Physical Therapy Careers
What Is Physical Therapy?
Physical therapists (PTs) provide care to people of all ages. An important member of multidisciplinary treatment and rehabilitation teams, they help individuals manage pain and improve movement from injuries caused by accidents, injuries related to work or sports, or from fractures and sprains, arthritis, neurological disorders, and other chronic conditions.
PTs may specialize in one area of care, whether that means working in geriatrics or developing treatment plans for athletes in their prime. Most, however, choose to work in a variety of areas and with different patient populations. Either way, the work will vary from one patient to the next, with treatment plans designed around individual issues and goals.
Specific job functions may include:
- Performing tests to identify problems
- Assessing and interpreting tests and evaluations to determine best course of treatment
- Helping clients achieve goals by assisting with physical exercises, and in the use of supportive devices, such as canes or crutches
- Administering physical therapy; using moist packs, therapy aids, such as bands or weights, giving massages
- Directing treatments by technicians, assistants and aides
- Evaluating, observing, and recommending treatment plans; adjusting or modifying plans as necessary
- Assuring continuation of plans following discharge
- Consulting with physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professions in the care of patients
- Documenting and charting patient records
On top of all that, physical therapists need patience, compassion, empathy, and have the physical strength it takes to confidently assist patients with mobility issues and earn their trust. PTs must have motivational skills, be strong communicators, and be both positive and confident in their demeanor. And because patients/clients often feel vulnerable both during and after treatment, it is the job of a PT to help put them at ease.
A career in physical therapy allows individuals to specialize in one particular area, such as orthopedics, or offer a broad set of services to deal with all manner of mobility issues. Regardless, it is imperative to stay up-to-date on all the latest equipment and techniques to ensure clients receive optimal care and treatment for the best possible outcomes.
Working Conditions of a Physical Therapist
Physical therapists work in hospitals, clinics, long- and short-term care facilities, and in private residences. According the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 33-percent of all physical therapists work in the offices of occupational, physical, or speech therapists, and audiologists.
Many physical therapists travel as part of the job, and are required to stand, bend and lift while working with clients and patients.
Other common workplaces may include:
- Athletic training centers
- Acute care or intensive care units
- Orthopedic and surgical floors
- Emergency department
- Oncology wards
- Cardiac rehabilitation
- Geriatric floors
The job is physical and requires a great deal of strength and stamina. Most therapists work a regular workweek (9 to 5), but many also are required to work evenings and weekends, clocking overtime in the process.
How to Become a Physical Therapist in Six Simple Steps
The work physical therapists do touches people from all walks and stages of life - from the elderly patient in an assisted living facility who may have sustained a fall, to a professional athlete who suffered a torn ligament in the last big game.
From the degree requirements to certification, licensing and residency, there's a lot to do if you want to become a physical therapist. Even after you graduate, you'll still have to hunt for that perfect first job to start your career off on the right foot, and that can take time.
But as long as you're patient and you have everything in order, you'll be on your way to becoming a physical therapist in no time at all. Let's review what's required.
Step 1: Get Your Bachelor's Degree
While there's some flexibility on the exact area of study, you'll need to earn a bachelor's degree in physical therapy, the health sciences, sports or exercise science, or another closely related field before you can move forward in your quest to become a physical therapist.
Some graduate programs may require specific prerequisites such as classes in physics, biology, kinesiology, physiology, anatomy and chemistry, so if you already know what doctoral program you'll be enrolling in, it's a good idea to check the prerequisites.
Some schools offer a combined undergraduate/doctoral degree program that allows students to graduate with both a bachelor’s and a doctorate. Undergraduate students who volunteer at hospitals or clinics gain valuable experience while observing licensed professionals. Some volunteer work is also typically required for admission into a doctoral program.
Step 2: Graduate From a DPT Program
Step two in figuring out how to become a physical therapist is deciding on which Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program you want to enroll in. A DPT degree will prepare you to work in the field of physical therapy, and it includes courses in imaging, anatomy, biomechanics and pathophysiology, among others.
A DPT degree is generally a two to three-year program where the final year is spent getting hands-on experience in the clinic under guided supervision.
There are more than 200 physical therapy programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).
Alongside seven months of supervised experience in a clinical setting, coursework at the doctoral level usually includes lab and classroom instruction in medical diagnostics, patient examination, patient evaluation, orthotics, prosthetics, and medical screening. Clinical experience is vital in preparing therapists for careers in which they interact with clients every day, as well as providing valuable time in the trenches that prepares graduates for full time employment upon graduation.
