How to become a physical therapist

Do you want to work with patients that are recovering from injuries? Is your dream to help children, adults, the elderly, and athletes reach their full physical potential?

Then obtaining employment as a successful Physical Therapist could be the right move for you.

Physical Therapists—also called PTs—play an important role in the evaluation, rehabilitation, and treatment of patients with chronic illnesses, injuries, and conditions.

They work in clinics, private offices, homes, hospitals, and nursing homes—wherever a patient needs them most. It’s just one of the reasons Physical Therapists are in such demand.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for Physical Therapists is exciting. The career field is expected to grow 28% from 2016 to 226—much faster than the average for all expectations.

That’s 67,100 new Physical Therapist jobs opening up.

No wonder it’s one of the nine top allied health careers with the ultimate job security.

So what are the steps to becoming a Physical Therapist? It’s not as difficult as you expect.

To become a successful Physical Therapist takes a determination to do well and an understanding of your career path.

Let’s take a look at the essential steps to becoming a Physical Therapist.

Understand the Role of a Successful Physical Therapist

The first step in figuring out how to become a Physical Therapist is understanding what the job entails.

On the surface, a career as a Physical Therapist might seem simple; you provide a “hands-on” approach to promote movement, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability.

But it’s so much more than that. Successful Physical Therapists must conquer a wide range of fundamental skills including:

  • A passion for helping people
  • A deep understanding of muscle, bone, and ligament structure
  • A commitment to patient’s health
  • And more

SEE ALSO: Physical Therapist Skills: What You Need to Succeed Now

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), “therapeutic exercise and functional training are the cornerstones of Physical Therapist treatment” and must be personalized based on the needs and demand of the individual patient.

As for your daily duties, the steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include the ability to handle many responsibilities on a regular basis.

Some of those responsibilities include:

  • Patient Examination: testing muscle function, strength, joint flexibility, the range of motion, balance and coordination, motor function, postures, and more.
  • Diagnosis: determining the particular condition, quality of life, and the patient’s ability to reintegrate into the workplace.
  • Creation and Implementation of a Care Plan: designing a plan that includes short- and long-term functional goals and involves exercise, traction, mobilization therapy, vestibular training, motor learning, and patient/family education.

And a Physical Therapist rock star can work in any practice setting—including in-home care—and handle any type of patient care whether from illness, surgery, accident, or trauma.

It’s a demanding and rewarding career field with many outstanding pros (and cons) of being a Physical Therapist. So, it’s no wonder that Forbes ranked Physical Therapists as having one of “The Ten Happiest Jobs.”

Does this career path sound like the perfect fit for you? Great!

Now, how do you make your dream a reality?

It’s just a matter of following the next eight steps to becoming a Physical Therapist, which include obtaining the right education, certification, specialty, and job.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in a Health-Related Field

To start your new career, first, you need some Physical Therapist schooling. We’re not talking about just any schooling.

You need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field from an accredited institution. This is a requirement before you can enter a professional Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program—the next step.

There are many options for your bachelor’s degree.

Some schools offer a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) program in Pre-Physical Therapy. Or, you can earn your B.S. in biology, anatomy, health sciences, biomechanics, neuroscience, psychology, and more.

The key is to carefully choose a major that will help you on your steps to becoming a Physical Therapist by providing you with useful skills.

Also, be sure to keep your eye out for programs that offer a 3+3 curricular format—three years of undergraduate pre-PT study and three years in a professional DPT program.

2. Earn a Doctorate of Physical Therapy Degree

A Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree is typically three years in length and covers curriculum in a variety of areas including, but not limited to:

  •    Biology,
  •    Anatomy,
  •    Physiology,
  •    Cellular history,
  •    Kinesiology,
  •    Neuroscience
  •    Behavioral sciences
  •    Communication
  •    Sociology,
  •    Exercise physiology,
  •    Biomechanics,
  •    And more

The specialty of these subject areas means that you can’t just attend any school. You need to attend a professional, CAPTE-accredited Physical Therapist education program.

SEE ALSO: The Ultimate List of Physical Therapy School to Choose From

As for what you should look for in your DPT program, you want to look for a school that offers 80% classroom and lab study and 20% clinical education.  This includes at least 27.5 weeks spent in your final clinical experience.

