How to Become a Physical Therapist:
The Definitive Guide


Are you the type of person that likes to help others when they are in need?

Do you enjoy relieving physical pain through fitness techniques and massage?

Have all of your friends come to you for advice about their bodies after an injury?

If you are a strong-bodied and strong-minded person who enjoys accommodating others in a medical facility, then the work of a Physical Therapist might be just what you are looking for.


What is a Physical Therapist?

A Physical Therapist has an important role.

Not only do Physical Therapists provide the knowledge of anatomy and physiology to manipulate their patient’s muscles and bones to make them feel better, but they also provide an emotional release as well.

That’s right, they don’t call a Physical Therapist a therapist for nothing!

Each patient has different physical abilities, and it is the job of the Physical Therapist to work out the deficiencies and make the muscles good as new again.

This can be done by exercise, massage, stretching, and manipulating the muscles throughout each session.

Physical Therapists work as a part of a team, with the help of a Physical Therapist Assistant, the team can help patients get their mobility back.

Duties

A Physical Therapist has a physically demanding job, that’s a fact, but a Physical Therapist also has many other duties throughout the day.

These may include:

  • Reviewing patient medical records and referrals from doctors etc.
  • Diagnosing patient function and movement issues
  • Developing an individual plan of care for each patient
  • Use exercise to help patients move their bodies
  • Keep records of all patient progress

Salary

In the United States, a Physical Therapist can make around $87,000 a year on average.

Typically, Physical Therapists that are just starting out, with little experience and few certifications will likely make around $80,000 a year.

Those that have more experience, work in larger populated areas, or have certifications may make more, up to nearly $95,000 a year.

Some Physical Therapists decide that they want to become doctors, by either obtaining a medical degree or a doctorate.

These people tend to make more than $100,000 a year.

The facility that you work in and the population of the city where you work can also determine the amount you will make a year.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

Annually National Average Salary: $90,170

$62K
$73K
$90K
$104K
$124K
10%
25%
50%
75%
90%

Average Annual Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
Alabama$92,570
Alaska$102,650
Arizona$89,350
Arkansas$85,710
California$99,920
Colorado$86,740
Connecticut$98,780
Delaware$96,520
District of Columbia$93,140
Florida$86,090
Georgia$87,590
Hawaii$92,650
Idaho$80,360
Illinois$91,750
Indiana$86,670
Iowa$82,940
Kansas$88,310
Kentucky$85,260
Louisiana$89,560
Maine$80,380
Maryland$89,890
Massachusetts$90,860
Michigan$90,500
Minnesota$84,280
Mississippi$91,050
Missouri$84,180
Montana$82,130
Nebraska$85,100
Nevada$108,550
New Hampshire$84,610
New Jersey$99,060
New Mexico$94,430
New York$90,880
North Carolina$88,020
North Dakota$81,630
Ohio$87,600
Oklahoma$91,480
Oregon$87,200
Pennsylvania$88,450
Rhode Island$85,540
South Carolina$85,650
South Dakota$77,130
Tennessee$84,720
Texas$89,630
Utah$85,880
Vermont$81,020
Virginia$91,930
Washington$88,010
West Virginia$92,320
Wisconsin$88,570
Wyoming$91,030
Puerto Rico$45,120
Virgin Islands$66,270

Annual Average Salary: Top 5 States

The top earning state in the field is Nevada, where the average salary is $108,550.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

Nevada - $108,550
Alaska - $102,650
California - $99,920
New Jersey - $99,060
Connecticut - $98,780
*Salary information based on the May 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey.
Conducted by: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Step 1Do Your Research

Since programs differ from city to city and state to state, you are going to want to make sure you understand what your program entails.

This could mean whether or not you must do an internship, how many hours you must put into your education, and even some prerequisites you’ll need to have completed before you can join the program.

Most programs require completed courses in:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Psychology
  • Sociality
  • Statistics

Several, but not all, programs may require complete courses in:

  • Math
  • English and communication
  • Exercise physiology
  • Nutrition
  • Ethics

Colleges all over the country have Physical Therapist programs, so it is possible to find one in your region.

Step 2Obtain a Bachelors Degree

Now that you have your prerequisites all in order, and you know what you need to do for your program, it’s time to get your education on.

Many Physical Therapist programs can be done at the Bachelor’s level, but it’s also possible to take post-secondary education courses at the same time, this way it may take you less time to complete your Masters.

Some common college courses you’ll likely need to take include:

  • Exercise science
  • Kinesiology
  • Biology
  • Health science
  • Athletic training
  • Pre-physical therapy

A lot of programs also require clinical lab assignments, which means that you will get real-life work experience as a Physical therapist, with supervision, while still in school.

Step 3Become Licensed and Certified

To get the most out of your career, you are going to want to become licensed, certified, or both.

The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists offers eight different certifications for Physical Therapists who are seeking something more from their job.

