Physical Therapist: Education Overview & Career Info

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

Physical therapists provide unique rehabilitation treatment tailored each patient. A college degree, preferably in a related field, completion of a graduate program and passing a licensing exam is mandatory to work in this field. Doctoral degree programs in physical therapy allow for classroom education and hands-on training through internships.

Essential Information

Physical therapists treat patients suffering from conditions or injuries that limit their physical abilities. These professionals must graduate from an accredited doctoral program. These programs involve a combination of clinical experience and academic classes. Physical therapists must meet certain state requirements for licensure as well. Physical therapists play an important role in the healthcare system and have an excellent job outlook.

Required Education Doctor of Physical Therapy
Additional Requirements State license
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 34%
Annual Median Salary (2015)* $84,020

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Education Overview for Physical Therapists

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapists treat patients with conditions or injuries that prevent them from performing functional activities. These professionals examine a patients' medical history, administer tests that measure functional abilities and prescribe treatment programs. Prescribed rehabilitation programs may include exercises to improve flexibility, strength or endurance.

Undergraduate Education

Prospective physical therapists may choose to major in a science-related field, such as biology, anatomy and physiology. Some schools offer a pre-physical therapy major that includes courses in science and health-related topics, such as exercise physiology, physical education methods and biology principles. The BLS indicates that because admission to a physical therapy program often calls for volunteer experience, undergraduate students might pursue opportunities in physical therapy clinics or offices.

Graduate Education

Students may consider graduate programs that are approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). According to CAPTE, graduating from an accredited program ensures that an individual will be prepared for the practice and makes them eligible for a state-licensing exam. Both master's and doctoral degree programs in physical therapy are available, but doctoral programs are more common, per the BLS.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs include coursework and experience-based learning that teaches diagnostic and treatment principles. These curricula begin with foundational coursework and lab sessions that cover the major systems of the body, such as anatomy, neurology and orthopedics. Additional courses cover topics specific to physical therapists, including movement science and therapeutic applications.

Throughout a DPT program, students undergo clinical rotations and work under the supervision of licensed physical therapists. These clinical internships allow students to gain experience practicing procedures and diagnosing patients. Clinical experiences take place in a variety of healthcare settings, including rehabilitation and acute care clinics. Some DPT curricula also require professional development seminars that cover issues like business management and ethics.

Licensing Information

The BLS reports that all states have licensure requirements for physical therapists. Most states require individuals to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, which was developed by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. This exam covers skills needed for physical therapy and the safe practice of those skills. Additional requirements and continuing education standards may vary by state.

Employment and Salary Information

According to the BLS, job opportunities for physical therapists were expected to grow 34% between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than average for all occupations. The best job prospects should be in rural areas and in settings that provide rehabilitative services to elderly patients recovering from injuries, strokes and other medical conditions. As of 2015, physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $84,020, per BLS.

Physical therapists gather their training through in-class instruction and by working as an apprentice to a practicing physical therapist. After finishing college and a doctoral degree program, you'll be on your way to becoming a psychical therapist. The final step in the process is to obtain licensure.


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