Upon graduating your DPT program, you should be fully prepared to apply the essential knowledge and skills you gained during the study to the practice of physical therapy.

You’ll get to that point by learning under the guidance and supervision of faculty in both the classroom and clinic, including time spent in a Physical Therapist residency post-graduation.

3. Obtain a State PT License

The next steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include obtaining a state PT license. This is essential if you want to practice your profession in the U.S.

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PTs are licensed in all 50 states, and the licensure required in each state may be slightly different based on the rules and laws governing physical therapy practice within that state.

A PT license ensures that you meet and maintain the prescribed standards of the state’s regulatory board, protecting the public and the career field of a Physical Therapist.

How do you obtain your PT license verification? It’s easy. There are two basic steps.

1. Pass National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).

2. Other licensing requirements may include a law exam and a criminal background check.

The NPTE is competency specific and covers the entire scope of a Physical Therapist’s practice including examination, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prevention, and consultation.

To help you prepare, we recommend checking out APTA’s Licensure Examination Preparation.

4. Complete a Physical Therapist Residency

Once you have your license, you need to complete your Physical Therapist residency.

Often, this residency requirement is one year in length and is used to enhance your knowledge and practice.

There are two main types or residencies that you can complete your steps to becoming a Physical Therapist. They are:

  • Clinical Residency: This is a planned program designed to advance your preparedness for clinical practice. It combines opportunities for ongoing clinical supervision as well as advanced practice.
  • Clinical Fellowship: A fellowship is designed for Physical Therapists who demonstrate expertise in a specific area of practice.

However, not every state requires a Physical Therapist residency. Contact your state board to determine whether this step is necessary where you live.

6. Attend Continuing Education for Physical Therapy

Remember, just because you have a job doesn’t mean your work is done.

The steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include continuing your education while you work.

In fact, for many states, it’s a requirement. Most renewal programs require the completion of continuing education credits.

You have many options when it comes to continuing your education, including:

  • Attending a national conference
  • Participating in a webinar
  • Taking a CEU course on a range of subjects
  • And more…

Make sure to check with your state board for specific licensing requirements to see what you need to renew your license each year.

Specialize in Physical Therapy | 9 Essential Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist Rock Star

7. Further Specialize in a Physical Therapy

In the physical therapy profession, there are also many opportunities to enhance your career through specialization.

Specialization is the process by which the steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include practice and development in a particular area of practice.

Specialty certification is voluntary, but it can help you build a broader base for practice and open up many additional career opportunities.

A few Physical Therapist specialties include:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopaedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health

8. Obtain PT Board Certification

Once you choose a specialty as a Physical Therapist, you’ll want to obtain PT board certification in your profession.

These physical therapy certifications are necessary to become a board-certified specialist as described by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS).

How do you take this next step toward certification?

  • Complete at least 2,000 hours of clinical work or an APTA-accredited residency program in the specialty area,
  • Pass the exam.

That’s it! It’s a simple way to improve your career path to success and your Physical Therapist resume!

SEE ALSO: 7 Easy Ways to Improve Your Physical Therapist Resume

Conclusion

The steps to becoming a Physical Therapist are fairly straightforward. As long as you follow the outline that we provided above, you’ll be well on your way to a successful career.

Remember, you need to:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
  2. Earn a Doctorate of Physical Therapy
  3. Obtain a state PT license
  4. Complete your residency
  5. Find the right Physical Therapist job
  6. Continue your education
  7. Choose a specialty
  8. Obtain PT board certification

What step do you think is most important to becoming a successful Physical Therapist?

Share with us in the comments below!

History and Evolution of Occupational and Physical Therapy

physical therapy image of world war one soldiers depicting the beginning of modern day physical therapy

Physical therapy and occupational therapy techniques have been used for centuries, but it wasn’t until after World War I when these careers flourished.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), 1917 marks the start of the physical therapy profession. During the First World War, the U.S. Army created “reconstruction aide” training programs in order to find medical workers who could provide rehabilitation services to injured soldiers.

Meanwhile, physical therapy and occupational therapy were both being used to help treat patients with polio. Occupational therapy, which historically focused on the treatment of patients with mental health ailments, was also being used to treat physical injuries.

