Physical Therapy: Required Education to Be a Physical Therapist

Jan 15, 2020

Becoming a physical therapist requires significant formal education. Learn about the education, job duties, and licensure requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

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Physical Therapist Overview

Degree Level Doctoral degree
Degree Field(s) Physical therapy
License/Certification All states require licensure; specialty certification available; voluntary professional certification also available
Experience Volunteer or observation experience required for program admission
Key Skills Science aptitude; ability to work and communicate with patients
Job Outlook (2018-2028) 22% growth
Mean Annual Salary (2018) $88,880

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

A physical therapist (PT) evaluates, diagnoses, and treats patients with disorders that limit their abilities to move or function normally in daily life. This career might be a good fit for people who have good interpersonal skills and a desire to help others with their physical limitations. Physical therapists could see employment opportunities increase by 22% from 2018-2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This much-faster-than-average job growth is due in large part to an aging population's need for rehabilitative services to manage illness or injury and recuperate from surgery. Job prospects should be best in settings that provide care to elderly patients. Rural locations are also expected to offer favorable employment opportunities. The mean annual salary for physical therapists was $88,880 as of May 2018.

Educational Requirements

Before they are allowed to practice, physical therapists must have earned a graduate degree from accredited academic program in physical therapy. These programs typically culminate in a doctoral degree and take at least three years to complete. To gain admission to a physical therapy program, students typically need to earn a bachelor's degree, complete science prerequisite courses, gain volunteer or observation experience in physical therapy, submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, and maintain an acceptable grade-point average.

Students in physical therapy programs typically study topics like human anatomy, biomechanics, musculoskeletal system, pathology, and neurological dysfunction management. They may also participate in clinical internships and take hands-on clinical courses, which provide training in patient care, screening, assessment, treatment, and intervention.

Licensure Requirements

All PTs must be licensed by their states. While each state has its own requirements, most require that candidates have graduate degrees in physical therapy from an accredited program and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. Some states have additional requirements, such as jurisprudence exams. Also, some states require continuing education to maintain licensure. After obtaining licensure, a new physical therapist can opt to complete a residency. In this setting, the novice physical therapist can work under the supervision of a more experienced licensed physical therapist.

Certification Information

Although board certification is voluntary for physical therapists, earning certification in a clinical specialty could open up opportunities for career advancement. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers certification in nine specialty areas, including cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, and geriatrics. To be eligible for certification, candidates must be licensed and have completed at least 2,000 clinical practice hours in their specialty area. Eligible candidates who pass an exam are awarded specialty certification. Certified specialists must be recertified after ten years.

Advancement Information

In addition to earning specialty certification as a way to advance their careers, PTs can participate in continuing education to stay current on the latest advancements in physical therapy. Professional organizations, such as the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), sponsor national conferences, live classes, and online lessons for practicing PTs. Some PTs go on to open their own private practices, while others opt to perform research or teach.

In summary, a physical therapist needs to earn a graduate degree, typically a doctorate, and state licensure. Voluntary certification and continuing education could lead to advanced opportunities in the field.

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