These certifications are:

  • Sports
  • Orthopedics
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • electrophysiology
  • Cardiovascular
  • Pulmonary
  • Women’s health

If you would like to apply for certification, you must have at least 2,000 hours of practice as a Physical Therapist, a license in the state that you work, and must pass the certification exam.

Before you begin your path down the certification lane, it’s important to become licensed in the state that you work.

After completing an accredited program, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam in order to become licensed.

Step 4Job Shadow

It’s important to get the most experience from your career, this way you know that you have grasped the knowledge.

The best way to gain experience is to job shadow a superior Physical Therapist.

This way, you will gain an education but also learn from hands-on experience.

Sometimes, applying knowledge physically rather than working on paper helps you learn faster.

You can job shadow a Physical Therapist while in school, or even while you begin your career.

Step 5Earn Your DPT Degree

If you want to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy, then you must put in the work.

After you graduate and gain some experience, or fresh out of the gate, if you decide you want to become a doctor, you need to finish a doctoral degree.

Many of the courses that you can expect from a degree program such as this include:

  • Biomechanics
  • Functional anatomy
  • Functional biology
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Cellular histology
  • Management
  • Life span development

While in your program to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy, you will be followed closely by a senior DPT to ensure you know what you are supposed to be doing.

A typical DPT program lasts around 6 months.

Pass the NPTE

You made it, it’s finally the end of the road (for now).

In order to start practicing as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, you will need to pass an exam called the NPTE.

This stands for the National Physical Therapy Examination and consists of around 200 questions and you can take it up to three times a year.


Education

To practice as a physical therapist in the US, you will have to earn a physical therapist degree from a CAPTE- accredited physical therapist education program and pass a state licensure exam.

In order to begin a program in order to become a Physical Therapist, you will need to start out gaining your prerequisite courses.

These are the standard courses in every education.

After you finish those courses, you will begin some more specialized courses at the Bachelor’s degree level.

Earning a Bachelors’s degree can take around four years, but you may also work toward your Master’s degree at the same time as you earn your Masters, so this may take you around 5 to 6 years.

When thinking about which program you want to enroll in, you need to consider some of the following:

  • Program structure and curriculum
  • Licensure pass rates
  • Geographic location
  • Campus setting- online or on-campus etc.
  • Admission requirements
  • Length of program
  • Cost of program

After you graduate at the Bachelors’s or Masters’s level, it may be a good idea to think about starting your residency or a fellowship.

A residency is a program for people who have already gone through the initial Physical Therapist program and need preparation for the career that they desire in the future.

A fellowship is nearly the same thing as a residency, except for the fact that instead of dealing with patients, the resident deals with other residents.

In order to gain your doctorate as a Physical Therapist, you are required to do either a fellowship or a residency program.

Taking on a fellowship or residency program can take a while longer, but the job opportunities open up tremendously.

With all of the education that you must receive, it can take anywhere from 4-8 years to become a Physical Therapist.

Video About The Career


Certification and Licensing

In every state, in order to become a Licensed Physical Therapist, prospective therapists must pass the licensing exam.

This exam is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

The test is called the National Physical Therapist Exam and it is made up of five sections, all that have 50 multiple-choice questions.

Of the 250 answers, only 200 are scored.

The other fifty are used for pretesting to see if they should be used in future exams.

You won’t know which questions are scored and which ones are not.

There is one scheduled 15-minute break throughout the exam, but you are allowed to take breaks if you need to as well.

The exam ranges from a score of 200-800, with 600 being a passing score.

It can cost around $500 to take the exam.

Though it is mandatory to become a Licensed Physical Therapist, it is not mandatory to gain certifications.

This is something that you can do if you want to become specialized in a certain area of physical therapy.

The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers certifications in nine different areas.

These areas include orthopedics, sports injury, geriatrics, among others.

In order to become certified in the specific field, you are looking into, you must pass an exam, have at least 2,000 hours worked, and have graduated from an American Physical Therapy Association accredited residency program.

A typical certification exam can consist of around 200 questions, mainly multiple choice.

Once the tests are scored and the requirements are referenced, you will become a certified specialist in the area of your choosing.

Having a certification is a way to show future employers that you are serious about the job that you want to do.

Even though it is not necessary to become certified, many people do it so that they can find the most perfect career for them.

Certification Example:

physical therapist certification

Average Training Program Duration: 4+ Years

It can take a while to become a Physical Therapist, let’s be honest.

First, you’ll need a Bachelor’s degree, which can take around four years.

Then, you’ll need a Masters’s degree, which can take another two years.

Finally, you must obtain a Doctorate in order to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy.

All in all, this whole journey can take anywhere from 4-8 years.

The training may be a long ride, but the job is one that you won’t be sad you worked so hard for.

Popular Degree Programs


Job Outlook

As of 2019, the outlook for Physical Therapists looks to be growing around 22 percent in the next ten years.

