Physical Therapist

The demand for physical therapists (PTs) has risen significantly in recent years, as America’s Baby Boomer generation ages and greater medical advances are made in the study of body movement and pain. The United States Bureau of Employment and Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) estimates that job openings in this field will swell 18 percent nationally between 2019 and 2029—more than four times the national average for all occupations during the same period (4 percent). 

Physical therapists typically work in an office, clinic, care facility, or home visit setting, where patients can receive one-on-one care. They provide treatment, rehabilitation, or preventative care to people of all ages, including those who have neck or back injuries; neurological disorders that may impact movement (e.g., stroke); arthritis; or injuries incurred on the job or while playing sports.

Physical therapists are on their feet for most of their day and use exercises, hands-on therapy, and assistive equipment to provide care. They also work with patients to develop recovery plans, which may be short- or long-term depending on the required care. Those interested in physical therapy should have excellent interpersonal skills, as they commonly work one-on-one with patients, monitoring and adjusting recovery plans as care progresses.

Physical therapists are on their feet for most of their day and use exercises, hands-on therapy, and assistive equipment to provide care. They also work with patients to develop recovery plans, which may be short- or long-term depending on the required care. Those interested in physical therapy should have excellent interpersonal skills, as they commonly work one-on-one with patients, monitoring and adjusting recovery plans as care progresses. 

All physical therapists are required to obtain a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree. These three-year programs typically require a bachelor’s degree and past coursework in anatomy, physiology, biology, or chemistry. There is a growing number of combined degrees, where individuals may obtain both a bachelor’s degree and a DPT degree after completion of a six- or seven-year program. Coursework typically includes biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, pharmacology, and at least 30 weeks of clinical work. 

Those interested in choosing a specialty can focus on certain patient populations, such as geriatric care or neurologic dysfunction. Physical therapists looking to choose a specialty will need to pursue additional certification in addition to licensure requirements. 

Read on to discover how to become a PT, including information about education and credentialing.

Physical Therapy Specializations & Degree Types

All physical therapists are required to obtain a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and be licensed to practice physical therapy. States have varying licensure requirements but universally require passing the National Physical Therapy Examination. This exam is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), which also provides a continuing competency program for physical therapists seeking to continue their education as they progress in their career.

Physical therapists interested in specializing may choose to complete a clinical residency program after they receive licensure. These typically year-long programs provide the opportunity to gain experience and specialized training. Additional fellowships are also available for those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of specific specialty areas. 

Licensed physical therapists may choose to become certified specialists through the American Board of Physical Therapist Specialities (ABPTS). There are nine specialties available through the ABPTS, including women’s health, oncology, geriatrics, and sports.

Certified specialists are required to pass an exam and either complete 2,000 hours of clinical work in the specialist area they are interested in or successfully complete a clinical residency program in that specialty area. Physical therapists may choose one or more areas to specialize in, so long as they meet the certification requirements.

Admissions Requirements for Physical Therapy Programs

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) maintains a checklist of admissions requirements for those interested in a DPT degree. Most programs require a bachelor’s degree, although there are longer programs that may offer a combined degree where individuals graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a DPT degree. 

Prerequisite course requirements vary by program, but typically applicants should demonstrate previous coursework in biology, physics, social and behavioral sciences, and anatomy and physiology. Some programs may also require or strongly recommend proof of clinical observation or work experience with a licensed physical therapist. 

Note the majority of programs require a GRE score and may have a minimum score threshold. Last, admissions requirements may include a competitive GPA; the average undergraduate GPA for incoming physical therapy students was 3.52 for the 2017-18 application period, according to the most recent annual report from the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). 

It is important to specify that the curriculum for physical therapist assistant (PTA) programs is different than the DPT coursework and clinical requirements. Accordingly, prior experience as PTA is not considered an advantage or necessary prior to pursuing a DPT.

Physical Therapy Program Accreditation

Physical therapist programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which is recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is the professional board for physical therapists and sponsors CAPTE, as well as provides staff support. Note that obtaining a degree from a CAPTE-accredited program prior to taking the National Physical Therapy Exam is required for licensure. 

Accreditation is the process of using peer review to evaluate the educational quality of an institution or program of study at a specific institution. This system does not rank programs against one another; rather it is intended to demonstrate that a program has met the necessary requirements and demonstrates competent instruction and curriculum. Physical therapy programs with CAPTE accreditation have demonstrated that they meet professional standards and have adequately prepared students to enter the field.

On-Campus Physical Therapist Degree Programs

With over 200 accredited programs to choose from, potential students have many options for on-campus DPT programs. Most programs require the completion of a bachelor’s degree and prerequisite coursework. Those interested in a DPT program should check licensure requirements for the state in which they want to practice prior to applying to ensure they will meet all residency requirements. 

University of Pittsburgh – School of Health and Rehabilitation Services

With over 90 weeks of rigorous clinical internships, the School of Health and Rehabilitation Services at the University of Pittsburgh offers the top-ranked DPT program in the country (U.S. News & World Report 2019). 

This full-time, 120-credit program is three years of intensive on-campus curriculum and clinical education through the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and UPMC Centers for Rehab Services (CRS). The program culminates in a year-long clinical internship in the student’s third year.

Coursework is based on four key areas: basic science, clinical science, leadership and professional development, and critical inquiry. Classes include musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, integumentary, cardiopulmonary, geriatric, and pediatric physical therapy, as well as clinical and evidence-based practice. Students also receive more than 65 weeks of clinical experience, beginning clinical work in the second semester of their first year. 

Admission requirements include completion of a bachelor’s degree with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0, GRE scores that are less than five years old, and demonstrated paid or volunteer work in a physical therapy setting.

  • Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: $49,185 annually

Washington University in St. Louis – School of Medicine

Tied with three universities as the top physical therapy program in the country, the DPT offered by the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis is one of the oldest physical therapy programs in the country. The three-year, full-time program accepts applications on a rolling basis and is known for pioneering work in movement impairment classification and treatment of orthopedic and neuromuscular conditions. 

Coursework is centered on building a comprehensive understanding of physical therapy and human movement through innovative curriculum and clinical experiences. Available classes include neuroscience, kinesiology, diagnosis and management of musculoskeletal conditions, professional issues and skills development, alternative skills and practice environments, prevention, and diagnosis and management of neuromuscular conditions. Each year includes at least one term dedicated to clinical experiences. 

Students applying to this program should note that completion of a bachelor’s degree with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 in science, combined math and science, and prerequisite coursework is required. Students who have only completed half of the required prerequisite coursework may apply, although they are expected to submit a plan that details how they will complete the required prerequisite coursework by enrollment. GRE scores are also required, as well as the demonstration of paid or volunteer experience in a physical therapy setting. 

  • Location: St.Louis, Missouri
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: $20,362 per semester

University of Delaware – College of Health Sciences

The doctor of physical therapy program at the University of Delaware College of Health Sciences is ranked number one in the country by U.S. News & World Report. This school is not just a two and half year DPT program but also has post-graduate education programs and six fellowships, allowing students to complete additional physical therapy education. Graduates of this program are prepared to start careers in physical therapy or to continue working in research or education. 

The goal of this program is to apply new scientific findings to everyday physical therapy practice in order to provide the most innovative and comprehensive care to patients. In addition to classroom lectures and hands-on labs, students participate in clinical rotations. These rotations can happen at nearby clinics or at the University of Delaware’s in-house PT clinic. Students can also complete an optional master’s of science in anatomy and clinical health science as part of this program.  

  • Location: Newark, Delaware 
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 2.5 years
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,250 per credit

Duke University – School of Medicine

The unique team-based learning in the doctor of physical therapy program at Duke University School of Medicine trains students to work collaboratively from their first class. This innovative approach trains students in teamwork, conflict resolution, and communication in order to provide the highest level of patient care. Since 2018, 100 percent of students have graduated from this program, passed their national certification exam, and been employed within six months of completing their degree. 

The clinical component of the DPT program is called Student Team Experience in Practice (STEPs) and provides students with a collaborative learning environment in various clinical settings. Another key feature of this program is the Advanced Practice Courses (APCs) offered to help students gain specialized skills. These courses include topics such as global health, neurology, sports, orthopedics, women’s health, and pediatrics.

  • Location: Durham, North Carolina 
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: $38,000 annually

Emory University – School of Medicine

In addition to a standard doctor of physical therapy degree, Emory University School of Medicine offers several dual degree options. Students in this program can choose to complete a PhD in applied physiology, master’s of public health, master’s of business administration, or masters of arts in bioethics alongside their DPT degree. While these programs do require additional education and training, they allow students to further specialize their education. 

Emory also offers three residency options which include orthopedics, neurology, and acute care. This additional training can qualify students for additional certifications such as the Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist (OCS) or Neurologic Clinical Specialists (NCS) certifications through the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Admission to this program is very competitive and students are evaluated not only on their undergraduate education but also on completed clinical observations and their understanding of the various roles of physical therapists.

  • Location: Atlanta, Georgia
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: $12,367 per semester

Hybrid Physical Therapist Degree Programs

The majority of DPT programs require fully in-person participation, as physical therapy is a highly hands-on profession and there are significant clinical observation and work requirements. There are no fully online DPT programs accredited by CAPTE. Those applying to hybrid education programs should check their state’s requirements for licensure, as certain states may have residency requirements.

University of Southern California (Expansion Program) – Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy

The University of Southern California offers a top-ranked, fully accredited degree in physical therapy from the Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy. This hybrid degree combines online classes with a 12:1 student to faculty ratio with ten on-campus immersion experiences over the course of the program. Students are also able to gain experience through 50 weeks of hands-on clinical work in their own communities or at designated sites across the country. 

This program is a full-time program that is on a three-year track (six fall and winter semesters, three summer terms). Coursework includes classes in musculoskeletal anatomy, the fundamentals of neuroscience, differential diagnosis in physical therapy, clinical exercise physiology, life span motor control, clinical management of musculoskeletal dysfunction, and mechanics of the human gait. Students are also required to complete a clinical education practicum each year of the program. Program staff work with students to find placements in their community. 

Admission requires a minimum 3.0 GPA, although a 3.4 GPA is considered competitive. A bachelor’s degree and completion of all undergraduate prerequisite coursework are required prior to applying. GRE scores are also required for admission. The recommended minimum GRE score for applicants is 300 on the revised general GRE test; however, a score of 312 is considered competitive. 

  • Location: Los Angeles, California
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,928 per credit

Nova Southeastern University – Dr. Pallavi Patel College of Health Care Sciences

The Dr. Pallavi Patel College of Health Care Sciences at Nova Southeastern University offers a full-time, blended DPT degree that brings together the flexibility of online courses with hands-on experiences and face-to-face instruction. Specifically, this program requires ten semesters of courses over three years, including an additional summer semester after the completion of the third year. 

Students receive three weeks of intensive online instruction each month with the fourth week dedicated to on-campus components and face-to-face learning. This in-person experience includes practicing skills learned online, working with faculty to gain direct feedback, applying online lessons to real scenarios and case studies through classroom and clinical experiences, working with patients, and taking exams. Students are also required to collaborate with faculty and other students through real-time online collaboration sessions and video chat or phone sessions. 

The curriculum includes communication and cultural competence; clinical applications of anatomy for physical therapists; essentials of biomechanics and kinesiology; health promotion, disease prevention and wellness; evidence-based practice; clinical skills; the business of physical therapy; and gender-specific health issues in PT.

Admission requires completion of a bachelor’s degree and completion of prerequisite coursework with a C or better. Note that applicants must provide GRE scores less than five years old, but there is no required minimum GRE score. GPA requirements include a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA, a minimum 3.0 GPA for all prerequisite courses, and a minimum 3.0 GPA for all math and science courses. Applicants should also demonstrate exposure or understanding of physical therapy settings, including clinics and home care. 

