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How to Become a Doctor of Physical Therapy

Learn how to become a physical therapist. Research the education and career requirements, certification and experience required to start a career as a physical therapist. View article »

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  • 0:00 Should I Become a…
  • 1:00 Career Requirements
  • 1:45 Steps to Be a Physical…

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists help people who are living with physical injuries and illnesses by treating their pain and, in some cases, leading them on the road to recovery. Physical therapists might work with patients who have had surgery, been in an accident, or experienced a sports-related injury, such as a strain or sprain. They also might work with patients who have chronic conditions, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or after-effects of stroke. Duties of a physical therapist include assessing patient conditions, setting up treatment plans, and evaluating patient progress.

Physical therapists generally work on a full-time basis in places like nursing homes, hospitals, or private clinics. Some evening or weekend hours might be required. Physical therapists spend most of their working hours on their feet, and physical strength and stamina are needed. There is a risk of injury, such as back pain.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctorate
Degree Field Physical therapy
Licensure/Certification States require licensure; the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers voluntary certification
Experience Residency available after DPT program
Key Skills Communication, interpersonal, and medical diagnostic skills; attention to detail; compassion; dexterity and physical stamina
Salary $84,020 (2015 median for physical therapists)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

A doctorate of physical therapy (DPT) is needed to work as a physical therapist, and states require that physical therapists be licensed. Additionally, the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers voluntary certification in the field. Following a DPT program, individuals can complete a residency. These professionals should have strong attention to detail, as well as good communication and interpersonal skills. Medical diagnostic skills, compassion, dexterity, and physical stamina are also needed. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists earned a median salary of $84,020.

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Steps to Be a Physical Therapist

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

Students can prepare for a DPT program by earning a bachelor's degree in a science- or exercise-related area. DPT programs typically require that applicants have completed undergraduate courses in physics, biology, anatomy, physiology, and chemistry. Also, because DPT programs usually require that students have a certain grade point average for admission, it's important that individuals perform well in their bachelor's degree program.

Additionally, many DPT programs give preference to applicants who have experience in the field. At the undergraduate level, you might have the opportunity to work with collegiate athletes or volunteer at a physical therapy clinic.

Step 2: Enroll in a Doctor of Physical Therapy Program

A DPT program is 3-year commitment that prepares students to work in the field by providing them with academic coursework and clinical experiences. Courses in a DPT program typically cover basic and clinical sciences, professional development, and healthcare systems management. Examples of courses include neuroscience, movement science, physical modalities, clinical geriatrics, clinical case management, psychosocial adaptation to injury and illness, and physical therapist procedures. Clinical experience allows students to begin working with patients in a professional environment.

Interested students might consider a combined B.S./DPT program. Some colleges and universities offer a combined program that allows students to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy in six years. The bachelor's degree generally is awarded in a field like biology or sports science.

Step 3: Participate in a Residency

Following a DPT program, aspiring physical therapists can complete a residency program that includes both coursework and clinical experiences. A residency can also allow individuals to begin specializing in an area of physical therapy, such as orthopedics or neuroscience.

Step 4: Obtain Licensure

Physical therapists must earn licensure in the state where they intend to work. To become licensed, physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination or a similar state-level exam.

Step 5: Earn Certification

Voluntary certification is available through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) in a number of areas, such as sports, women's health, geriatrics, neurology, and pediatrics. The certification allows experienced physical therapists to demonstrate their knowledge and skills to prospective clients and employers. Candidates for certification must be licensed, and they must have at least 2,000 hours of clinical practice in their specialty area. A quarter of these hours must have been recorded within the previous three years. Additionally, each specialty certification requires that physical therapists pass an exam.

To summarize, aspiring physical therapists need a doctor of physical therapy degree and must obtain licensure in their state.

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