How to Become a Physical Therapist
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- It takes 7-8 years to become a physical therapist.
- PTs must earn a doctorate in physical therapy and obtain state licensure.
- Physical therapists can earn great salaries and have strong job prospects.
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. So, you want to be a physical therapist. Here's everything you need to know and everything and do to get there, one step at a time.
What Is Physical Therapy?
Physical therapy is a healthcare profession that uses exercise, manual therapy, and other techniques to help clients with injuries or chronic discomfort improve their movement quality and manage pain.
But it's also so much more than that.
"Our job is about the whole person, not just their injury or impairment. A degree in physical therapy will prepare you for dealing with the mental and emotional aspects of patient care as well as the physical," said Reggie Evants, PT, DPT. "We're in the business of improving a person's quality of life — not just the bend of their knees."
What Does a Physical Therapist Do?
Physical therapists work in hospitals, home health, sports, nursing care, outpatient care, and other settings. A day in the life of a physical therapist usually includes:
- Reviewing clients' medical histories
- Meeting with clients, interviewing them, observing their movements, and determining treatment needs
- Creating individualized treatment plans with recovery steps and measurable goals
- Providing ongoing, hands-on care and education
- Managing administrative paperwork (like patient progress reports)
"I always encourage prospective students to do some research to make sure the ins-and-outs of this job are a good fit. Interview a few PTs. Shadow in clinics. Work as an aide in a clinic or two before you take the leap."
— Dr. Alyssa Arms, PT, DPT, OCS
Popular Online Physical Therapy Programs
Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Physical Therapist?
Becoming a physical therapist typically takes between 7-8 years, including four years of a bachelor's degree and three years of graduate school.
Some accelerated programs may take as few as six years.
What Degree Do You Need to Be a Physical Therapist?
To become a licensed physical therapist in the US, you must earn a doctoral degree in physical therapy from an accredited program.
DPT programs involve in-class curriculum as well as clinical training.
How to Become a Physical Therapist in 7 Steps
We can walk you through the process.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree
It's very common for future PTs to get a bachelor's degree in a related field, like:
But you don't have to major in one of those areas. If you don't, you must pick up the required prerequisites for admission to a DPT program. Requirements typically include courses in:
"A non-science degree can sometimes make you a more interesting candidate and well-rounded applicant. Looking back, I wish I'd taken classes in business or pursued a dance degree because I work with dancers in my practice."
— Dr. Alyssa Arms, PT, DPT, OCS
Step 2: Complete Observation Hours and Grad Exams
Most reputable DPT programs require applicants to complete observation hours as volunteers or interns before applying. The number of hours required varies by program.
You may also need to take the GRE, though not all programs require it.
Step 3: Earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
All states require prospective physical therapists to hold a doctorate in physical therapy in order to qualify for licensure.
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.
Step 4: Pass the NPTE and Obtain State Licensure
Every physical therapist has to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination before becoming licensed.
Step 5: Consider a Residency Program and Board Certification
A certification or residency program can help you progress in your career. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offers board certification in nine major areas:
- Women's health
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary
- Clinical electrophysiology
It's important to understand that committing to a residency program may require some careful planning: They can be pretty stressful and are rarely well-paid.
Step 6: Get a Job as a Physical Therapist
With your DPT and state license in hand, you'll be able to compete for most roles in the field.
While you can leverage continuing education, residency training, and certifications to improve your salary potential, there aren't a lot of opportunities for upward mobility beyond your role as PT.
Some may go on to become practice managers who supervise others and run operations at their healthcare facilities. Others may decide to open and manage their own clinics.
Step 7: Maintain Licensure
Staying licensed requires ongoing continuing education. As a general rule, you'll need to complete continuing ed credits every couple of years — how many depends on which state you live in.
Is Becoming a Physical Therapist Worth it?
We spoke to several experienced PTs about everything you need to know before becoming a physical therapist.
1. It's worth it
"It's absolutely, 100% worth it. Not only is physical therapy personally rewarding and professionally challenging, it's incredibly needed throughout the world. With our large aging population, PTs are highly in demand –– ensuring job stability, security, and flexibility. I feel very fortunate that my degree means I will always be able to find work. It's also a great feeling to have a set of skills, which can be so helpful to so many people."
— Brett Laffin, PT, DPT
2. It's a big financial investment
"Take some time to consider your debt-to-income ratio. There are many careers in healthcare where you can make an impact without taking on such a financial burden. At the same time, I got into the profession because of my passion for others — and I would not change my decision."
— Amanda Manera, Amanda Manera, PT, DPT
3. It's a lot of responsibility
"This job comes with its share of pressure: It's on you to help your patients make optimal functional recoveries while keeping them safe and preventing future injury. Physicians and surgeons are counting on you to help their patients recover. Insurance reimbursements are decreasing over time. A seemingly endless amount of documentation is required on a daily basis. Anytime you're dealing with the health of another person, there's a great deal of responsibility involved."
— Brett Laffin, PT, DPT
4. It's emotionally demanding
"It's an incredibly fulfilling experience to help patients regain their mobility. But it can be extremely draining at the same time. I was prepared for the physical aspects of the job, but not the emotional ones. I ended up leaving direct patient care for a non-clinical career."
— Meredith Castin, PT, DPT
5. It's important to be a little business-savvy
"I wish I had known how important marketing and basic business skills were going to be as I progressed down my career path as a practice owner. PT schools do a great job teaching the craft, but they don't prepare you to run a business, market yourself, or network with a community of professionals."
— Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards, PT, DPT, OPS
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Physical Therapist
How much does a physical therapy degree cost?
According to CAPTE, the average DPT program in 2019 cost between $66,074-$112,714 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.
How much is a physical therapist's 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.
The highest-paying industry for physical therapists is outpatient care centers, where physical therapists make a mean annual wage of $111,410. The top-paying state for these professionals is Nevada, where PTs earn an average annual salary of $104,210.
How do I become a physical therapist assistant?
You can become a physical therapist assistant (PTA) with a two-year associate degree in physical therapy from an accredited program.
PTAs make a median annual salary of around $50,000 and won't struggle to find work: The BLS projects that PTA jobs will grow by 24% between 2021 and 2031.