Step 3: Take and Pass the NPTE
After completing an accredited physical therapy program, individuals must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. The examination assesses an applicant's knowledge in practice, physical therapy theory, and consultation.
The (NPTE) is a computer-administered exam consisting of 250 multiple-choice questions in five sections. Scores range from 200 to 800 and anything above a 600 is considered passing.
Administered and given by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, the NPTE is offered four times yearly - in January, April, July and October. Candidates can attempt the exam up to three times a year, and if you don't pass you can always come back the following year.
Step 4: Get Licensed to Practice
A big part of figuring out how to become a physical therapist is learning about the licensing process in your state. Sounds easy enough, but that means completing compliance training, background checks and other criteria in addition to meeting all the requirements described in the steps above.
Physical therapists also need to meet continuing education requirements every two years in most states, which will keep you up-to-date on new developments in the profession and in your chosen specialty.
Step 5: Complete Your Residency (Optional)
Once you're licensed to practice, that's all you need to do to become a physical therapist. At this point you can start looking for physical therapy jobs near you - or you could even start your own practice. But many physical therapists choose to gain additional experience and training through a residency program after graduating from a DPT program and before looking for a permanent position.
Residency programs include additional training, coursework and time in the clinic. It's also a great way to help decide on a specialization if you're interested in building on your expertise.
Residency programs recognized by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) include 1,500 hours of clinical practice completed over nine to 36 months. Residencies allow individuals to diagnose and examine patients under the direct supervision of licensed physical therapists. A residency also gives you a chance to contribute to important research in the field.
Step 6: Get Board Certified (Optional)
The last step to becoming a physical therapist is to become board certified. Though this step is also optional, that doesn't mean it isn't important. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers certification in 10 specialty areas:
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary
- Clinical electrophysiology
- Wound management
- Women's health
Becoming board-certified requires passing an exam in your desired specialty and completing an accredited residency program or racking up 2,000 hours of clinical work. Depending on your specialty, there may also be additional requirements.
Therapists applying for ABPTS certification must also be licensed, and must pass a certification exam that measures the skills and knowledge in their specialty.
Physical Therapist Salary and Wage Expectations
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists earn an annual median salary of $89,440. Wage expectations depend on level of education, geographic location, and industry or sector, with the lowest 10-percent earning $62,120, and the top 10-percent earning more than $124,740.
The top five areas in term of highest employment levels are: offices of health practitioners, hospitals (general medical and surgical), home healthcare services, nursing care facilities, and offices of physicians.
Most physical therapists work full-time, 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, although it’s not uncommon for PTs to also work weekends and overtime, especially those who work with patients in their homes.
Job Outlook for Physical Therapists
With demand for trained physical therapists spreading into many areas, it’s no surprise that this field is growing at a rate of 18-percent in the ten-year period leading up to 2029, which is much faster than average for all careers. In part, this is due to the growing number of baby boomers who are staying active longer than in previous generations. This is also in part because of a growing number of chronic conditions, outpatient surgeries, and the growing obesity problem.
The BLS expects career opportunities to continue this upward trend in all settings, particularly in areas where the elderly are treated, such as acute care facilities, nursing and assistive living facilities and in orthopedic settings. Physical therapists will also see strong job growth in medically underserved rural areas.
May 2020, Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and job growth data for Physical Therapists. Figures represent national data, not school specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2021.
Occupational Therapists (OTs): OT’s diagnose and treat patients who are injured, ill, or disabled. They help their patients/clients develop the skills – motor, personal, social, and vocational – necessary for daily living. They often travel to client's homes and use assistive devices to regain independence.
Recreational Therapists: Recreation therapists rehabilitate and restore a person’s level of independence and functioning. They promote well being and eliminate limitations that inhibit an individual’s ability to participate in daily life.
Speech-Language Pathologists: Speech-language pathologists work to diagnose, assess, treat, and prevent speech, language, and social / cognitive communication, as well as swallowing disorders in people of all ages.
Chiropractors: Chiropractors use hands-on manipulation (and often other alternative treatments) to properly align the body’s musculoskeletal structure that helps the body heal itself without surgery or medication.
Audiologists: An audiologist is a health-care professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders of the auditory and vestibular portions of the ear. They are trained to diagnose, manage and treat hearing problems and tinnitus, as well as balance problems.
Additional Resources and Further Reading
- The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
- American Council of Academic Physical Therapy
- American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
- Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy
- American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education
- Foundation of Physical Therapy
- Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy