What Does a Career in Physical Therapy Look Like?

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Physical therapists treat chronic or acute injuries and conditions, helping people find relief from pain.

Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections, physical therapists will experience an 18% growth in employment from 2019-2029. Using their knowledge and skills applicable to healthcare, education, and sports-related settings, physical therapists can help patients of all ages and backgrounds.

Licensure requirements for physical therapists vary by state, but the right education and experience can lead to a successful career in any city. Learn more about how to become a physical therapist in this helpful guide.

What Do Physical Therapists Do?

Physical therapists diagnose and treat individuals experiencing pain, functional impairments, and limited mobility due to injury, illness, or disease. These professionals assess and diagnose patients, then use that information to design and implement treatment or fitness plans. Physical therapists provide care for children, adolescents, and adults, often specializing in a specific demographic in their practice.

Physical therapists can use exercises, stretching techniques, and specialty sports equipment when working with patients and clients. Additional physical therapy practices include electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, and ultrasound technology. Physical therapists help to restore function, prevent further ailments, and improve overall quality of life for their clients by providing care for their individual needs.

Where Do Physical Therapists Work?

Physical therapists practice in hospitals, outpatient centers, and athletic facilities. Within a hospital setting, physical therapists work with patients after an accident, treatment, or surgery, while outpatient care is usually focused on more long-term care.

Physical therapists can also find employment in nursing homes, residential care facilities, or sports organizations. Athletic teams and fitness centers usually have physical therapists on staff. Many physical therapists work traditional hours in office and clinical settings, although some make home visits to patients.

Skills

Physical therapists spend long hours on their feet, actively engaging with patients and clients through exercise and treatment, often using weights and fitness equipment. These professionals need excellent communication skills and patience to succeed in their roles. They must also be able to explain treatment plans and exercises, listen to concerns, and offer encouragement to patients.

Physical therapists must understand human anatomy and physiology, pain assessment and management, and therapeutic practices. Warning an advanced degree in physical therapy demonstrates expertise and prepares graduates to pursue specialty certifications.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

A career in physical therapy requires an advanced degree and professional certification. Each student must earn a doctorate in physical therapy (DPT) from an accredited institution, which blends didactic and clinical requirements. Without a DPT, candidates can only become a physical therapy assistant.

A DPT prepares learners to sit for the national physical therapy examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). Once they've passed the exam, aspiring therapists must meet state-specific licensure requirements before they can practice.

Education

In 2015, master's degrees in physical therapy were discontinued in the United States. To become a physical therapist, students need to earn DPTs from institutions accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

Admission to a CAPTE-accredited DPT program requires a bachelor's degree. Most programs also require students to have prerequisite coursework in anatomy, physiology, biology, and chemistry. Once enrolled in a DPT, students complete three years of coursework with accompanying clinical experiences to build practical skills.

DPT curricula emphasize physical therapy principles and theories. Students also build an advanced understanding of neuroscience, functional anatomy, and health promotion and wellness. Learners explore diagnostic techniques, assessment methods, and treatments for disorders and diseases.

Additional classes in women's health, sports physical therapy, and geriatric physiology can help build the knowledge and skills needed to work in specialty areas across the lifespan and within specific contexts. Earning a DPT also introduces students to professional issues in the field, research methods, and administrative aspects of working with patients and clients.

As part of a DPT degree, learners participate in clinical education and evidence-based practice activities, where they apply their learning to practical and professional activities while earning a requisite number of hours working with patients and clients.

Certification and Licensure

Upon completion of a DPT degree, learners can sit for the NPTE, which is designed to assess entry-level competence for careers in physical therapy. The NPTE takes place four times annually and consists of 250 multiple-choice questions divided into five sections. Students have five hours to complete the exam.

Each student gets three opportunities to take the NPTE. Once they've passed, they can pursue licensure within individual states. Each state has its own licensing authority, and learners should contact their local department for licensure requirements. In many states, students also have to take a jurisprudence exam to assess knowledge of state laws and rules for physical therapists. Additional requirements include a criminal background check and proof of insurance.

