How to Become a Physical Therapist: Salary, Education & Job Description

Jan 04, 2021

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.

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What Is a Doctor of Physical Therapy?

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.

Physical Therapy 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 $89,440 (2019 median for physical therapists)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Doctors of physical therapy often work in hospitals or recovery studios.

To become a physical therapist, you will need a doctorate degree in physical therapy (DPT). Before you can gain acceptance into an accredited DPT program, you'll first need to obtain a bachelor's degree. The bachelor's degree can be in any field, but you'll need to take certain prerequisite courses like biology before you can be eligible to apply for a DPT program. Check with the schools you intend to apply to in order to find out their specific prerequisites.

Next, you'll need to earn a DPT degree. This typically takes three years and consists of both classroom-based and clinical learning. You'll learn things like anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, and also apply this material through an extended clinical experience. Finally, once you graduate, you will need to obtain a physical therapy license. Licensure is controlled by individual states, so you should check with your home state to determine their requirements. Most states require passing an examination and some may require a period of supervised work called a residency. Additionally, the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers voluntary certification in the field.

The skills you'll need to be a successful physical therapist include interpersonal communication, medical diagnostics, attention to detail, compassion, dexterity, and physical stamina. Interpersonal communication and compassion will help you interact with patients. Medical diagnostic skills will be needed to diagnose and develop treatment plans for patients. Attention to detail will be needed to make comprehensive PT plans for patients. Dexterity and physical stamina will be necessary as you work with patients to help them recover.

How Much Physical Therapists Earn

According to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists earned a median salary of $89,440. The BLS also projects that jobs in physical therapy will grow by 18% during the ten year period between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than average for jobs in the United States. Additionally, physical therapist salaries will vary based on geographical location to account for different costs of living in different cities and states. The average salaries of physical therapists in the top five highest paying states are displayed in the table below.

State Mean Annual Salary
Nevada $108,550
Alaska $102,650
California $99,920
New Jersey $99,060
Connecticut $98,780

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Steps to Be a Physical Therapist

Doctors of physical therapy help patients stretch, among other things.

There are five steps required to complete the doctor of physical therapy requirements and become a licensed Dr of physical therapy:

  1. Complete a bachelor's degree
  2. Enroll in a doctor of physical therapy program
  3. Complete a residency
  4. Obtain licensure
  5. Earn certification

Let's take a closer look at each of these steps to become a PT doctor one by one and learn how to get a DPT degree.

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

Is there a doctorate in physical therapy? The answer is yes. 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 become a doctor of physiotherapy 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.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Physical Therapist?

If you want to know how to become a doctor of physiotherapy, odds are you're also curious about how long this process will take. Overall, it will take a minimum of seven years to become a physical therapist. First, you'll need to complete a bachelor's degree, which takes four years. Next, you'll need to complete a doctor of physical therapy program, which typically takes 3 years. If you choose to participate in a residency, this will take one additional year. After obtaining licensure and certification, the total amount of time it takes to become a physical therapist is between seven and just over eight years.

High School Students Interested in Physical Therapy

If you're a high school student who is considering a career in physical therapy, there are a number of things you can do to determine if this career is right for you. First, you should talk to some physical therapists and possibly shadow a physical therapist to get firsthand exposure to the daily tasks of a DPT. Additionally, you can consider applying to a program that combines a bachelor's degree with a DPT in a shorter timeframe if you're concerned about how long to become a physical therapist. For example, Boston University offers a combined BS/DPT degree program that takes six years rather than 7. Study.com offers numerous resources that you can use to learn more about physical therapy if you are a high school student interested in this career.

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

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