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 2019) estimates that job openings in this field will swell 22 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028—more than four times the national average for all occupations.

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.

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 the 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 yearlong 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 a certified specialist through the American Board of Physical Therapist Specialities (ABPTS). There are nine specialities 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 of 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 Amercian 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 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 orthopaedic 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 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

Hybrid Physical Therapist Degree Programs

There are less than ten CAPTE-accredited hybrid (online/on-campus) physical therapy programs in the United States. 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 is 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-hour

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.

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; 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

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 program, pass their exam, and become a licensed physical therapist. 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 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 a licensed physical therapist. 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 orthopaedic care. However, 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 a American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)-accredited residency program in that specialty area.

There are nine specialities available through the ABPTS:

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

Physical therapists may choose one or more specialties.

Physical Therapist Salary

Physical therapists made a median annual wage of $87,930 ($42.27 per hour), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019). This means that half of the professionals working in the field made more than $87,930 and the other half made less. The lowest 10 percent of physical therapists made $60,390 or less, while the highest 10 percent (also known as the 90th percentile) made over $123,350.

However, pay varies greatly by state and may be higher or lower depending on the location of the job. The BLS estimated 247,700 physical therapists were employed in 2018.

Becca Brewer

Becca Brewer

Writer

Becca is the co-founder of Limitless: A Worldwild Adventure to Heal our Earth. She and her adventure partner, Leandre Deryckere (@leandrolling), are traveling around the world on fully loaded bamboo touring bicycles, learning what seeds we need to plant now so that a more beautiful future world has the chance to flourish. The Limitless Project is built on a gift economy, living one’s authentic purpose, leading with love, leaving competition and domination behind, moving past a production mindset, and spending as much time as possible with nature (we also ride some crazy dirt roads in the mountains)! You can follow the adventure on Instagram at @LimitlessEcoAdventure, and join the project at Limitless.Eco.

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