Along with entry-level qualifications to become a physical therapist, practitioners can earn board certification in physical therapy specialties. For example, the American Board of Physical Therapy (ABPT) offers specialized certifications in pediatrics, wound management, and orthopedics.

With board certification, learners demonstrate expertise in a niche aspect of physical therapy to patients and colleagues. This facilitates career advancement and acknowledgment within the field. Board certification lasts for 10 years. After 10 years, physical therapists must recertify by completing an exam, submitting a professional portfolio with documented continuing education coursework, or demonstrating participation in a post-professional residency.

What to Look for in a Program

To become a physical therapist, candidates must enroll in a CAPTE-accredited DPT program. Accreditation attests to the academic excellence of a degree, ensuring learners complete coursework and gain the practical experience needed to enter careers in physical therapy.

CAPTE-accredited DPT programs may include some online coursework, but given the clinical requirements, no colleges offer entirely online degrees in the field. Additional things to consider when choosing a program include tuition and related costs, faculty and research options, and location of the college or university.

Career Information

BLS projections project that physical therapists will experience an 18% employment growth from 2019-2029. Major cities around the country offer higher-than-average salaries for physical therapy professionals. The median salary in the United States tops $71,000, while the median physical therapist salary is $89,440.

Salary and Job Growth for Physical Therapists

Median Salary

$89,440

Job Growth (2019-2029)

18%

Source: BLS

Highest Paying Cities for Physical Therapists
Position Median Salary
United States Average $71,420
Los Angeles, California $78,730
San Diego, California $78,800
New York, New York $76,570
Seattle, Washington $71,890
Chicago, Illinois $71,150
Source: Payscale

Similar Careers

Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists help patients and clients improve cognitive skills and fine motor mobility. Occupational therapists treat individuals with injuries, illnesses, or diseases to help them return to daily living and work. They may also consult with employers or offer guidance to workplaces about optimizing workspaces and environments to promote physical health. Some occupational therapists provide support for children and adolescents in school settings.

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists use recreation-based treatments to help individuals with injuries, disabilities, or illnesses. They assess patient needs and design treatment programs that incorporate arts and crafts, dance, and music to maintain and improve physical and emotional well-being. Additional treatment techniques include social outings, sports and games, and animal therapy.

Speech-language Pathologists

Speech-language pathologists identify and treat communication, voice, and swallowing disorders. They help both children and adults improve pronunciation, vocabulary, and speech impediments by addressing cognitive and social communication issues. These professionals may intervene in school settings, assist individuals recovering from stroke or trauma who need to regain communication skills, or work in conjunction with other healthcare providers.

Ask An Expert

To better understand what a career in physical therapy looks like, we interviewed an expert. Here's what they said.

Image of Lea Klein

Lea Klein

Lea Klein graduated from St. Louis University with a bachelor's in exercise science in 2000 and received her master of science in physical therapy in 2001. She began by working in outpatient care, treating orthopedic impairments. During her almost 20-year career, Klein became passionate about treating pregnant and postpartum patients and decided to go through training to treat pelvic floor disorders in 2007. She now specializes in pelvic floor physical therapy. In 2017, after having her third child, she decided to take the leap and start her own private business, Klein Physical Therapy. Klein always wanted to deliver the highest quality care and felt that one-hour sessions allowed for quicker progress. Her practice continues to grow steadily.

What Are Some Challenges and High Points in This Role?

I feel like the highest points of being a physical therapist are the times when you have made tremendous progress with a patient and truly changed their current life. There is nothing better than hearing that they are no longer experiencing the debilitating pain they were experiencing or that they could resume their exercise routine without pain.

The challenges in this role are the limits that insurance companies place on quality care. Another challenge is breaking the stereotype of what a PT does. Our profession has grown tremendously, and many still don't know about all the benefits of seeing a PT. My specialty of pelvic floor physical therapy is still not well known.

What Type of Person Does Well in This Role?

There are many different settings for a physical therapist to explore. Being a neurophysical therapist treating patients with traumatic brain injury, for instance, is very different than being an outpatient orthopedic therapist. The common characteristic in all specialties is being a caregiver. You have to like working closely with people, and it's a plus if you're an analytical thinker who likes to problem-solve.

