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How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Learn how to become a physical therapist assistant. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for beginning a career in this field.

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Do I Want to Be a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Physical therapist assistants work under the supervision of licensed physical therapists, providing rehabilitative services to clients who have lost mobility due to trauma or medical conditions. These assistants may train clients to increase function through exercise, perform therapeutic procedures and monitor patient development. This profession may be physically demanding, with often being required to lift or move patients.

Job Requirements

Entering this career typically entails formal education and state licensure. Most states require an associate's degree in physical therapy assisting and a license or certification. The following steps outline the important aspects of entering this profession.

Step 1: Find an Accredited Education Program

Every would-be licensed physical therapy assistant is required to complete a 2-year degree program that is approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). In May 2011, CAPTE reported that there were 276 accredited physical therapy programs in the U.S. Only graduates of such programs qualify for mandatory state licensure. Prospective students may want to contact potential schools for their accreditation information and their graduate employment statistics.

Step 2: Earn an Associate's Degree

Physical therapy assistant associate's degree programs tend to last five semesters and focus on clinical physical therapy education; curricula involve mostly classroom and laboratory instruction. Courses may include anatomy, kinesiology, medical terminology, physical therapy assistance techniques, therapy exercises and pathology. Students are also required to complete around 16 weeks of clinical practicums.

Step 3: Become Licensed

All states except Colorado and Hawaii require physical therapy assistants to obtain state licensure or certification. Eligibility varies by state; however, physical therapy regulatory boards typically require completion of an approved degree program and the National Physical Therapy Exam or a state-administered exam. Physical therapy assistants are also generally required to earn continuing education credits regularly to maintain certification.

Step 4: Seek Employment

Physical therapy assistants may find employment in a wide range of settings. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most were employed by physicians' offices and hospitals in 2008. Nursing homes, outpatient facilities and home healthcare services also employed physical therapy assistants. Beginning assistants may also look for employment in acute hospitals, orthopedic clinics and skilled nursing units, which are expected to offer increased job opportunities due to the growing elderly population.

Step 5: Pursue a Specialty

While not mandatory, physical therapy assistants may choose to specialize in a specific clinical field. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) certifies physical therapist specialists in seven areas, including aquatic, pediatric, cardiovascular and neuromuscular physical therapy. To be eligible for specialty certification, candidates must be APTA members with five years of work experience and significant continuing education credits. They must also submit proof of contributions to the profession and letters of reference.

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