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.

Should I Become 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; physical therapy assistants are often required to lift or move patients.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associate's degree in physical therapy assisting
Licensure/Certification All but one state (Hawaii) requires physical therapy assistants to obtain state licensure or certification
Experience Entry level; no experience necessary
Key Skills Empathy and interest in people, ability to organize, manual dexterity and strength to work with patients, strong verbal and written communication skills
Salary $54,330 mean annual wage as of May 2014

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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 2012, CAPTE reported that there were around 300 accredited physical therapy associate's degree 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

Most states require licensure or certification for physical therapy assistants. Eligibility varies by state; however, physical therapy regulatory boards typically require completion of an approved degree program and passing scores on 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 or licensure.

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 physical, occupational and speech therapists' offices as well as hospitals in 2012. Nursing homes, physicians' offices 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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