5 steps to become a physical therapist

Last updated: April 11, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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5 steps to become a physical therapist
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Physical therapy is an extremely rewarding career where you get to help people live healthier, more active, and happier lives.

U.S. News and World Report lists the physical therapist profession as the 3rd best job in the healthcare industry.

While this career seems ideal to many people, it does require a lot of time and money to obtain the necessary education and licensing.

This article will cover what a physical therapist does, their earnings, the steps you can follow to become a physical therapist, and more, so you can decide if this is the right career choice for you.

What is physical therapy?

Physical therapy involves the treatment of injury, disease, or deformity through physical treatments rather than medication or surgery. Examples of physical therapy include therapeutic massages, various exercises and physical activities, heat treatments, and more.

According to the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, employment of physical therapists is projected to grow by 17% from 2021 to 2031. This is much faster than average — indicating that this career offers excellent job security.

Where do physical therapists work?

In 2021, physical therapists (PTs) held close to 234,000 jobs in the U.S.

While they work in many different environments, 36% are employed by therapist and audiologist offices, making it the most common workplace. Coming in second, state, local, and privately owned hospitals employ around 29% of physical therapists.

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PTs can also work in outpatient clinics, schools, sports and fitness centers, research centers, and rehabilitation facilities.

Most physical therapists work full-time. However, there are part-time positions available. They usually work normal business hours but may be required to work evenings or over weekends. Unlike other healthcare professions like nursing and physicians, physical therapists don’t have to work late night shifts.

Responsibilities of a physical therapist

A physical therapist’s main duty is to help improve patients’ quality of life after experiencing illness or injuries. A huge portion of a physical therapist’s day is spent on their feet, doing manual therapy — lifting, moving, and performing treatment plans on patients.

During a patient’s initial appointment, the physical therapist will ask them about their medical history. They’ll also evaluate the patient’s symptoms and develop a rehabilitation plan that suits their needs.

Treatments involve teaching clients different functioning tasks and exercises. This way, patients will learn to strengthen their muscles and increase their range of motion. These medical professionals also advise patients on the best physical activities and movements to reduce pain.

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Other responsibilities of physical therapists include the following:

  • Teaching patients how to properly perform therapeutic exercises and movements.

  • Helping patients use exercise equipment.

  • Providing stimulation through massages to promote muscle healing.

  • Maintaining patient records and updating their information as they progress.

  • Educating patients’ family members about home treatment options and activities.

How much do physical therapists earn?

According to over 14,000 thousand salary profiles on Payscale, the average salary of physical therapists is just over $74,000.

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However, their salaries can differ depending on several factors, including skills, experience, location, and more.

Skills

Both hard and soft skills can increase the earning potential of physical therapists. According to the University of Connecticut, some of the most essential skills physical therapists need include:

  • Motor skills: Needed to execute the movements required to provide effective and safe treatments. These include skills like coordination, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and manipulation of small devices needed for exercises and therapy.

  • Sensory and observational skills: Demonstrate the practical use of senses, including vision, hearing, and other senses. These skills will enable physical therapists to observe patient movement and vital signs, detect changes or abnormalities on the skin, etc.

  • Communication skills: Needed to effectively communicate with patients, their families, and other healthcare professionals. They must be able to communicate both verbally and in writing.

Based on Payscale’s analysis of the salary profiles as mentioned above, the company found that the following skills can increase physical therapists’ salaries:

  • Home health skills can increase their salary by 22%

  • Wound care skills by 19%

  • Home care skills by 15%

  • Long-term care skills by 13%

  • Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) skills by 13%

  • People management skills by 13%

  • Geriatrics skills by 10%

Listing your hard skills on your resume can help you stand out from other candidates. This is because employers pay close attention to these skills, which will result in lower training fees for them. Learn how to highlight hard skills on your resume for the best chances of landing the job.

Experience

Physical therapists with more years of experience tend to earn higher salaries. For example, those with 5–9 years of experience earn an annual salary of up to $11,000 more than those with less than a year’s experience.

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Location

Physical therapists can also earn far more or less based on where they live. Those who live in New York earn an average of 7.8% more than the national average.

On the other hand, the lowest salaries for physical therapists can be found in Denver, Colorado, where they earn around 8.4% less than the national median wage.

5 steps to become a physical therapist

Here are the five steps you can follow to become a physical therapist.

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

In order to enroll in a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) program — which is the qualification needed to become a physical therapist — you’ll first need a bachelor’s degree.

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While you don’t necessarily need a specific bachelor’s degree, some DPT programs require a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as biology, physical therapy, physiology, etc.

Thus, the safest approach would be to choose an undergraduate major with something to do with healthcare, science, or movement. This will allow you to learn foundational knowledge and skills required for the physical therapy field.

Alternatively, you can research the Doctoral program you plan on taking to see admissions requirements.

