How to Become a Physical Therapist

Check out our guide to learn more about what it takes to become a physical therapist.

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by Staff Writers

Published October 13, 2022

Edited by Colin Weickmann
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How to Become a Physical Therapist
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Physical therapists help various clients improve their movement quality, manage pain, and recover from injuries. They can work for hospitals, nursing homes, private physical therapy companies, and home healthcare agencies.

Becoming a physical therapist requires a significant investment of time, energy, and money. These healthcare professionals must earn a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree in addition to state licensure. However, those who meet these requirements can look forward to significant personal and professional rewards. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2021, physical therapists earned a median annual wage of $95,620.

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What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapists help injured clients and those with chronic discomfort improve their movement quality and manage pain. These professionals also maintain a record of clients' progress and create individualized care plans. Physical therapy is similar but not identical to occupational therapy, which focuses on helping clients perform their daily tasks.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

On a day-to-day basis, physical therapists review their clients' medical histories and create individualized care and treatment plans. They also meet with clients, diagnosing them by interviewing them and observing their movements. As part of their plans, physical therapists also create clear and measurable goals for clients to meet as they work toward recovery.

Some prospective professionals start as physical therapy assistants before returning to school, earning DPT degrees, and becoming full, practicing physical therapists.

Physical Therapist Responsibilities

  • Reviewing clients' medical histories
  • Meeting with clients, interviewing them, observing their movements, and diagnosing issues causing them pain
  • Creating individualized treatment plans with recovery steps and measurable goals

Physical Therapist Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Physical Therapist?

Below are the steps you must complete before you can become a physical therapist. They include a bachelor's degree, a DPT degree, and an examination that leads to state licensure. Read on to learn more.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Some DPT programs do not require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree in a relevant field; however, others prefer a bachelor's in psychology, exercise science, biology, or kinesiology. If you want to become a physical therapist, choose an undergraduate major that has something to do with science or movement.

Undergraduate major requirements vary by school, so if you have a dream DPT program in mind, research its admission requirements while you are still an undergraduate student.

Step 2: Complete Observation Hours and Grad Exams

Most reputable DPT programs require applicants to complete observation hours to determine if they want to pursue physical therapy as a profession. During these hours, prospective students volunteer or intern with licensed physical therapists. The number of hours required varies by program, so check your prospective schools' requirements.

You may also need to take the GRE to earn admission to DPT programs. Score requirements vary by program.

Step 3: Earn a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT)

All states require prospective physical therapists to hold a doctorate in physical therapy. Licensing boards want to ensure that only the most qualified professionals practice and serve clients as physical therapists. Without this doctoral degree, you cannot earn the license required to practice.

In-state public universities charged an average of around $66,000 for DPT programs, while out-of-state and private schools charged approximately $112,000 for these degrees. This is a significant financial investment, so make sure you are fully committed to becoming a physical therapist before you enroll.

Most programs blend classroom-based theory coursework with clinical, hands-on experiences in the field under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist.

Step 4: Pass the NPTE and Obtain State Licensure

All prospective physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) before they can earn licensure. All states require physical therapists to hold a license in order to practice. Individual states maintain different licensure requirements, but they all require candidates to hold a DPT degree.

Step 5: Consider a Residency Program and Board Certification

Getting board certified or completing a residency program can help you specialize in a specific field, which can enhance your opportunities in that field. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offers board certification in 10 areas, including neurology, oncology, and sports.

A residency program also allows you to specialize in a specific PT field after you graduate from a DPT program and earn licensure. A residency is a highly regarded form of continuing education. You can meet mentors, dive into literature in your subfield, and launch your career in your field during your residency; however, these programs are often intense and stressful, and residents sometimes earn low salaries.

Step 6: Get a Job as a Physical Therapist

Once you earn a DPT degree and state licensure, you can qualify for most positions in the physical therapy field. Working as a practicing physical therapist is the ultimate goal for most professionals, and most aren't interested in advancement beyond that.