  • Location: Tampa, Florida
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years and one summer semester (ten semesters)
  • Estimated Tuition: $22,068 annually 

Arcadia University – College of Health Science

The fully accredited doctor of physical therapy program at Arcadia University College of Health Sciences can be completed in a hybrid format in just 25 months. This program features a combination of live online classes, asynchronous coursework, and immersive experiences. The immersive experiences are at both inpatient and outpatient centers, giving students a broad client experience. The program culminates in a 32-week clinical rotation where students work under the supervision of a physical therapist. 

Graduates of this program are well prepared to take the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). In the past four years, 100 percent of students have successfully passed this exam, with over 95 percent of them passing on the first try. Admission requirements include a bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 GPA, prerequisite coursework, a GRE score no more than five years old, and observation hours of a physical therapist in both inpatient and outpatient settings.  

  • Location: Glenside, Pennsylvania
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 25 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $19,015 per semester 

Baylor University – Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences 

Utilization of best practices of distance education set apart the hybrid doctor of physical therapy program at Baylor University Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences. The online classes are combined with immersive experiences, on-campus labs, and clinical rotations to provide students with the necessary technical knowledge as well as hands-on skills. All students complete an eight-week experience and a 23-week clinical rotation.

One advantage of this program is the strong partnerships with postgraduate residency training programs. Graduates can expand on their degrees with training in several specializations, including neurorehabilitation, orthopedics, geriatrics, sports, and pediatrics. Admission to this program is highly competitive, and applicants will have to complete a rigorous application process, including references, an interview, and a writing sample test.  

  • Location: Waco, Texas
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $2,093 per credit 

Tufts University – School of Medicine 

Aspiring doctors of physical therapy students anywhere in the country can complete the hybrid program at Tufts University School of Medicine. There is a mandatory eight-week on-campus intensive, but the rest of the coursework and clinical experiences can be completed from a student’s hometown. Courses are often taught live as this allows students to have immediate feedback and peer interactions. The faculty to student ratio is at a low 1:12, ensuring students get individual attention from their professors. 

Tufts School of Medicine utilizes the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). Prospective students are evaluated on prerequisite coursework, GRE test scores, undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, and an online interview. All applicants must complete 40 hours of clinical observations in order to be considered for admission. 

  • Location: Boston, Massachusetts 
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $18,884 per semester

How Long Does it Take to Become a Physical Therapist?

For those with a bachelor’s degree, it takes an average of three years and successful passage of the National Physical Therapy Exam to become a physical therapist. Licensed physical therapists choosing to complete a residency program to develop understanding and gain experience in a specialty area may take four or five years before becoming a physical therapist with a board-certified specialty. 

Those pursuing a combined degree program may take an average of six to seven years to complete their programs, pass their exams, and become licensed physical therapists. However, these programs also permit individuals to simultaneously obtain a bachelor’s degree and a DPT degree and accordingly, may take more time.

How To Become a Physical Therapist – Step-by-Step Guide

Those interested in becoming a physical therapist will need to obtain a DPT degree and pass an exam. State licensure boards may include additional requirements for licensure. Generally, those pursuing a career in physical therapy will need to do the following:

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree and Apply to a CAPTE-Accredited Physical Therapy Program (Four Years)

Admission requirements typically include meeting minimum GPA requirements, taking the GRE, obtaining references, and demonstrating successful completion of prerequisite undergraduate coursework. Some programs may also require a certain number of hours either working with or observing a physical therapist.

Most programs require the completion of a bachelor’s degree prior to applying. However, there are combined programs that permit students to pursue a bachelor’s degree and DPT simultaneously. 

Step 2: Complete a CAPTE-Accredited Physical Therapy Program (Three Years or More)

Once admitted, students will likely take coursework in biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, pharmacology. Students are also required to complete 30 weeks of clinical work with a physical therapist, gaining understanding and experience in different areas of physical therapy. 

