How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant:
The Definitive Guide


Do you enjoy helping others, and want people to feel good about their bodies, inside and out?

If so, you should think about working as a physical therapist assistant.

In this career, you’ll help people move their bodies to alleviate pain and to gain mobility.

You’ll work with a team of professionals, or sometimes by yourself, to help patients who have been injured or have medical conditions that make them unable to move certain parts of their bodies.

Does this sound like something you’d be interested in?

If so, read on to find out how to go about becoming a physical therapist assistant.

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What is a Physical Therapist Assistant?

As a physical therapist, you will be part of a team that helps patients work on their bodies.

Your patients will be people who have medical conditions or have injuries that decrease their mobility or range of motion

You’ll be tasked with helping them learn to move their bodies the correct way once again.

This may sound easy, but it takes a lot of time and dedication on one patient to get them where they want to be.

You’ll learn all about how the body works, and then observe how your patient is moving before, during, and after a session.

Duties

As a physical therapist assistant, you will be working closely with patients.

Some of the duties that you’ll have include:

  • Observing patients before, during, and after therapy, and noting the changes
  • Help patients do specific exercises
  • Treat patients with things like massage and stretching
  • Use walkers and other equipment to help patients
  • Educate patients and family about what to do after treatment
  • Report results to a physical therapist

Salary

On average, a physical therapist assistant makes around $54,000 a year.

Those that are just starting out in the career typically make around $49,000.

Those that have worked as a physical therapist assistant’s for a long while can make up to nearly $60,000.

All of these numbers are estimations, depending on how much education you have, certifications, and career experience, you could make more or less.

It also depends on the area in which you work.

Do you work in a hospital?

You may make more here than a private physical therapy center.

Do you live in a big city?

This could also impact how much you make, as you may have more patients than someone working in a smaller city.

Average National Salary: $60,000

$49K
$52K
$54K
$58K
$60K
10%
25%
50%
75%
90%
*Salary information last updated 2019

Average Annual Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
Alabama$50,689
Alaska$61,024
Arizona$53,797
Arkansas$49,993
California$60,698
Colorado$54,177
Connecticut$59,068
Delaware$57,057
Florida$52,167
Georgia$52,438
Hawaii$57,220
Idaho$51,288
Illinois$55,987
Indiana$53,091
Iowa$51,895
Kansas$50,879
Kentucky$50,591
Louisiana$51,602
Maine$52,384
Maryland$56,460
Massachusetts$59,122
Michigan$54,884
Minnesota$55,427
Mississippi$47,134
Missouri$51,623
Montana$49,260
Nebraska$49,830
Nevada$55,971
New Hampshire$55,155
New Jersey$60,318
New Mexico$49,423
New York$58,307
North Carolina$51,841
North Dakota$50,537
Ohio$52,982
Oklahoma$51,080
Oregon$54,123
Pennsylvania$54,232
Rhode Island$57,275
South Carolina$50,425
South Dakota$46,352
Tennessee$49,368
Texas$53,254
Utah$51,484
Vermont$52,330
Virginia$53,487
Washington$58,036
West Virginia$47,874
Wisconsin$53,525
Wyoming$48,244

Annual Average Salary: Top 5 States

The top earning state in the field is Alaska, where the average salary is $61,024

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

Alaska - $61,024
California - $60,698
New Jersey - $60,318
Massachusetts - $59,122
Connecticut - $59,068

How to become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Step 1Earn Your Associates Degree

The first thing that you are going to want to do when you decide that you want to become a physical therapy assistant is to find a program that is accredited.

There are many programs around the United States, and it’s probable that there is one near you.

Once you find a program, you are going to have to study hard and do your work.

This can include classroom time, laboratory time, and even clinical time.

You will study many different areas of the life sciences field.

Some of these classes will be directly related to your desired career, but you may also need to take other classes for general education.

You won’t be able to work as a physical therapist assistant unless you get an Associates degree, but you can also earn a Bachelors if you’d like.

Step 2Pass the Licensing Exam

You’ve gotten your Associates degree, now what do you do?

Of course, you are going to want to get licensed as a physical therapist assistant so that you can get a job.

There are plenty of places for you to go to get licensed, all you have to do is find a site to take the National Physical Therapy Exam.

The exam is around 200 questions, but only 150 of them are scored.

You must pass the exam in order to become a licensed physical therapy assistant.

If you do not pass, you are only allowed to take the exam three more times in a year.

You are only allowed to take the exam 6 times in your life, and at nearly $300 a test, you are certainly going to want to take it seriously.

Step 3Get Some Experience

There are two ways that you can go about getting experience in this field of work.

First, you can work as an intern while going to school to earn your degree.

Or, you can wait until you graduate and work under a physical therapist to learn the ropes of the career.

Either way works great, you’ll learn things that you won’t be able to learn in the classroom because you need the physical experience of doing it.

Before you take your licensing exam, you’ll need a certain amount of experience, so starting before you graduate or right after will help you in the long run.

Plus, the more experience you have, the better.

Step 4Obtain More Certifications

You thought you were done, didn’t you?

Well, technically you are, but you can always learn more.

Instead of just working away as a physical therapist assistant, why not try and get more certifications?

These can include CPR, first aid, or basic life certifications that will drive you to do more and know more in your line of work.

Remember, you’ll be working with people who have disabilities, have been sick or injured, and may need extra care.

Knowing how to do CPR or basic life skills can be the difference between someone living or dying.

Working in the medical field can be challenging, especially when you are working to better people’s lives, but learning these skills and understanding how they work can help you to gain experience in other areas of your life as well.


Education

Those that want to become a physical therapist assistant need to have earned their high school diploma or GED.

Then, you’ll need to enroll in a degree program.

Physical therapist assistants must have their Associates Degree.

An Associates degree can take around five semesters to complete.

The focus for this degree is on clinical physical therapy education.

You’ll be working in a classroom, as well as doing things in a laboratory.

Some of the courses that you are likely to take are:

  • Anatomy
  • Kinesiology
  • Medical terminology
  • Physical therapy assistant techniques
  • Therapy exercises and pathology
  • Psychology

One thing that you are going to want to make certain of before you begin your education is that the school is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education.

You will only qualify for employment if you get your degree from an accredited school.

In 2017, it was reported that there were 350 accredited schools in the United States.

During your schooling, you will be doing clinical lessons as well.

This is where you go and practice what you have learned on real people.

Typically, this consists of working with classmates, but sometimes you can work in the field at a physical therapy center or in a hospital.

All of the clinical work will be supervised and used for educational purposes only.

This means that you won’t get paid for your time working in the hospital, it’s strictly to learn about what to do and not to do in the field.

While you are in school, it may be possible to gain some certifications as well.

You could look into gaining a CPR certification, basic life support, and first-aid skills certifications.

The more you know, and the more certifications you have will set you up even better when you start your career.

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Licensing

Every state except for Colorado and Hawaii require you to have a license in order to practice as a physical therapist assistant.

Once you have graduated from a physical therapist assistant program, you are eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Exam.

After you pass the exam, you’ll be a licensed physical therapist!

I know that sounds easy, but it can be quite intense to take an exam.

Especially if your career is hanging in the balance.

It’s important to make sure that you study hard for this exam, because you are only allowed to take the test three times in one year, or 6 times total.

Also, the exam isn’t cheap. It will cost around $350 to get your license.

Some states also require that you have certification in CPR and First Aid.

You can complete this at Red Cross or American Heart Association centers.

These classes can run around $100 per course.

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about what to expect from the physical therapist assistant exam.

The exam has four sections, which are broken down to 50 questions each.

Of the 200 questions, only 150 are scored.

The other fifty are used as a pretest to see if they should be included in the exam or not, but you still have to answer them because you won’t know which questions are which.

Typically, you’ll have about a 15-minute break during the exam, and the length of the exam varies depending on your speed as well as the testing sites designated time.

The score for the exam ranges from 200-800.

You’ll need at least a 600 to pass the exam, even if you get a 599 you will not pass.

Once you pass the exam you will be a licensed physical therapist assistant!

Great job!

Certification Example:

physical therapist assistant certificate

Average Training Program Duration: 1-3 Years

The average training program duration for a physical therapist assistant is around six months.

Once you graduate with your Associate’s degree, you will likely start an internship type of job.

Most likely, you will be paid for the work that you do, but typically you will be under the eye of a physical therapist.

They will teach you what you need to do and what you need to know for each specific patient you have.

Depending on how fast you learn everything that you need to know, you may be done with training in as little as 6 weeks.

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Job Outlook

The job outlook for physical therapist assistant’s looks incredible over the next ten years.

You can expect employment to jump around 31 percent.

This is astronomical compared to other careers in the same field.

Demands are set to increase due to the physical health of the baby boomer population, which is the population that is currently becoming elderly.

Chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity have become more severe in recent years.

