Education Required to Become a Physical Therapist

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a physical therapist. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensing to find out if this is the career for you.

Essential Information

Physical therapists work with patients to help them retrain injured or debilitated muscles by moving, stretching and strengthening various parts of the body. To become a physical therapist, a person must obtain a professional degree, usually a doctorate in physical therapy. College programs in physical therapy are typically a combination of coursework and clinical rotations. Additionally, states require individuals to be licensed to legally work as physical therapists.

Required Education Undergraduate degree in a related field, plus a master's or doctoral degree in physical therapy
Licensing Mandatory; students must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination
Projected Job Growth (2012-2022) 36%*
Median Salary (2013) $81,030*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Education Required for Physical Therapists

Undergraduate Education

Prospective physical therapists have options in areas of study at the undergraduate level. A student may choose to enroll in a major that includes significant science coursework, such as biology, anatomy and physiology. Alternatively, some schools offer a pre-physical therapy major in their health and physical education departments. These curricula may require courses in science and health-related topics, including exercise physiology, physical education methods and personal wellness.

Graduate Education

Physical therapists need a graduate degree. Doctoral programs are in greater supply, but some master's programs are available. These programs have varying requirements for admittance, which may include minimum standards for grade point average, standardized test scores or volunteer hours. Many programs also have prerequisite coursework requirements.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs train students in the procedures of diagnosis and treatment. Coursework covers topics in anatomy and procedures in physical therapy, such as therapeutic applications and exercise. Some DPT programs include integration and assessment courses that allow students to apply the techniques they've learned through simulations.

Clinical clerkships in DPT programs place students in healthcare facilities under the supervision of licensed physical therapists. Students may undergo an introductory practicum where they observe a workplace. Some clerkships may be part-time and integrated with coursework, while more advanced clerkships are full-time. These experiences cover different methods of physical therapy, including rehabilitation and acute care.

Students may consider programs that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). This organization is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation as the only accrediting agency for physical therapy programs. According to the CAPTE, graduating from an accredited program is required to sit for a licensing exam (www.capteonline.org).

Licensing Information

Besides graduating from an accredited program, states typically require a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination as part of the licensing requirements. Many states require a jurisprudence exam that tests individuals on the laws of that state. To remain licensed, continuing education standards may need to be met.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

Jobs for physical therapists were expected to grow 36% from 2012-2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is significantly faster than the national average of 11% for all occupations. The BLS also revealed an annual median salary of $81,030 for physical therapists in 2013.

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