This is much faster than many other occupations in the same field.

There are a few reasons why Physical Therapists are more need than ever before.

First of all, the baby boomer generation is aging, this generation has the highest population of all generations.

Also, they are more active than in previous generations.

This means more and more people will need physical therapy.

Another reason why jobs as a Physical Therapist are on the rise is due to the prevalence of diseases like Diabetes and obesity.

Employment Growth Projection: 22%

247,700
2018
301,900
2028

That's a higher than average projected growth of 54,200 jobs.

Physical Therapist: Interest Over Time


Should You Become a Physical Therapist?

Overall Satisfaction

Overall Satisfaction: High

Many Physical Therapists are very satisfied with their careers.

It has even been ranked number one in Forbes 10 Happiest Jobs in America.

This was also the only health care professionals in the top 5 of the Happiest Jobs.

To say that this means Physical Therapists love what they do would be an understatement.

The salary for a Physical Therapist is appropriate for the amount of work put into education and training.

There are also many ways to gain promotions and raises in this profession.

The chance to help others and change their lives is also another reason why many Physical Therapists love their jobs.

Average Salary

Average Salary: High

The average salary for a Physical Therapist is around $86,000 a year.

Some Physical Therapists just starting out in the career will likely see around $80,000 a year.

When gaining education and certifications, it is possible to make nearly $95,000 a year as a Physical Therapist.

If you are looking to make more money as a Physical Therapist, there are a couple of ways to go about that.

You can become certification and specialized, which will give you more job opportunities.

Or, you can obtain a medical or doctorate degree.

Those that have an M.D. or a Ph.D. will make over $100,000 a year.

Job Growth Outlook

Job Growth Outlook: High

The job growth outlook for a Physical Therapist is exceptional in the next ten years.

There is a high demand for Physical Therapists in the workforce.

The need for Physical Therapists is projected to remain strong in the foreseeable future due to the aging of the baby boomer population and the occurrence of disease.

The demand for Physical Therapists may vary by geographical region, but in most of the United States, there is a high necessity for this career.

Education Duration

Education Duration: 4+ Years

The time that it takes you to finish your education and become a Physical Therapist can vary, depending on how much education you want to receive.

Some Physical Therapists decide that they want to gain a Bachelors’s degree, which can take around four years.

Others want to gain a Masters’s degree, which can prolong graduation for another two years.

There are also some Physical Therapists who want to become doctors, so they obtain an M.D. or Ph.D.

This can take another two to four years, depending on the program.

Though it may seem like a lengthy education period, it will be worth it as the career is in high demand and rewarding.

Personal Skills Needed

Personal Skills Needed

It is important to have the right mindset and personality if you want to become a Physical Therapist.

These skills include:

  • Compassion, you’ll be working closely with people who have been injured.
  • Detail-oriented, every patient will have a different diagnosis and treatment plan, this means you’ll need to be organized and keep everything straight.
  • Physical fitness, the job can be very physically demanding, so you will want to ensure that your body can handle it.
  • Time management skills, since you’ll have multiple duties, understanding the concept of time will help.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How much does a Physical Therapist make?

On average in the United States, a Physical Therapist can make nearly $87,000 a year.

Physical Therapists who are just starting out in the career, and don’t have the experience can usually start out around $80,000 a year.

When you gain more knowledge, spend time in the trenches, and learn the ropes of the career, you can expect to make over $100,000 a year.

Q. How to become a Physical Therapist?

The first thing that you need to do when you decide to become a Physical Therapist is to find programs near you that are accredited.

Once you do that, enroll and begin your education.

Now, this may take a while, but it is worth it in the end.

After you finish the program, which should take around four years and earn you a Bachelors’s degree, you now must go on to earn your Masters.

This can take another two years, but after that, you can begin your training toward a doctorate.

Once you become licensed and add some certifications, you will be an incredible Physical Therapist!

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

The road to becoming a Physical Therapist can be long and arduous.

However, it is worth it as the career is one of the most satisfactory in the United States according to Forbes.

The typical Physical Therapist must earn a four-year Bachelors’s degree and then go on to earn a Masters, which takes another two years.

Then, you can earn your doctorate, which can take another 2-4 years depending on the residency program that you enroll in.

Q. What does a Physical Therapist do?

A Physical Therapist has an important job.

They are the ones who help injured and disabled people learn how to move their bodies again.

This can be done by physically manipulating the bones, muscles, and tissues of a person’s body.

Also, a Physical Therapist must come up with a plan for every patient.

This means that they work closely with each patient to understand their body, what is going on with the injury, how to alleviate the pain and get the patient back to fully functioning.

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

If you decide to enroll in a public university program, you can expect to pay around $75,000 for your Bachelor’s degree.

Those that go to private universities can expect to pay over $150,000 for tuition.

Masters and Doctoral degrees can cost anywhere from another $50,000 to $100,000 respectively.


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