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How to Become a Physical Therapist

In this lesson, you'll learn how to become a physical therapist, including required education and what type of career skills and license you'll need to enter the field. View article »

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  • 00:01 Essential Information
  • 1:23 Education Requirements
  • 2:53 Licensing Requirements
  • 3:16 Residencies
  • 3:49 Certifications

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Video Transcript

Physical Therapists

Physical therapists apply exercise and rehabilitation techniques to treat injuries or abnormalities that limit people's ability to move. Along with reducing pain and increasing mobility, physical therapists work with patients to prevent disability through fitness and healthy living. Their work might be physically demanding because they stand for long periods and move or lift patients, so strength and stamina are important in the field.

Degree Level Doctorate
Degree Field Physical therapy
Licensure and Certification All states require licensure for physical therapists; voluntary specialty certifications are available
Key Skills Attention to detail for observing ailments and evaluating treatments; manual dexterity for providing hands-on therapy; interpersonal skills for working closely with patients; knowledge of accounting and/or medical software like Clinicient Insight, TheraWriter PT, and MediGraph; experience with physical therapy tools, such as balance beams, muscle testing equipment, physical therapy tables and reflex hammers; physical strength and stamina
Job Outlook (2014-2024) 34% increase
Annual Median Salary (May 2015) $84,020

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), O*Net OnLine

Education Requirements

All physical therapists must complete a doctoral physical therapy degree program (DPT) accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). DPT programs generally take three years to complete. Along with supervised clinical experience, curricula include classroom and lab instruction in patient examination and evaluation, prosthetics and orthotics, medical screening, and diagnostics.

A bachelors' degree is usually required for admission to a DPT program; however, some schools offer combined undergraduate and doctoral degree programs. Undergraduate prerequisites most likely will include courses in biology, human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, and psychology.

Undergraduate students may benefit from volunteering at the physical therapy units of hospitals or clinics. Volunteer opportunities allow students to observe the physical therapy process and gain training under licensed professionals. Additionally, first-hand experience in multiple physical therapy environments, like inpatient, outpatient, and rehabilitative settings, is often required for admission into doctoral programs.

Clinical experience helps aspiring physical therapists acquire interpersonal skills and prepare for careers in which they interact with patients on a daily basis. They should also provide exposure to different clinical specialties, like neurorehabilitation and children's physical therapy.

Licensing

All physical therapists must be licensed by the states in which they practice. After completing accredited physical therapy programs, candidates in all states and U.S. territories must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. This exam assesses an applicant's competency in physical therapy theory, practice, and consultation.

Residencies

After graduating from their DPT programs, some physical therapists complete residencies. According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), residency programs typically include 1,500 hours of clinical physical therapy practice within 9-36 months. These programs allow residents to examine and diagnose patients under the supervision of licensed physical therapists while training in a specialty. Residents may also contribute to medical research, educate patients on illness prevention, and supervise other health care professionals.

Certifications

A physical therapist seeking advancement in the field may choose to obtain certification through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS), which offers eight different designations.

Specialties include:

  • orthopedics
  • Sports
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Cardiovascular
  • Pulmonary

Candidates for ABPTS certification must be licensed physical therapists with at least 2,000 hours of practice in their chosen specialties. Applicants then need to pass a 200-question specialist certification exam, which measures the knowledge and skills of physical therapists in relation to their specialties.

Physical therapists apply exercise and rehabilitation techniques to treat injuries or abnormalities that limit people's ability to move. A Doctor of Physical Therapy is required to enter the field. In May 2015, physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $84,020, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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