Physical Therapy Careers Guide
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- Physical therapists help people improve movement and manage pain.
- Physical therapy has three career paths: physical therapist, assistant, and aide.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects high growth for physical therapy jobs.
- Physical therapists earn more than $95,000 annually but need a doctoral degree.
Seeing someone in pain and immobile can be difficult. But imagine being there the moment the pain goes away. Or the moment they're able to walk on their own again.
As a physical therapist, you can. Physical therapists help people improve their movement and manage pain, especially when they're recovering from injuries or illnesses, or living with chronic pain.
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For this reason, it's no surprise that research from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) in 2020 shows physical therapy has high levels of job satisfaction. But how do you become a physical therapist?
"If you're considering becoming a physical therapist, spend time shadowing in different settings to really get a feel for the job. Spend time learning about both the positive and negative aspects of the job."
— Dr. Jasmine Marcus, PT, DPT, CSCS, a licensed doctor of physical therapy
The following guide provides an overview of physical therapist jobs, specializations, and education.
Physical Therapy Careers
Physical therapy careers are great for people interested in fitness and medical care. You can choose from three main roles: physical therapist, physical therapist assistant, and physical therapist aide.
All three work in settings like hospitals, home healthcare services, and nursing care facilities. And each role allows you to work closely with clients, improve their health, and connect with them personally.
"The most enjoyable aspect of my job is helping people get back to doing what they love. I also enjoy getting to meet and speak with so many different people each day. The most challenging aspects are when outside factors create barriers to care for patients."
— Dr. Jasmine Marcus, PT, DPT, CSCS
Physical therapists help patients overcome injuries, manage chronic conditions, and regain mobility. They help patients find ways to reduce pain, gain mobility, and live without restriction.
Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $95,620
Degree Level: Doctorate
Physical Therapist Assistant
Physical therapist assistants work under the guidance of physical therapists and provide direct care to patients. They observe patients' statuses, treat patients with exercises and stretches, and educate patients and family members about continuing treatment.
Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $61,180
Degree Level: Associate
Physical Therapist Aide
Physical therapist aides perform administrative duties, like scheduling appointments and purchasing supplies. They may also clean therapy rooms before and after treatments and prepare equipment for sessions.
Median Annual Salary (May 2021): $29,200
Degree Level: Not required
Certification/License: Not required
What Are the Different Types of Physical Therapists?
Physical therapists can specialize in one or more areas. And you can choose from 10 areas. Before you can apply for a specialty certification from the APTA, you need at least 2,000 hours of experience in that area.
Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
Cardiovascular and pulmonary specialists help patients with heart and respiratory issues, such as COPD and heart disease. Rehabilitation techniques improve overall heart and lung health.
Clinical electrophysiology specialists assist with muscle and nerve injuries. Their techniques can help with tissue repair, muscle spasms, and wounds like diabetic ulcers.
Geriatric specialists help elderly patients maintain mobility and reduce pain from osteoporosis and arthritis. They can also assist with neurological problems related to Parkinson's and dementia, and heart and respiratory health conditions.
Neurology specialists help patients recover or manage symptoms related to nervous system conditions. These conditions — such as cerebral palsy, sciatica, and multiple sclerosis — hinder mobility, speech, and learning. They also disrupt respiratory and cardiovascular processes.
Oncology specialists work with patients with cancer who experience musculoskeletal issues during and after treatments. They may help patients with fatigue, weight management, ongoing pain, coordination, and memory loss.
Orthopedic specialists treat bones, joints, and other musculoskeletal issues. Patients may need help recovering from hip replacement surgeries or injuries like strained muscles and broken bones.
Pediatric specialists treat patients from birth through adolescence for various conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy, and scoliosis. They work with other medical and developmental professionals to build treatment plans and help families understand at-home rehab strategies.
Sports-based physical therapists help athletes recover from things like concussions, ACL tears, and rotator cuff injuries. They use techniques like exercising, dry needling, and massaging.
This specialization focuses on women's health issues like pelvic pain and incontinence. These physical therapists also offer prenatal and postpartum care and help women recover from surgeries like hysterectomies.
Wound management physical therapists work with medical teams to build treatment plans for issues like diabetic sores, edema, and post-surgery marks. Responsibilities include cleaning and dressing wounds and providing compression therapy, electrical stimulation, and whirlpool techniques.
5 Steps to Start Your Career in Physical Therapy
To start your career in physical therapy, you must choose whether to become a physical therapist, assistant, or aide. Each comes with varying degrees of difficulty.
To become a physical therapist, you typically need to do the following:
- Earn a bachelor's degree, preferably in a related field, such as psychology, exercise science, or biology.
- Complete between 20-200 hours of clinical observation, depending on your PT program.
- Earn a doctorate in physical therapy.
- Pass the National Physical Therapy Examination.
- Meet the requirements for a state license.
To become a physical therapy assistant, you need an associate degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. You also need about 16 weeks of supervised clinical experience and a state license or certification.
You typically need a high school diploma or the equivalent and on-the-job training to become a physical therapist aide. The training for these roles can last between one week and one month.
Once you start the job, you can use many resources to improve your skills and knowledge, including:
- Associations such as the Academy of Orthopaedic Physical Therapy
- Publications like the Journal of Physical Therapy or Digital Magazine for Pediatric Occupational and Physical Therapists
- Professional organizations that assist with continuing education, such as the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
Finally, remember that it takes more than earning a degree and gaining licensure to excel in the job.
"To be successful in physical therapy, you need to be able to form relationships with people. You should be able to listen and explain yourself well to others. You also need to be curious since the job involves continuous learning."
— Dr. Jasmine Marcus, PT, DPT, CSCS
Frequently Asked Questions About Physical Therapy
Is physical therapy a good career?
Physical therapy is a high-paying and fast-growing career. According to the BLS, physical therapists earned a median salary of $95,620 per year in May 2021. They can work in medical, school, and sports settings.
The BLS projects jobs for physical therapists to grow by 17% between 2021-2031, much faster than the average of 5% for all occupations. Meanwhile, the BLS projects jobs for physical therapist assistants and aides — who earned $61,180 and $29,200 per year, respectively, in 2021 — to grow by 24%.
What kind of jobs can you get with a physical therapy degree?
A physical therapy degree allows you to become a physical therapist, fitness instructor, or athletic trainer. Other roles where you can apply advanced knowledge of exercise and biology include exercise physiologist, rehabilitation director, and recreation therapist.
What is the highest-paying physical therapy specialty?
According to the BLS, physical therapists who work in outpatient care services earned the highest average salary of all physical therapists at $111,410 per year in 2021. The BLS also reports that physical therapists in home healthcare services made more than $105,000 annually.
What's the difference between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist?
Physical therapists help with mobility and pain challenges related to injuries, surgeries, and wounds. Occupational therapists help patients with various conditions, such as cognitive disorders, and prepare them for daily activities like house cleaning and budgeting.
But, sometimes, the duties of physical therapists and occupational therapists overlap. For instance, both roles involve supporting people who are living with challenges or neurological disorders like cerebral palsy.