How to Become a Physical Therapist

A physical therapist treats injuries and ailments that inhibit movement. This kind of treatment applies exercise and activity in an effort to rehabilitate problem areas. Physical therapists diagnose patients and establish treatment plans in which patients take on an active role. A physical therapist uses equipment and tools that are very different from other medical professionals. The treatment plan also involves strength training, stretching and movements that aid in recovery.

Restoring functional movement is a primary goal of physical therapists while they also aim to prevent future injuries by strengthening vulnerable areas of the body. Physical therapy is also prescribed after many surgeries and is covered by many insurance plans. This rehabilitation phase calls for the guidance of an expert and this is exactly where a physical therapist comes into play. Physical therapists work in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Typical workplaces for physical therapists are rehabilitation centers, private practices, nursing homes and hospitals.

Physical therapists do not have to endure the same level of stress that others in the medical profession are subjected to on a daily basis. It provides a calmer work environment, one that is more rehabilitative. There is also a significant amount of one-on-one interaction with patients as physical therapists typically have a high level of interpersonal skills.

Physical therapists also possess an exceptional attention to detail. Prescribing functional movements to reduce pain takes careful consideration, particularly since the risk of any future injuries has to be minimized. Not only are physical therapists attentive, but they are also compassionate in their approach.

Salary/Job Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average salary of a physical therapist at $85,400 per year. However, there are a wide range of salaries and much of that depends upon level of experience. The specific kind of facility also plays a key role in a physical therapist’s annual salary. Geographic location is another factor that affects pay rate. Nevada is currently the highest-paying state for physical therapists with an average salary of $120,820. There is a bit of a gap between the next highest-paying state as New Jersey comes in second with an annual salary of $96,890.

The demand for physical therapists is increasing at a higher rate than any other job in the medical profession. By the year 2024, there expects to be at least a 36% job growth among physical therapists. Of that projected growth, the highest percentage is expected to be in offices of physical therapists and that is followed by home health services, physicians’ offices, nursing homes and hospitals. There is an abundance of physical therapist jobs being advertised as the supply does not seem to be meeting the current demand. That means new graduates can find themselves fast tracked into a career as a physical therapist.

Physical Therapist Education

Becoming a physical therapist requires an education that extends beyond that of a bachelor’s degree, which is the first step of the process. Undergraduate studies prepare students for their post-graduate work in physical therapy. When choosing an undergraduate major, it is recommended that students earn a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, kinesiology, or athletic training. This will provide a solid base of knowledge that will help students for what they will be exposed to in their advanced education.

Students must then gain acceptance to a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, which spans three years in duration. This kind of program introduces students to subjects such as exercise physiology, cellular histology, biomechanics, neuroscience, clinical reasoning, evidence-based practice and much more. In most programs, about 75% of the coursework is conducted in a classroom setting while about a quarter of the work it involves clinical education.

When seeking out a DPT program, prospective students need to ensure that it is accredited. Accreditation means that the school has approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Only one of these programs will qualify physical therapists to be eligible to take the CAPTE licensure examination.

When pursuing a career as a physical therapist, work experience is also extremely valuable. As a result, many PT students spend time working or volunteering at health care facilities before beginning their post-grad studies. This also helps when applying for admission to a DPT program. Some doctorate programs even require applicants to obtain a certain amount of field experience before granting admission.

A common practice for new physical therapists is to go through a residency program in which they are able to start using their skills under the supervision of an experienced physical therapist. These residency programs are not as long as the ones that are required of medical school graduates and can last less than a year.

Physical Therapist Licensing/Certification

Physical Therapists need to hold a license in order to treat patients. Licenses are distributed according to the guidelines establish by each respective state. However, before a license can be attained, a national certification must be earned. Physical therapists must earn a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). It is then up to each state board to determine the guidelines for state licensing. Those guidelines are also subject to change, particularly with so many advances and changes in physical therapy procedures.


Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

The specifics of physical therapy licensing are covered on this comprehensive website that also features news, information and other resources.

American Physical Therapy Association

This association is at the forefront of setting standards in the industry and is also an excellent resource for the latest industry news.

American Council of Physical Therapy

This is a component of the APTA and its mission is to promote excellence in the field of physical therapy.

American Medical Association

This association covers a broad range of subject areas as they pertain to the medical profession.