic exercises Evaluating patients’ progress as they work through an exercise program

Assistive devices

This class familiarizes students with the types of assistive devices on the market and how they are used.

PTA Skills & Knowledge Gained

Choosing the right wheelchair for a patient Understanding how patients use assistive devices such as walkers, crutches, and canes

Bachelor’s Degrees

Students in a pre-physical therapy bachelor’s program get a comprehensive overview of the physical therapy field and take courses in subjects that lay the foundation for a doctoral degree. For instance, students learn how to perform the duties of a physical therapist, while also taking science classes--such as biology and physiology--which educate them about the workings of the human body.

The following are some examples of the coursework that students in pre-physical therapy bachelor’s degrees may expect to take:

Health science statistics

This class teaches the statistical methodologies that are used in the health care field.

PT Skills & Knowledge Gained

Analyzing patient data through different statistical methods Understanding of statistical methods such as correlation, inferential statistics, and analysis of variance

Athletic injuries

Students in this class learn about the different kinds of athletic injuries that patients may suffer from, what causes them, and how they are treated.

PT Skills & Knowledge Gained

Diagnosing athletic trauma Creating and implementing preventive plans for patients at risk of injury Ability to apply sports medicine principles

Pharmacology

This class familiarizes students with the types of drugs used by physical therapists.

PT Skills & Knowledge Gained

Knowing which drugs are appropriate for different conditions Recognizing drug abuse issues Understanding the physical and psychological effects of different drugs

Health psychology

Students learn how to treat patients from a biopsychological perspective.

PT Skills & Knowledge Gained

Understanding how pain affects a patient’s psychological state Making nutritional recommendations that alleviate pain and stress Ability to recognize mental health issues

Doctoral Degrees

Typically, master’s degrees in physical therapy are not available. Instead, students can enroll directly in physical therapy Ph.D. programs if they have earned a pre-physical therapy bachelor’s degree or have worked as a physical therapy assistant--or a related health care position-and want to transition into a physical therapist job. These degrees, which can take up to six years to complete, can be earned at a traditional college, as well as online or hybrid learning environments.

The following are crucial skills that students gain from completing a physical therapy doctorate:

Theoretical Understanding
Physical therapy is an academically rigorous field, requiring practitioners to understand the complex systems of the human body, how they work, and how they can be rejuvenated after an injury. Students in Ph.D. programs gain extensive knowledge on the physical and emotional effects of injuries and how such factors influence treatment in order to develop the most effective recovery plan for each individual patient.
Clinical experience
It’s imperative for physical therapists to actually experience how evidence-based theories can be applied to the real world. As a result, many classes allow students to observe how patients are treated in a clinical setting and get hands-on experience.
Critical thinking
There is a vast amount of health care information available, and physical therapists need to evaluate it with a discerning eye. Students learn how to critically evaluate industry research and make assessments about its validity and practical application.
Clinical decision-making
The decisions made by physical therapists greatly impact how well a patient recovers from an accident or injury. During their doctoral studies, physical therapists develop decision-making skills that draw on evidence-based research, advice from other practitioners, and their own past experience.

Online Physical Therapy Schools

Finding a list of online physical therapy schools is just the beginning when it comes to choosing the right distance degree program. Students should thoroughly investigate each school to ensure it offers the coursework and training they need to achieve their career goals. The following are some considerations to keep in mind before enrolling in a program.

Goals

Students should consider what they want out of their careers and carefully review all aspects of an online physical therapy school to determine whether it will help them achieve those goals. Because the field is so broad, students should consider what patient population and injuries they would like to work with, and find a program that has highly regarded curriculum and faculty in that area. For example, students who want to work on patients suffering from heart problems should find a program that has a strong cardiovascular curriculum.

Research Opportunities

Students who want to contribute to the field by conducting research should choose a physical therapy school that gives them the opportunity to participate in such projects. Schools with a strong research emphasis may offer students valuable opportunities to work on studies that are up for publication in professional journals or will be presented to industry peers at conferences hosted by key organizations such as the American Physical Therapy Association. Students should also think about the specific area of the field they want to research-whether it is geriatrics, pediatrics, neurology, or orthopedics-and find a school that has research opportunities in those specific areas.

Accreditation

No matter what direction students want to take with their education or their careers, they should make sure the school they choose is accredited. Physical therapy schools accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) have been vetted to ensure they meet the highest educational standards. This is particularly important for online learners. Accreditation ensures that students receive a quality education and are learning PT best practices, so they can enter the professional world with the proper knowledge and skills.

Components of a Successful Career as a Physical Therapist

Physical Therapy Skills

Physical therapists must master a host of different skills to perform their responsibilities effectively. Strong observational skills help them diagnose patient problems and, evaluate treatments. Because much of the job involves standing up while providing manual therapy and therapeutic exercises, dexterity and physical stamina are important as well. Finally, physical therapists spend a lot of individual time with their patients, and should be able to empathize with them. Effective communication skills will help them explain treatment programs and motivate patients to work at exercises that may be difficult and painful.

Physical Therapy Credentials

Step up. Physical therapists ask it of their patients, and they can do it as well. While not mandatory, many physical therapists opt to earn a certification from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). These certifications allow them to highlight their expertise in a specific area of the field, and help them stand out from other candidates when they’re looking for employment.

APTA certifications can be earned in the following areas:

Tools and Technology for Physical Therapists

To complement their knowledge of the human body and how to treat motion-related injuries, physical therapists use an array of tools and technologies in their work. For example, balance beams and boards are designed to help patients regain their balance by working specific muscle groups and developing reflexes; specially designed hammers test tendon and nerve reflexes; and adjustable work tables provide a comfortable and effective space for stretching and other exercises. In addition, these professionals use different kinds of technology to do their work, such as medical software programs (e.g., Clinicient Insight, TheraWriter.PT, and Physical Therapy Advantage) that are specifically designed to help physical therapists with administrative tasks.

Related Careers in Physical Health

For health care professionals, it’s the people who make the job. They’re interested in treating patients and helping them live healthy lifestyles. Such professionals can also pursue a number of other careers that make people a priority, including the ones listed below.

Dietitians and nutritionists
21%
Salary

$56,950

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree, supervised training

Athletic trainers and
exercise physiologists
19%
Salary

$43,370

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree, clinical training

Recreational
therapists
13%
Salary

$44,000

Education and Training:

Bachelor’s degree, internship

Audiologists
34%
Salary

$73,060

Education and Training:

Doctoral degree, clinical training

Chiropractors
15%
Salary

$66,720

Education and Training:

Doctoral degree, clinical training

Occupational
therapists
29%
Salary

$78,810

Education and Training:

Master’s degree, supervised fieldwork

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Comparing Salaries of Related Careers

Physical therapists who have earned their degrees, or who have worked in the field for a while and want a change, may choose to use their education and experience to pursue related jobs in the health care industry. The following chart compares salary ranges for other jobs related to physical therapy:

Physical Therapist and Related Job Salaries

Related Careers at a Glance

Become Team
Become Team
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