2. Complete observation hours

Next, you’ll need to gain some hands-on experience by shadowing a qualified physical therapist. This is because you’ll need 100–300 hours of paid or volunteer experience under the direct supervision of a physical therapist for admission into most high-quality DPT programs.

Shadowing means you’ll not only gain exposure to the industry. But you’ll also increase the number of skills you can put on your resume when searching for a job.

These shadowing opportunities can be found in nearly any environment where physical therapists tend to work, including hospitals, fitness centers, nursing homes, and more.

3. Earn a DPT

After you've obtained your bachelor’s degree and observation hours, you can apply for a DPT program of your choice.

Here’s how you can go about choosing the right program:

Consider costs and financial aid

You can expect to pay anywhere between $66,000–$110,000 for a DPT program, depending on whether you’re in-state or out-of-state.

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However, actual costs may vary depending on the university and state. According to APTA, most DPT students graduate from their programs with loans.

Thus, you need to make sure that you’re financially prepared and aware of all the costs associated with your chosen program.

Consider program length

The typical DPT program takes three years to complete. However, some programs can compress academic requirements into a shorter time frame. This could help you cut down on your costs and allow you to enter the workforce earlier.

Consider the setting

Since you’ll be investing a lot of time and money into your DPT program, it’s essential that you’re happy in the location you choose. The area you choose to study in should make you feel at home — otherwise, you may drop out.

4. Obtain state licensure

Aspiring physical therapists must pass the NPTE to earn their licensure. You’ll need this license in order to practice in all states. However, precise physical therapy license requirements vary by state.

5. Get a job

Once you earn your DPT, you’ll be able to pursue physical therapist positions in various environments. While working as a practicing physical therapist is the ultimate goal for many, you do have the option to advance to roles such as practice manager, PT supervisor, and more.

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You can also choose to specialize in a particular field — all of which have additional licensing requirements.

Additionally, aside from becoming a physical therapist or working towards a supervisor role, you have the option to pursue another career path with your bachelor’s degree. For example, if you have a bachelor’s degree in physiology, you’ll be able to pursue careers such as surgical technician, clinical trials coordinator, and more.

Physical therapy specialties

As a physical therapist, you’ll have the option to specialize in a specific field when you gain additional training and requirements. These specialties may lead to higher income potential. Here are some of the most popular specializations.

Oncology specialist

Oncologists study different types of cancer. They typically work with patients undergoing cancer treatment or recovering from the illness. Some of their duties include helping patients manage pain and weakness and properly dealing with the loss of bone density.

To become an oncology specialist, physical therapists need to:

  • Have completed the APTA-accredited oncology residency program within the past ten years.

  • 2,000 hours of direct experience working in oncology within the past ten years.

Cardiovascular and pulmonary clinical specialist

Cardiovascular and pulmonary clinical specialists help patients heal from various lung and heart conditions. For example, they help patients recover from heart surgery and can also help them manage respiratory diseases such as pneumonia.

To earn this specialization, physical therapists must meet the minimum APTA requirements, including:

  • Have a current ACLS certification from the American Heart Association.

  • Complete a set amount of patient care within cardiovascular and pulmonary either through an APTA-accredited residency or 2,000 working hours.

Geriatric clinical specialist

With the aging U.S. population, physical therapists specializing in geriatrics are becoming more necessary. Geriatric clinical specialists provide physical therapy to older adults. These patients typically suffer from conditions such as osteoporosis, arthritis, and neurological diseases.

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To earn this specialization, physical therapists need the following:

  • Successful completion of the APTA-accredited geriatrics residency program within the past ten years.

  • 2,000 hours of direct experience working in geriatrics in the past ten years.

Neurology clinical specialist

Neurology clinical specialists treat patients with neurological disorders and injuries, such as epilepsy and autism. They often work in clinical environments, including rehabilitation centers, clinics, and hospitals.

To become a neurology specialist, physical therapists need to:

  • Have completed the APTA-accredited neurology residency program within the past ten years.

  • 2,000 hours of direct experience working in neurology within the past ten years.

Pediatric clinical specialist

Pediatric clinical specialists treat young people, from babies to teenagers, with physical conditions such as cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis. Since they work with children and young people, those with a nurturing nature do best in this role.

To earn this specialization, physical therapists must have the following:

  • Successful completion of the APTA-accredited pediatrics residency program within the past ten years.

  • 2,000 hours of direct experience working in pediatrics in the past ten years.

Find your physical therapist career

Do you already have all the necessary physical therapist requirements? If so, head to our job board and find physical therapist jobs near you.

You can also search for internship positions so you can start shadowing while you study.

Alternatively, if you’ve decided physical therapy isn’t the right choice for you, consider getting another bachelor’s degree job. Head over to our bachelor’s degree jobs article for a list of the highest-paying jobs you can get with a B.A. or B.S degree.

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