How to Become a Physical Therapist
Join one of the fastest-growing health-care careers to help others get moving again.
One of the hardest parts of recovery after an illness or injury is regaining your ability to move so you can take care of yourself, go back to work, enjoy the outdoors, and return to doing the things you love. When you learn how to become a physical therapist, you improve patients' lives as they recover from physically debilitating trauma. You work closely with them, using your skills and education to literally get them back on their feet.
The path to becoming a physical therapist includes education and field experience. It also requires compassion, stamina, and communication skills. The reward is an open job market—the physical therapist job outlook is excellent, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projecting employment to grow 18% over the next 10 years—combined with attractive pay.
What Is a Physical Therapist?
A physical therapist is an expert in the science of movement and pain management. When you learn how to become a physical therapist, you work with patients to help them regain their ability to move following a stroke, back or neck injury, sprain, or fracture. Using the tools of your trade, like exercise and rehabilitation tools and equipment, strength-training devices, and movement aids like canes, crutches, wheelchairs, and walkers, you help prevent the progression of conditions like arthritis and manage the pain associated with them. You also teach patients how to function with neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy. You may even help get college and professional athletes back in the game.
What Does a Physical Therapist Do?
The first time you meet with a patient, your goal is to develop a personal treatment plan for their unique circumstance:
- A thorough physical examination starts with lots of questions about the patient's medical history and condition. Along with taking their vitals like blood pressure and heart rate, you also test the person's strength, balance, coordination, posture, and the mobility of their joints and muscles.
- Once you’ve completed a physical evaluation, you ask patients about their living and work conditions and what challenges they may face. You want to know all about their daily tasks and physical activities to understand what they’ll need to accomplish by the end of your time together.
- Once you have a treatment plan, therapy can begin. This is where good communication skills come in. When you learn how to become a physical therapist, you study how to educate your patients. This includes teaching exercises, demonstrating new ways to perform home and work tasks, and checking on patients' progress.
- Lastly, you'll need to make sure the referring physician and other health-care professionals and caretakers know your patient's diagnosis and treatment plan.
As a physical therapist, skills such as detail orientation, compassion, dexterity, physical stamina, resourcefulness, and time-management skills will also be crucial.
Read more about typical, on-the-job physical therapist responsibilities in this physical therapist job description from Monster.
Where Do Physical Therapists Work?
About one-quarter of all physical therapists work in a clinic or hospital. Some PTs work in offices with other physical, occupational, and speech therapists. But a physical therapist's work environment doesn't have to be in an office. You may work with patients in their homes or in nursing facilities. Or you may even find yourself in locker rooms and on the sidelines, helping athletes who get injured. Most PTs have normal work hours but may work evenings and weekends to accommodate patients' schedules.
How to Become a Physical Therapist
To become a physical therapist, you'll need to muscle through a few years of education, practical experience, and licensing. There are a couple paths you can choose.
Physical Therapist Education Requirements
Most physical therapists have a bachelor’s degree that includes courses such as anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and physiology. Examples of college majors leading to a physical therapist career include exercise science, kinesiology, biology, and health science.
The next step is to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a school accredited by theCommission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Most DPT programs require candidates to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).
Physical Therapist Residency
After graduating with a diploma from a DPT program, you'll do a clinical residency to get hands-on experience in a hospital, clinic, or other health-care facility. Residencies typically last about one year.
Physical Therapist Licensing
All states require physical therapists to be licensed by passing the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. There may be additional requirements in the state where you want to work, such as a law exam and a criminal background check. Each state sets its own schedule for how often you must renew your license and what continuing education classes you'll need to renew.
Physical Therapist Specialty Fellowships
After you've completed a residency program and passed a license exam, you may choose to specialize in an advanced clinical area by doing a fellowship. Fellowships are available in critical care, neonatology, orthopedic manual physical therapy, and more. The American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education has directories of physical therapist residency and fellowship programs.
Physical Therapist Board Certification
While it's not mandatory, you can also become a board-certified physical therapy specialist. You can choose the area you'd like to specialize in from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Popular specializations include orthopedics, sports, and geriatrics. You will need to complete 2,000 hours of clinical practice in your area of choice and then pass an exam. Board certification is the gold standard for physical therapy specialists and can increase your chances for employment and advancement.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Physical Therapist?
It takes about eight years to become a physical therapist, 10 if you specialize. An undergraduate degree usually takes four years while the DPT program takes three. However, some programs allow students to begin their PT education as freshmen, taking classes for six years and graduating with both a bachelor's degree and a DPT. Residency then takes another year.
How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?
Monster data shows the median physical therapist salary is $37.34 per hour. It can range from $21.54 to more than $44 per hour. The highest physical therapist salaries are in nursing and residential care facilities, followed by home health-care services, and then hospitals, according to the BLS.
You can look up the average salary for physical therapists in your location by using the Monster Salary Guide.
How to Find Physical Therapist Jobs
Physical therapist jobs are projected to be plentiful for years to come as you need to get your physical therapist resume into shape to put your best foot forward in your job search. Once you’ve knocked your resume and cover letter out of the park, take a look at the physical therapist jobs on Monster.
The BLS has identified the following as the top five states and areas with the highest physical therapist employment levels:
These are the top five areas:
Make a Move Toward Your Physical Therapy Career
Learning how to become a physical therapist is your first step toward a great career with outstanding room for growth and income. Ready to make get a move on? Get the attention of recruiters, hospitals, and other health-care employers by uploading you resume for free on Monster.