As demand grew for these types of healthcare professionals, there was a proliferation of education programs. According to APTA, there were 31 accredited physical therapy schools by 1950 that offered either a bachelor’s degree or post-baccalaureate certificate.

Occupational therapy has remained at the forefront of healthcare as well. Many doctorate programs became available starting in the 1990s.

Today, both fields remain focused on improving a patient’s quality of life. The professions are regulated and have state licensing requirements. As the population ages and the number of people living with chronic diseases increases, the need for physical and occupational therapy is expected to grow.

Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Programs

Most physical therapists hold a doctorate, which usually takes three years to complete. Master’s degrees take two years.

  • Direct-entry Master’s (MPT): Prepare students for licensure and provide advanced training and clinical experience.
  • Direct-entry Doctorate (DPT): Designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in another field.
  • Transitional DPT: Designed for practicing physical therapists who want to advance their degree.
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Occupational therapists need at least a master’s degree to practice. A doctoral degree takes between two and three years. It’s important to note that there are several options to choose from based on your educational background.

  • Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT): A direct-entry program for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy.
  • Transitional Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT): Designed for licensed occupational therapists who hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD): Typically three years in length, this doctorate program is designed for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in another field.
  • Transitional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD): A program intended for practicing occupational therapists that takes about two years to complete.

Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Programs

Most physical therapists hold a doctorate, which usually takes three years to complete. Master’s degrees take two years.

  • Direct-entry Master’s (MPT): Prepare students for licensure and provide advanced training and clinical experience.
  • Direct-entry Doctorate (DPT): Designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in another field.
  • Transitional DPT: Designed for practicing physical therapists who want to advance their degree.

Occupational therapists need at least a master’s degree to practice. A doctoral degree takes between two and three years. It’s important to note that there are several options to choose from based on your educational background.

  • Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT): A direct-entry program for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy.
  • Transitional Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT): Designed for licensed occupational therapists who hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD): Typically three years in length, this doctorate program is designed for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in another field.
  • Transitional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD): A program intended for practicing occupational therapists that takes about two years to complete.

Find Everything You need to Know About:

Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Salaries

Salary and Job Growth

$85,400

annual median salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for a physical therapist is $85,400.

This amount can vary depending on the type of facility you work in. For example, physical therapists who work in home healthcare services earn a median annual salary of $93,200. Other workplaces with salaries higher than the median include:

  • Nursing and residential facilities: $92,960
  • Hospitals; state, local and private: $87,010

The highest 10 percent earned more than $122,130.

Meanwhile, occupational therapists earn a median annual salary of $81,910. OTs who work in nursing care facilities tend to earn the most with a median annual wage of $90,380.

  • Home healthcare services: $90,290
  • Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists and audiologists: $83,820

The highest 10 percent of occupational therapists earned more than $119,720.

Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Job Descriptions

physical therapist working with patient

Although physical therapy and occupational therapy are both methods of rehabilitation, there are some differences between the occupations. Physical therapists typically work with people healing from injuries or illness. Occupational therapists help patients perform daily tasks that may be difficult due to an injury or disability. Here’s a look at common job tasks for each career.

Physical therapy job duties:

  • Consult with patients to learn about their physical condition and symptoms
  • Develop a treatment plan
  • Teach patients how to properly use exercise techniques
  • Provide stimulation or massage
  • Use equipment and devices to assist patients
  • Maintain patients records, keeping track of goals and progress
  • Advise patient and family about in-home treatment options and exercises

Occupational Therapy Job Duties

  • Consult with patients to learn about their physical condition and symptoms
  • Develop a treatment plan
  • Help patients with daily living skills and self-care tasks (i.e., “occupations”) such as getting dressed
  • Support patients with memory loss or other cognitive issues
  • Recommend adaptive equipment
  • Advise architects and contractors about patients’ accessibility needs

How to Get Started

physical therapist working with patient

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in physical therapy, earning a bachelor’s degree and completing the appropriate prerequisites is your first step. Then, you can enroll in a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree program. Once you’ve completed your education, you’ll need to become licensed by your state. This involves passing the National Physical Therapy Examination.

Planning to become an occupational therapist? Most OTs enter the field with a master’s degree, but first you’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree and prerequisites such as biology and physiology. All 50 states require occupational therapists to be licensed so you’ll need to pass a national exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

With job growth expected to increase through 2026, now is a great time to choose a career in healthcare.