Physical therapy programs typically take three years to complete, although those working on a combined degree may take six or seven years to complete coursework and clinical work.

Step 3: Take the National Physical Therapy Examination (Less Than One Year)

Licensure requirements vary state-by-state. However, all states require passage of the National Physical Therapy Examination. This exam is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). 

Step 4: Apply for Licensure (Less Than One Year)

Those ready to apply for licensure should check the individual requirements for the state they want to practice physical therapy in. Additional requirements, such as passing a jurisprudence exam that tests knowledge of state laws and regulations, may be necessary prior to applying. 

Step 5: Celebrate and Maintain Licensure Requirements

Congratulations! Those who passed their exam and successfully applied for licensure may now work as licensed physical therapists. Many states require licensed physical therapists to stay up-to-date on new trends, care techniques, and state laws and regulations by taking a certain number of continuing education credits each year. Maintain licensure by meeting all continuing education requirements, as well as additional requirements that may be imposed on a state-by-state basis.

What Do Physical Therapists Do?

There’s a lot of variation in what physical therapists can expect to see in their day-to-day work. Some physical therapists may see a lot of different patients in one day, working with everyone from a patient who has cerebral palsy to a patient recovering from a sports injury. Others may focus on a specific area of practice, such as pediatric or orthopedic care. However, all physical therapists can generally expect the following job duties:

  • Go over referrals, notes, and medical history provided by patients’ care teams. This could include information provided by surgeons, primary care physicians, and more.
  • Meet with patients to understand their health needs, including having them perform exercises and movements to diagnose areas in need of care. 
  • Compile individualized care or recovery plans for each patient, bringing together information provided by their care team and the patient themselves.
  • Work one-on-one with patients to meet their care plan goals. This could include demonstrating exercises or stretching maneuvers, using hands-on therapy, or equipment such as wheelchairs or exercise machines. 
  • Monitor patient progress and update care plans as needed.
  • Provide education and health and wellness information to patients around the care process.

Physical Therapist Certifications & Licensure

As previously discussed, physical therapists are required to get licensed to practice. Licensing requirements vary by state, but each state requires passage of the National Physical Therapy Exam. This exam is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. 

Additional certification in one of nine specialty areas is available through the American Board of Physical Therapist Specialties. Certification requires passing an exam and obtaining experience through either completion of 2,000 hours of clinical work in the specialty area within the last ten years or completion of an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)-accredited residency program in that specialty area. 

There are nine specialties available through the ABPTS:

  • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Oncology
  • Women’s Health
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports

Physical therapists may choose one or more specialties. 

How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?

Physical therapists made a mean annual wage of $ 91,680 ($44.08 per hour), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020). However, pay varies greatly by state and may be higher or lower depending on the location of the job. The BLS estimated 220,870 physical therapists were employed in 2020. 

  • 10th percentile: $63,530
  • 25th percentile: $75,360
  • 50th percentile (median): $91,010
  • 75th percentile: $106,060
  • 90th percentile: $126,780

Physical Therapist Career Alternatives

Here are few alternatives to a career as a physical therapist. 

Become an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists help patients with mobility issues, developmental delays, illnesses, or injuries. Occupational therapy focuses on the entire person and how they can perform daily tasks, whereas physical therapy typically addresses just one issue. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, Inc. (NBCOT)

Become a Chiropractor

Chiropractors use neuromusculoskeletal therapy to apply manipulations and adjustments to a patient’s body. While most adjustments are to the spine, they can also include other parts of the body. Chiropractors must also be able to assess a patient’s mobility, reflexes, and posture. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Chiropractic Specialities (ABCS)

Become a Registered Nurse

Much of the medical care provided in clinics, physician’s offices, hospitals, and long-term care centers is done by registered nurses. They can administer medications, assess patient’s conditions, assist with procedures or surgery, perform diagnostic tests, educate patients, and maintain medical records.  

  • Typical Education: Associate or Bachelor’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN)
Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello

Writer

Bree is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron pans.

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