How to Become a Physical Therapist
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) about 37% of physical therapists work in the offices of other healthcare professionals (specialists and various types of therapists). 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
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 towards 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 degree, you'll need to earn a bachelor's degree in a health science, sports or exercise science or 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.
Step 2: Graduate From a DPT Program
Step two in how to become a physical therapist is to enroll in and complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. A DPT degree is what 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-year program where the second year is intended for more hands-on experience in the clinic under guided supervision.
Step 3: Take and Pass the NPTE
The National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is a computer-administered exam comprising 250 multiple-choice questions in five sections. Scores range from 200 to 800 and anything above a 600 is considered a passing grade. Administered and given by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), the NPTE is offered four times -- in January, April, July and October -- each year. Each candidate can take 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
The fourth step in how to become a physical therapist is to get licensed. Sounds easy enough, but that means completing compliance training, background checks and other criteria. Physical therapists also need to meet continuing education requirements every two years in most states, which will keep you up-to-date on your chosen profession and 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. However, many physical therapists opt to complete a residency before looking for work, which includes 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.
Step 6: Get Board Certified (Optional)
Our last step in how to become a physical therapist is also optional, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers 10 specialty areas, including cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, orthopedics, pediatrics, sports, wound management and women's health. To become 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 that are needed, so be sure to review all materials before submitting for board approval.
Physical Therapist Salary and Wage Expectations
According to the BLS, physical therapists earn an annual median salary of $97,720 as of May 2022. Wage expectations depend on level of education, geographic location, and industry or sector, with the lowest 10% earning around $67,910 and the top 10% earning more than $128,830.
The top five areas in terms 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 the BLS expects the field to grow at a rate of 17% through 2031, 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.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for physical therapists are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed June 2023.
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.
Employment Outlook & Career Guidance for Physical Therapists
Physical therapists (PTs), help people improve movement and manage pain from functional problems like back and neck injuries, fractures, sprains, and strains, arthritis, neurological disorders, amputations, injuries related to work and sports, and other chronic conditions. PT’s provide care to people of all ages and are an important part of the rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention plans in patients with illnesses or injuries.
The work of PTs varies from patient to patient. For example, a stroke patient working to recover use of his or her arms needs different care from a patient who is recovering from a fracture. Some PTs specialize in only one type of care, such as orthopedics, but many PT’s help patients to improve mobility by developing fitness and wellness programs too.
Important Knowledge, Skills & Abilities
Movement, which many of us take for granted, is key to optimal living and quality of life, and extends beyond every person's ability to participate in daily activities. The complex therapeutic needs of society, such as those resulting from injury or disease, engage physical therapists to assess, plan, and participate in rehabilitative programs with clients to overcome barriers and correct disabling conditions.
Physical Therapists must have knowledge and skills in a number of areas, including:
- Medicine – Knowledge of the techniques used to diagnose and treat injuries and deformities.
- Customer Service – Knowledge about the processes for providing personal services, which includes patient assessment and evaluation.
- Psychology – Knowledge of human behavior and performance; differences in ability, personality, and interests; learning and motivation, assessment and treatment of physical disorders.
- Anatomy – A thorough knowledge of anatomy; the bodily structure of humans (and other living things), especially as revealed by dissection and the separation of parts.
- Therapy and Counseling - Knowledge of principles, methods, and procedures for diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of physical and mental dysfunctions, and for counseling and guidance.
- Biology - Knowledge of plant and animal organisms, their tissues, cells, functions, interdependencies, and interactions with each other and the environment.
- Sociology and Anthropology - Knowledge of group behavior and dynamics, societal trends and influences, human migrations, ethnicity, cultures and their history and origins.
- Administration and Management - Knowledge of business and management principles involved in strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources modeling, leadership technique, production methods, and coordination of people and resources.
- Clerical - Knowledge of administrative and clerical procedures and systems such as word processing, managing files and records, designing forms, and other office procedures and terminology.
- Physical Therapy – Knowledge about all aspects of the treatment of disease, injury or deformity by physical methods, such as massage, heat treatment, and exercise.
Physical therapy programs also often include courses in biomechanics, physiology, neuroscience, and pharmacology. Physical therapist students complete at least 30 weeks of clinical work, during which they acquire supervised experience in areas such as acute and orthopedic care.
Skills & Abilities
Compassion – The ability and the desire to help people who are in pain, and having empathy for their circumstances.
Interpersonal skills – The ability to work with wide ranges of with people; clearly explain treatment programs and motivate patients.
Detail oriented – PTs should have strong analytic and observational skills to diagnose and treat patients’ problems and provide safe, effective care.
Dexterity – Ability and the skill to use their hands to provide manual therapy, such as massage, and therapeutic exercises.
Physical stamina – PTs spend a great deal of time on their feet moving and demonstrating proper therapy techniques while helping patients perform exercises.
Resourcefulness – Ability to customize treatment plans for patients.
Flexibility – The ability to be flexible and to adapt plans of care to meet the needs of each patient.
Job Outlook and Employment Projections for Physical Therapists
Physical therapists typically work in clinics, hospitals, in private offices, nursing homes, and often travel to the private homes of patients. They spend much of their time on their feet, actively working with patients. In 2015, the American Physical Therapy Association developed a model to estimate the number of physical therapists needed to meet the healthcare demands of people living gin the US. In short, their research projects a shortage of nearly $19,000 PT’s by 2025.
That’s why it’s no surprise that employment of PTs is projected to grow 34-percent from 2014 to 2024, which is much faster than average for all careers. Demand for physical therapy services will continue as populations’ age but continue to stay active.
The median annual wage for physical therapists was $84,020 in May 2015, with the highest 10-percent earning more than $119,790, and the lowest 10-percent earning less than $57,000. Although most therapists work full-time during normal business hours, it’s not uncommon to also work evenings or weekends, and holidays.
Ways to Increase Your Job Prospects
Individuals entering the PT profession must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and apply to and complete a clinical residency program after graduation. DPT programs normally last about three years, and require a bachelor’s degree for admission, as well as educational prerequisites, such as chemistry and biology. Most DPT programs require applicants to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).
Residencies typically last about one year and provide additional training in a specialty area. Therapists who complete a residency program may choose to specialize further by completing a fellowship in an advanced clinical area.
Networking, joining professional organizations and associations, taking continuing education courses (which is normally required for PT’s to maintain their license) and staying up-to-date with new techniques and breakthroughs in the field of physical therapy are all things individuals can do to increase their job prospects, earn a higher wage, and be considered for promotion.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All states require PTs to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state, but all include passing the National Physical Therapy Examination by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
Some physical therapists may choose to become a board-certified specialist after gaining work experience. Board certification requires passing an exam and completing a set number of hours of clinical work, or completion of an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) - accredited residency program in the specialty area.