More physical therapist assistants will be needed to help those that are dealing with these types of issues as well.

One other factor is that technology has become so great, that people suffering from illnesses have begun to live longer, including newborn babies that may have issues, which means more patients for physical therapist assistants.

Employment Growth Projection: 31%

88,300
2016
115,800
2026

That's a higher than average projected growth of 27,500 jobs.

Physical Therapist Assistant: Interest Over Time


Should You Become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Overall Satisfaction

Overall Satisfaction: Medium

Physical therapist assistant has been ranked number three in best health care support jobs.

Though there are slightly fewer opportunities to advance without certain degrees and certifications, it is still one of the best jobs in health care.

The stress level of the job and the ability to work hours that you want are average.

This means that you may work a few long hours, and work weekends or holidays, but you will have a good work and home life balance.

Average Salary

Average Salary: High

As a physical therapist assistant, you can expect to make around $54,000 a year.

When you first start out in the job, you may make a little less.

This could be around $50,000 a year.

Once you get more experience and learn the tricks of the trade, you can make nearly $60,000 a year.

Typically, those that have more certifications and specialties will make more money.

This is considered to be in the higher end of salaries in the United States, which sounds amazing!

Job Growth Outlook

Job Growth Outlook: High

The job growth outlook for a physical therapist assistant is astronomical.

More and more people are looking for physical therapy as they age, which means more patients for you.

The growth of the physical therapist assistant job is considered one of the highest growths in the United States.

Now is definitely the time to get into this job field.

The growth will continue to rise in the next ten years.

Baby boomers are getting older, and technology is helping people live longer.

Education Duration

Education Duration: 1-3 Years

When you decide that you want to become a physical therapist assistant, you are going to need to find a university program to enroll in.

These programs typically take around 2 years to finish.

At the end of the two years, you will be given an Associates degree.

You’ll also want to think about doing internships or clinical in order to master the experience of being a physical therapist assistant.

That can take anywhere from a couple of months to a year, depending on where you work and how often.

Personal Skills Needed

Personal Skills Needed

It’s important to have some specific qualities and skills in order to work as a physical therapist assistant.

You will want to:

  • Have compassion – You are working with patients who may have disabilities, and having compassion will help them feel important.
  • Be detail-oriented – You’ll need to be organized and have an eye for detail in this job.
  • Have communication skills – You’ll work very closely with a lot of patients.
  • Have physical stamina – Most of the time you’ll be on your feet, or helping other people physically.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How much does a physical therapist assistant make?

On average in the United States, a physical therapist assistant can make around $54,000 a year.

Those that are just starting out in the career may make a little less, around $49,000 and those that have more experience will typically make near $60,000.

Not every company provides this amount of wages, though.

Those that work in smaller companies will likely make less than those working for large hospitals or in major cities.

Q. How to become a licensed Physical Therapy Assistant

In order to become a licensed physical therapy assistant, you first need to have your Associates degree from a physical therapy assistant program.

You can find these at many different community colleges around the country.

Or specific physical therapy centers, you may want to contact one near you to see if they have any program available.

After you graduate, you’ll need to take an exam that has around 200 questions.

If you pass the exam, you are now considered a licensed physical therapy assistant!

Q. How long does it take to become a Physical Therapy Assistant?

When you are working toward your goal of becoming a physical therapist assistant, you are going to want to earn your Associates degree.

Typically, these degrees can take around two years to complete.

Along with that, you are going to need some experience, which means you’ll likely want to intern at a place before getting your license.

This can take another 6 months or so.

Becoming a licensed physical therapy assistant can also take a little bit of time.

You’ll want to study for the licensing exam, and then pass it.

This can take a week or more, depending on how much time you want to give yourself.

All in all, to become a physical therapist assistant, it will take you around two and a half years.

Q. What does a Physical Therapist Assistant do?

Physical therapy assistants do many things.

First and foremost, they help people who have medical issues, such as injuries or disabilities.

The purpose of their work is to help people get their mobility, range of motion, or abilities back.

This can be done by stretching and using muscles that people may have damaged.

As well as showing patients how to work their bodies in order to gain back some mobility.

A physical therapy assistant will also observe how the patient is doing before, during, and after each session

Q. How much does it cost to become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

The average cost to get your Associates degree is anywhere from twenty thousand dollars to forty thousand dollars, depending on where you go to school.

Then it will cost around $250 dollars to take your physical therapy assistant exam.

It is possible to find scholarships and grants if you are interested in going to school to become a physical therapy assistant.


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