Who Does This Role Help? How Does This Role Affect Others?

This role helps a tremendous amount of people. It really helps anyone struggling with physical impairments. In the neuro world, you would be helping stroke patients, Parkinson's patients, closed head injury, spinal cord injury, and many others.

In the ortho world, you are helping post-surgical patients, such as those recovering from a total knee replacement or rotator cuff repair. The patient with debilitating low back pain and the postpartum mom struggling with urinary incontinence and sciatica are all examples of those helped by physical therapy.

Why Do We Need More Physical Therapists?

Physical therapy is a crucial profession. As baby boomers get older and the weekend warriors continue to injure themselves, we continue to need more physical therapists.

How to Get Hired

How Long Does It Usually Take Graduates With a Degree to Get Hired?

Most graduates who have prepared themselves can get hired immediately after graduation. My first job was with the company that I had one of my clinicals with. I secured the job before I even passed the boards (barring that I passed, of course).

How Much Does a Certification Specialty Affect Your Hireability?

As a new grad, it is not necessary to have a certification specialty to be hired. My personal advice is to stay focused during your schooling on which area of PT you'd like to practice in. Make sure you sign up for a variety of clinical settings and then go for your favorite setting when you graduate.

As you begin to work in that setting, then strive to specialize in something more specific. A specialty is likely going to make you a more desirable candidate when applying for positions.

What Skills Do Employers Look For?

I believe employers are looking for therapists who are good communicators and those who are teachable. One must show the ability to perform critical thinking. If you have an openness to learn and are confident without being arrogant, you will shine in an employers' eyes.

What Can Students Do to Make Themselves Look Better to Employees?

Students will always look better if they demonstrate that they are truly invested in their profession. Taking the time to volunteer within the profession and having strong personal and professional goals for growth are ways to stand out.

Physical Therapy Organizations

  • American Physical Therapy Association APTA serves more than 100,000 physical therapy professionals and students. As a leading organization in the field, APTA offers members access to publications, honors and awards, and advocacy opportunities. APTA also hosts a learning center, provides access to practice guidelines, and engages with the public through its consumer information page.
  • The American Council of Academic Physical Therapy Uniting physical therapy faculty, clinicians, and academic leaders, ACAPT promotes educational research, clinical education, and collaboration among organizations within the field of physical therapy. Eight ACAPT consortia forums in specialized areas accompany standing committees and advocacy task forces, all designed to facilitate conversations among academics interested in physical therapy.
  • American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties Conceptualized during the 1970s to formalize criteria and examinations for specialized areas within physical therapy, ABPTS now oversees board certification for nine different subfields. ABPTS provides information about certification processes and maintenance, along with additional resources related to volunteerism, marketing, and professional development opportunities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Physical Therapists Doctors?

Physical therapists are doctors, but they are not physicians. To become a physical therapist, individuals need to complete a doctoral program approved by CAPTE. They must also complete coursework and clinical training, similar to nurses, doctors, and physicians.

What's the Difference Between a Physiotherapist and Physical Therapist? toggle_icon:

A physiotherapist uses tactile therapy to manipulate the body, usually working with individuals experiencing mobility issues. Techniques include stretching, massage, and joint mobilization. Physical therapists rely on exercises and more active treatments, such as weight lifting and stability exercises.

Is Being a Physical Therapist Stressful?

A career in physical therapy is rewarding and allows individuals to help others improve their overall quality of life. However, these professionals can also experience stress, depending on clientele and setting. Overall, most professionals find that the benefits outweigh potential stressors.

How Hard Is It to Become a Physical Therapist?

Becoming a physical therapist requires extensive education and practical training. Aspiring physical therapists need to earn a bachelor's degree before enrolling in an accredited DPT program. DPT programs include three years of classes and clinical work, after which students must take the NPTE. Once learners pass the NPTE, they must complete requirements for state licensure, and then they can pursue board certifications.

What Major Is Physical Therapy?

Ideal undergraduate degrees for physical therapy include biology, chemistry, or physics. Other common majors for physical therapists are sports science, athletic training, or recreation. Typical prerequisite courses include anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics.

Header Image Credit: Erik Isakson | Getty Images