According to the BLS, physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $95,620 as of May 2021. The highest 10% of earners made more than $127,110. As such, this job is the ultimate goal for most prospective professionals, and there isn't much room for advancement.

Nevertheless, some physical therapists become practice managers, supervising other PTs and running operations at their healthcare facility.

Step 7: Maintain Licensure

All physical therapists must complete a number of continuing education credits every two years, no matter which state they practice in. The number of credits varies by state. They can use continuing education to advance their careers through residency programs and APTA board certifications.

What to Know Before Becoming a Physical Therapist

There are several important elements to consider before committing to a DPT program and starting along the path to a physical therapy career.

While physical therapy careers are generally lucrative, and most DPT programs provide a high return on investment, remember that these degrees require a significant investment of time, energy, and money on the front end. Make sure you are prepared for what these programs require.

Accreditation

No matter what field you pursue, you should only enroll at accredited schools. Otherwise, you cannot receive federal financial aid, and employers may not recognize your degree.

As a prospective physical therapy student, you should only consider courses of study with programmatic accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). CAPTE focuses exclusively on physical therapy and provides a seal of approval for high-quality DPT programs.

Cost

For most DPT programs, you can expect to pay approximately $66,000-$112,000 in total tuition. Keep in mind that individual costs can vary widely by program. You should also factor in the cost of a bachelor's degree. The NPTE also costs $485 to take.

The true program cost for a DPT also considers room and board, relocation, transportation, and other associated fees. Online students can often save on some of these extra costs.

Salary

According to the BLS, as of May 2021, licensed physical therapists earned a median annual wage of $95,620. The top 10% of earners in the field made more than $127,110 annually, while the lowest 10% of earners made less than $61,930.

The highest-paying industry for physical therapists is outpatient care centers, where physical therapists make a mean annual wage of $110,410. The top-paying state for these professionals is Nevada, where PTs earn an average annual salary of $104,210.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Physical Therapist

Is becoming a physical therapist worth it?

The value of any career depends on your individual goals and circumstances. However, becoming a physical therapist is ultimately worth it for many people. These professionals earn high salaries and are in high demand. They also help patients recover from injuries and live healthier, higher-quality lives.

Becoming a physical therapist requires a significant amount of time, energy, and money. However, the return on investment for DPT programs is often high.

Are physical therapists in high demand?

Yes, physical therapists are in very high demand. Between 2020 and 2030, the BLS projects 21% job growth for physical therapists. This rate nearly triples the average projected growth rate for all careers (8%) during that period.

According to the BLS, this demand is the result of an aging population. Older people today have demonstrated that they are more interested in staying healthy and active than their predecessors, leading to a higher demand for physical therapists and their services.

What education do you need to be a physical therapist?

To become a physical therapist, you must earn a DPT degree at an accredited school. You need a doctoral degree in physical therapy to qualify for licensure in all 50 states. Otherwise, you cannot practice as a physical therapist.

If you do not have a DPT degree, you can work as a physical therapist assistant or aide with a relevant associate degree. These positions pay less and involve less responsibility but can provide valuable experience as you work toward a doctoral degree in physical therapy.

How long does it take to become a physical therapist?

A traditional DPT program lasts three years, including coursework and clinical experiences. This is the typical timeline throughout the industry; however, there are accelerated online DPT programs that compress coursework and clinical experience into shorter timelines, allowing students to graduate in 24-30 months.

Physical therapists also must possess a bachelor's degree, which requires an additional four years to earn. If you complete a residency or board certifications, that can also add extra time.

How much do physical therapists make?

According to the BLS, as of May 2021, physical therapists made a median annual salary of $95,620. However, salaries vary by industry and by experience. As of May 2021, the top 10% of earners in the field made more than $127,110, while the bottom 10% made less than $61,930.

The best-paid physical therapists live on the West Coast in Nevada and California. The highest-paying industry for physical therapists is outpatient care centers.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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