Physical Therapist Schooling Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a physical therapist. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensing information to find out if this is the career for you.

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While a doctorate and state licensure are mandatory to practice, following a residency period, physical therapists can opt to specialize in a specific area, such as geriatrics, oncology, women's health, sports or pediatrics.

Essential Information

Physical therapists are licensed, health care professionals who help rehabilitate patients suffering from disabling physical conditions. Along with reducing pain, physical therapists implement various exercises to increase mobility and teach patients how to manage their disorders. They often work in hospitals, health care clinics, fitness centers and nursing homes.

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

Source: * U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Physical Therapist Schooling Requirements

Physical therapists are required to complete physical therapy graduate degree programs approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). They must pursue a doctoral degrees to be eligible for state licensure. In June 2016, the American Physical Therapy Association reported that there were 262 CAPTE-accredited DPT programs either being supported or developed at institutions of higher learning in the United States.

Undergraduate Degree

To gain admission into a physical therapy degree program, applicants are generally required to hold bachelor's degrees. Undergraduate students may benefit from courses in the sciences, such as anatomy, physics, chemistry and biology, which are often prerequisites. Some physical therapy programs also require applicants to have volunteer experience in physical therapy settings.

Master's Degree

Aspiring physical therapists may choose to earn Master of Physical Therapy or Master of Science in Physical Therapy degrees. These degree programs typically take 2-2.5 years to complete and focus on methodology and theory in physical therapy. Instruction takes place in classrooms and laboratories. Courses may include rehabilitation techniques, cardiopulmonary treatment, patient management, neurological physical therapy and research methods. During the final semesters, students typically gain clinical experience under the supervision of licensed physical therapists.

Doctorate

Physical therapists enter the occupation by completing a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, which generally lasts three years. Like master's degree programs, DPT curricula focus on foundational physical therapy instruction through classroom and laboratory settings. Coursework may include electives in specialized fields, such as pediatric physical therapy, orthopaedic rehabilitation or pharmacology. The final year of study is comprised almost entirely of clinical practicums.

Licensure

All physical therapists practicing in the U.S. must be licensed through their state regulatory boards. Requirements vary according to state, but licensure generally entails completion of a CAPTE-accredited degree program and passage of the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). The NPTE assesses competency in fundamentals of the physical therapy practice, such as diagnosis, treatment and consultation. Most states require that physical therapists maintain certification regularly by earning continuing education credits.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported an annual median salary of $84,020 for physical therapists. This agency also predicted much faster than average employment growth of 34% for these professionals from 2014-2024.

Though not required, a physical therapist can move from general practice to clinical specialization. This is accomplished by completing one or more fellowships following residency. The field is replete with possibilities. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists (ABTS) has established a certification and maintenance program for those wanting to specialize.

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