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) 34-percent of all physical therapists work in the offices of occupational, physical, or speech therapists, and audiologists. Many physical therapists travel as part of their 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
  • Schools

The career of physical therapists is usually very physical and requires a great deal of physical strength and stamina. Most therapists work a regular workweek (9 to 5), but many also are required to work evenings and weekends, clocking periods of overtime.

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How to Become a Physical Therapist

The work of physical therapists touches people from all walks of life at any age. They may work with someone in an assisted living facility that was just released from the hospital after breaking a hip, or a professional athlete who suffered a torn ligament at his last big game. As the population ages, yet remains active, physical therapists will see continued opportunities to advance within the field, as well as enter this field right out of completing their education requirements. This begins with earning a degree from an accredited college or university.

Degree Requirements

Most master’s and doctoral physical therapy programs require students to first earn a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy, or a very closely related healthcare field. However, some schools offer a combined undergraduate/doctoral degree program that allows students to graduate with both a bachelor’s and doctoral degree. Undergraduate students who volunteer at hospitals or clinics gain valuable experience while observing licensed professionals. Volunteering is also typically required for admission into doctoral programs.

All individuals must earn a doctoral degree in physical therapy (DPT) in order to practice as a physical therapist. To illustrate how fast this field is growing, there were more than 200 physical therapy programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) in 2015 alone. DPT programs typically last at least three years.

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 unmatched in preparing therapists for careers in which they interact with clients every day, as well as providing valuable time in the trenches that can lead to full time employment upon graduation. Therapists who wish to specialize in a particular area can apply to and complete a residency program, which usually lasts about one year and provides additional on-the-job training.

Certification

The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers eight designations for physical therapists seeking advancement in the field. The eight specialties include:

  • Sports – both amateur and professional athletics
  • Orthopedics
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Cardiovascular & pulmonary
  • Pulmonary
  • Women’s health

Therapists applying for ABPTS certification must have at least 2,000 hours of practice, must be licensed, and must pass a certification exam that measures the skills and knowledge in their specialty.

Licensing

Physical therapists must be licensed in the state where they wish to practice. After completing an accredited physical therapy program, individuals must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy to become licensed. The examination assesses an applicant's knowledge in practice, physical therapy theory, and consultation.

Residency

Many physical therapists complete their residency after graduating from a DPT program. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), programs include 1,500 hours of clinical physical therapy practice to be completed within nine to 36 months. Residencies allow individuals to diagnose and examine patients under the direct supervision of a licensed physical therapist(s). Individuals will often also contribute to medical research and supervise other healthcare professionals while in residency.

Career Development 

PTA 

A number of PTAs gain experience or supplement their schooling to move into management, education, or administrative positions.

PT

Some PTs become directors, others specialize and become certified in a specific area of interest, and a number go on to head their own private practices.

*Resources: Bls.gov,  Indeed, APTA, and All Allied Health Schools  

PTA to PT Before the DPT became the standard education level for entry into the PT profession, bridge programs were more common than they are today. According to the APTA, the reason for this is that graduate programs cannot accept undergraduate work as graduate credits.

There are some DPT programs, however, that will accept certain PTA and general education course credits as fulfilling the prerequisites required for a DPT program.  Considering the evolving educational requirements for PT, bridge programs have greatly diminished.

Currently, there are only two programs that are considered by the CAPTE to be accredited programs that bridge from PTA to PT. Belopw you will find the links to the programs.

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston

Location: Galveston, Texas

The admission procedures, prerequisites, requirements, workload, and schedules differ for both programs. Research and planning will help you figure out which of these two programs suits you best. PRN, part-time, or contract work may help make these programs more financially viable so check out our travel PTA jobs.

If both these bridge programs do not fit your expectations, or if you already have your heart set on a specific DPT program, define what you want and what requirements you must fulfill to get it. You don't ever have to settle!  The APTA offers resources on how to find Bachelor’s completion degrees if you currently have a PTA associate’s degree. Completing your bachelor's degree will increase your options when pursuing the PT career path.

Physical Therapy Love

PTA? PT? Staring as a PTA and going back to school? If you're not sure what you want, it's OK. Prioritize what will make you happy and go for it!

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