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 2022) estimates that job openings in this field will swell 17 percent nationally between 2021 and 2031—more than three times the national average for all occupations during the same period (5 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 with 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.

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.

Arizona State University
Methodist University
East Central University Online
University of West Alabama (Campus)

Physical Therapy Specializations & Degree Types

All physical therapists must 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 careers.

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 understand specific specialty areas better.

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

Certified specialists must 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 longer programs 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 applicants should typically demonstrate previous biology, physics, social and behavioral sciences, and anatomy and physiology coursework. Some programs may also require or strongly recommend proof of clinical observation or work experience with a licensed physical therapist.

Note that most 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 is normally between 3.0 and 3.5, according to the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).

It is essential to specify that the curriculum for physical therapist assistant (PTA) programs differs from the DPT coursework and clinical requirements. Accordingly, prior experience as a 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), 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 and provides staff support. Note that obtaining a degree from a CAPTE-accredited program before 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 adequately prepare 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 several 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 2020).

This full-time, 106-credit program is 2.3 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 a clinical and evidence-based practice. Students also receive more than 42 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 (optional), and demonstrated paid or volunteer work in a physical therapy setting.

  • Location: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Seven terms
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state ($98,147); out-of-state ($115,500)

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 two-year, eight-month, 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 prevention, diagnosis, and management of movement problems; movement system practitioner and population health; movement science; focused movement system practice; movement and population health; and movement and precision health. 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. Demonstration of paid or volunteer experience in a physical therapy setting is also required.

  • Location: St.Louis, MO
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years and eight months
  • Estimated Tuition: $22,918 per academic 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.

The program is made up of 103 credits. These credits represent experiential laboratories, didactic instruction, clinical internships, research, and other equivalent academic experiences. Full-time clinical internships comprising 12 credits, and part-time clinical experiences comprising an additional seven credits are part of this curriculum.

Classes include musculoskeletal evaluation and treatment; functional anatomy and biomechanics; clinical neurosciences; clinical gross anatomy; physical therapy in the acute care environment; neurophysiologic evaluation and treatment; rehabilitation; and psychosocial aspects of health and disease, among others.

  • Location: Newark, DE
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 2.5 years
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,051 per credit

Duke University – School of Medicine

The unique team-based learning in the Duke University School of Medicine doctor of physical therapy program trains students to work collaboratively from their first class. This innovative approach trains students in teamwork, conflict resolution, and communication 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. The curriculum of this 129-credit program includes courses such as structure and function of the human body; movement science; introduction to the patient examination; foundational pediatrics practice; management of the complex patient; foundational integumentary practice; physical therapy for the older adult; structure and function of the human brain; and foundational musculoskeletal practice.

  • Location: Durham, NC 
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • 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, a master’s of public health, a master’s of business administration, or a master of arts in bioethics alongside their DPT degree. While these programs do require additional education and training, they allow students to further specialize in their education.

Emory also offers three residency options: 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.

The curriculum includes courses such as kinesiology and biomechanics; ethics and professionalism; systems physiology; neuroscience; introduction to interventions; growth process through the lifespan; teaching and learning process in physical therapy; medical genetics in physical therapy; musculoskeletal rehabilitation; adult neurorehabilitation; pediatric rehabilitation; and current practices in physical therapy care.

  • Location: Atlanta, GA
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: $13,133 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 twelve on-campus immersion experiences over the course of the program. Students are also able to gain experience through 44 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, and 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 must also complete a clinical education practicum each year of the program. Program staff works 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 not required for admission.

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three years
  • Estimated Tuition: First year ($77,315); second year ($77,315); third year ($46,711)

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 combines online courses’ flexibility with hands-on experiences and face-to-face instruction. Specifically, this program requires twelve semesters of courses over four years.

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; neuroanatomy & neurophysiology; and gender-specific health issues in PT.

Admission requires completing a bachelor’s degree and completing prerequisite coursework with a C or better. Applicants must provide GRE scores less than five years old, but a minimum GRE score is not required. GPA requirements include a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA, a 3.0 GPA for all prerequisite courses, and a 3.0 GPA for all math and science courses. Applicants should also demonstrate exposure to or understanding of physical therapy settings, including clinics and home care.

  • Location: Tampa, FL
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $23,185 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 (optional), and observation hours as a physical therapist in both inpatient and outpatient settings.

Comprising 112 credits, this Hybrid DPT program offers courses such as introduction to physical therapy theory & practice; movement system foundations; exposure to physical therapy in a health care system; differential diagnosis & intervention; acute musculoskeletal injury; acute medical conditions; and progressive neurologic conditions.

  • Location: Glenside, PA
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 25 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $19,785 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 and hands-on skills. All students complete eight immersive, hands-on labs and 31 weeks of full-time clinical education performed in various clinical settings.

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 must complete a rigorous application process, including references, an interview, and a writing sample test.

The curriculum includes courses such as physical therapy fundamentals; movement sciences; human physiology; musculoskeletal practice; therapeutic interventions; bracing, orthotics, & prosthetics; neuromuscular practice; management of the aging adult; cardiopulmonary practice; management of complex patients; and primary care physical therapy.

  • Location: Waco, TX
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $18,334 per trimester

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, allowing students to have immediate feedback and peer interactions. The faculty-to-student ratio is at a low 1:10, 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.

The curriculum explores topics such as physical therapy fundamentals; physical therapy fundamentals; movement science; therapeutic exercise; physical agents and therapeutics; musculoskeletal practice management; clinical neuroscience; neuromuscular practice management; and cardiopulmonary practice management.

  • Location: Boston, MA; Phoenix AZ
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $18,884 to $19,450 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 a successful passage of the National Physical Therapy Exam to become a physical therapist. Licensed physical therapists choosing to complete a residency program to develop an 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 successfully completing 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, and pharmacology. Students must also 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 and 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 with 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 the National Physical Therapy Exam passage. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy administers this exam.

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

There are ten specialties available through the ABPTS:

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

Physical therapists may choose one or more specialties.

How much do Physical Therapists Make?

Physical therapists made a mean annual wage of $97,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022). However, pay varies greatly by state and may be higher or lower depending on the location of the job. The BLS estimated 229,740 physical therapists were employed.

  • 10th percentile: $67,910
  • 25th percentile: $80,700
  • 50th percentile (median): $97,720
  • 75th percentile: $107,430
  • 90th percentile: $128,830

Physical Therapist Career Alternatives

Here are a 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 patients’ 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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