How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant

Physical therapy is a lucrative, in-demand field. Check out our guide to learn how to become a physical therapy assistant.

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by Staff Writers

Published August 25, 2022

Edited by Colin Weickmann
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How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant
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Working under the supervision of licensed physical therapists, physical therapy assistants help clients improve their movement quality and recover from injuries. These healthcare professionals need a relevant associate degree, which can provide a high return on investment.

Patient people who enjoy helping others and diving into hands-on work often thrive as physical therapy assistants. If you ultimately want to become a physical therapist, these careers can be the first step. Read on to learn more about how to become a physical therapy assistant.

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What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Do?

On a day-to-day basis, physical therapy assistants and aides are responsible for helping licensed physical therapists perform their daily duties. Responsibilities may include interviewing clients about pain, asking them to perform various movements and observing their mobility, and assisting physical therapists in creating individualized treatment plans.

Physical therapy assistants can gain additional responsibility and earn higher salaries by returning to school and completing a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree. These programs qualify graduates to pursue careers as licensed physical therapists.

Physical Therapy Assistant Responsibilities

  • Assist physical therapists with their day-to-day responsibilities.
  • Perform intake interviews for first-time patients.
  • Observe patient movements, take notes, and report to a physical therapist.
  • Help patients perform prescribed exercises as part of their individualized treatment plans.

Physical Therapy Assistant Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant?

Below are the recommended processes and requirements to become a physical therapy assistant. Most prospective professionals who ultimately become physical therapy assistants follow this roadmap closely.

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma or GED Certificate

Before you can apply to almost any undergraduate program, you must first earn a high school or GED diploma. Preparing for physical therapy associate programs can help if you take as many science courses as possible during high school.

Step 2: Complete a Physical Therapy Assistant Program

To become a physical therapy assistant, most prospective professionals complete a physical therapy assistant associate program. These programs generally take two years of full-time study and require approximately 60 credits. Many include internship or practicum experiences, allowing students to gain practical experience and develop the skills they need to succeed in the physical therapy field.

If you don't enroll in a physical therapy assistant program, you can pursue undergraduate programs in related majors like kinesiology, exercise science, biology, or psychology.

Step 3: Pass the Licensing Exam

In all 50 states, prospective physical therapy assistants must earn a state-issued license before practicing. Each state maintains unique board requirements, but most require candidates to pass the physical therapy assistant (PTA) portion of the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE).

The NPTE measures entry-level competency and skills in physical therapy. Test-takers can prepare through practice exams and study guides.

Step 4: Get a Job as a Physical Therapy Assistant

After earning a relevant associate degree and state licensure, you can pursue a career as a physical therapy assistant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2021, physical therapy assistants and aides earned a median annual wage of $49,180. This salary eclipsed the median annual wage for all careers that month.

To qualify for jobs as fully licensed physical therapists, physical therapy assistants must return to school to earn a DPT degree. While a DPT degree is a significant investment, it also comes with a significant increase in salary and professional responsibility.

Step 5: Consider Certification and Continuing Education

As best practices and knowledge continually evolve in physical therapy, continuing education is an essential component for any physical therapy assistant. Furthermore, most states require assistants to complete a certain number of continuing education units during a defined period to renew their licenses.

In addition to workshops and professional development, physical therapy assistants can consider earning a DPT degree to advance their careers and become licensed physical therapists.

What to Know Before Becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant

Accreditation

No matter what field they study, degree-seekers should only enroll at accredited schools. Otherwise, they cannot receive federal financial aid, and employers may not recognize their degrees.

Prospective physical therapy assistant students should look out for programmatic accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). CAPTE accredits both DPT and physical therapy assistant programs. If you enroll in a CAPTE-accredited program, you can rest easy knowing that you will be prepared for careers in the field.

Cost

The approximate cost of a physical therapy assistant associate program is around $5,000 for in-state students and $20,000 for out-of-state students and learners who enroll at private schools. Unlike their on-campus peers, online students often save on true program costs, avoiding fees like transportation, room and board, and parking by living at home.

Salary

According to the BLS, as of May 2021, physical therapy assistants and aides earned a median annual salary of $49,180. The top-paying industry for these professionals was home healthcare services, in which professionals made a mean annual wage of $75,130. The top-paying state was California, where physical therapy assistants and aides earned an average annual salary of $73,150.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant

Is becoming a physical therapy assistant worth it?

The value of any career depends on each individual and their unique goals and circumstances; nevertheless, for most people, becoming a physical therapy assistant is worth it. The career provides a high return on investment, only requiring an associate degree for a relatively high median annual wage. Furthermore, many physical therapy assistants find their work rewarding, as they help people deal with pain and improve the quality of their lives.

Becoming a physical therapy assistant can also lead to a career as a licensed physical therapist, which pays well and provides additional professional responsibility.

Are physical therapy assistants in high demand?

Yes, physical therapy assistants are in high demand. Between 2020 and 2030, the BLS projects 32% job growth for physical therapy aides and assistants. This rate quadruples the average projected growth rate (8%) for all careers during that same decade.

The BLS attributes this high projected growth to an aging population that expresses more interest in health and staying active than its predecessors. That generation stays active later in life, and as people age, they need physical therapy services.

Can I become a physical therapy assistant without a degree?

No, you cannot become a physical therapy assistant without a degree. To earn state licensure, you must earn an associate degree from a CAPTE-accredited program. These degrees require approximately 60 credits or around two years of full-time study. They are the minimum entry-level requirement for almost every physical therapy assistant job posting.

However, this degree often provides a high return on investment. You can find affordable programs online or at community colleges and often make back what you spent on tuition relatively quickly.

How long does it take to become a physical therapy assistant?

All physical therapy assistants must complete a CAPTE-accredited program before they can earn licensure and practice. Most of these programs require two years of full-time study, although some accelerated programs may allow students to graduate in 18 months. Completion times can vary by school and by program.

Prospective physical therapy assistants should also take a few months to study for and prepare for the NPTE and pursue any certifications they desire.

How much do physical therapy assistants make?

According to the BLS, as of May 2021, physical therapy aides and assistants brought home a median annual wage of $49,180. The top 10% of earners in the field made more than $80,170 annually, while the lowest 10% made less than $37,280.

Remember that salary potential depends heavily on fluid factors like location, experience, education, employer, and professional certifications. No degree can guarantee you a specific salary or position.

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