Certified Physical Therapist Education Requirements and Career Info

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a certified 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.

Though once you could become a certified physical therapist with just a master's degree, today you must earn a doctorate though an accredited program. In the foreseeable future, the field is expected to increase at a much faster rate than the average of all occupations.

Essential Information

Physical therapy is the treatment of patients with bodily movement and function limitations caused by injuries, diseases, aging and other factors. Certified physical therapists (PTs) work with patients by conducting rehabilitation therapies, prevention exercises and intervention methods. A doctoral degree is required to become a physical therapist. Licensing is mandatory in all US states.

Required Education Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT)
Licensing Mandatory in all states; PTs must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 34%
Median Salary (2015)* $84,020

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Certified Physical Therapist Job Description

Certified physical therapists work with patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly to treat injuries and other physical issues that prevent patients from moving and performing physical activity to their full potential. Physical therapists assess each patient's individual needs and develop a treatment regimen designed to reduce pain, repair injuries and promote healthier, more comfortable lifestyles. Additionally, physical therapists record patients' progress, establish goals, and work with family in establishing therapy exercises to do at home.

Treatments offered can include therapeutic exercises and strength training, electrotherapy, massage and using other assistive equipment, including inversion tables, electric muscle testers and reflex hammers. Many common problems physical therapists treat include scoliosis, arthritis, sports injuries, amputations, burns and other conditions such as cerebral palsy.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 209,690 physical therapists were employed in 2015. Most physical therapists worked in offices classifed by the BLS as 'other health practitioners', earning a median salary of $83,800 a year. The BLS predicts employment in the field will grow by 34% between 2014 and 2024.

Education Requirements

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), new students aspiring to become physical therapists must enroll in a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. In the past, master's and even bachelor's degree programs were accredited by APTA, and some experienced physical therapists with these lower-level degrees may be grandfathered in for licensure. However, as of 2002, bachelor's-level programs were totally phased out. As of 2015, APTA reported that 96% of physical therapy programs were now DPT programs, with the remaining few master's degree programs scheduled to convert into DPT programs.

The DPT is a 3-year program that combines classroom lectures, lab work and clinical experience. Topics covered in the curriculum include anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, pharmacology, biomechanics and specific human systems, such as the musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary systems.

After earning a DPT, candidates must pass an exam to gain licensure. Certain states may have additional licensing requirements, such as a specified amount of practical experience; this varies from state to state.

The APTA dictates that you must earn a DPT from an accredited program in order to become a physical therapist. Though all states require PTs to be licensed, the specific requirements may vary from state to state. However, all states require that PTs pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical therapy.

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