Imagine helping someone walk again, or giving someone back their quality of life after an injury or illness, or helping a disabled child take their long-awaited first steps. When you become a physical therapist, you can do all that and more—and make great money in the process. Here's what you need to know.
Have you always wanted to work in medicine, but can’t imagine yourself surviving medical school? Consider becoming a physical therapist (PT). You’ll still need to spend three to four post-baccalaureate years in school, and the academics will be challenging—but they won’t be med-school challenging. Also, unlike MDs, you’ll complete your residency as you earn your degree. And your patients can still call you “doctor.”
As a physical therapist, you’ll be part of a medical team that helps patients get well during and after illnesses, manage pain, recover from injuries, and regain their quality of life. Physical therapy is about more than just restoring a patient’s range of movement.
It’s not an easy job, mentally or physically. Some cases will be straightforward, but others will be puzzles you have to solve. You also need to be physically strong to succeed in PT; there will be times you will have to help patients manipulate limbs or support them as they work through a series of exercises. Not all of those patients will be cooperative, or even mobile.
The rewards of this profession, however, are substantial, both monetarily and emotionally. Every day you will help people overcome pain and disability, and you’ll probably get a pretty decent workout in the process. In this guide to how to become a physical therapist, we’ll answer the following questions:
According to the American Physical Therapy Association, PTs are “movement experts who optimize quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education.” That’s a pretty good summary, although it doesn’t reflect the full breadth of what physical therapists do.
When you become a physical therapist, you might help someone learn to move again after a long debilitating illness. You’ll work with patients with disabilities to prevent loss of motor function or keep limbs from atrophying. You’ll help patients in pain manage or reduce it and, in some cases, even cure it. And you’ll give people who have sustained injuries the tools to heal and get back functionality.
You can do all that and more in a variety of settings. PTs work in:
There are many kinds of PTs, and becoming a physical therapist usually means choosing a specialty area like:
If you really want to be a generalist and work with all the body’s systems, consider specializing in pediatrics. As a pediatric physical therapist, you’ll help kids with musculoskeletal and sports injuries, neurological issues, cardiopulmonary abnormalities, physical and behavioral challenges, and conditions like cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis.
To become a physical therapist, you’ll need to earn a graduate degree. More specifically, you’ll need a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) (which replaced the Master of Physical Therapy and Master of Science in Physical Therapy) from a physical therapy program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). You can go straight from your bachelor’s degree program to a doctoral program without having to get a master’s degree in between.
There is no specific undergraduate degree major required by the best DPT programs. Students in graduate school-level physical therapy programs come from a wide variety of majors, including:
All the majors above are solid choices for students who aren’t sure that they want to build a career in PT. If you’re 100 percent sure you want to become a physical therapist, however, look for pre-physical therapy programs. These bachelor’s degree programs are designed just for aspiring physical therapists and have curricula that fulfill the prerequisites for most DPT programs. In addition to core undergrad courses in writing and history, you’ll take classes like:
Every DPT program (you can see a list of all accredited programs here) has its own prerequisites for applicants. That said, most want applicants to have taken at least the following courses at the undergraduate level:
Some programs prefer applicants who have some experience in PT. While you can’t work as a physical therapist until you have your Doctorate of Physical Therapy, you can get some experience in the field by interning or volunteering in a PT practice. Even shadowing a PT for just a few days can help you stand out from the crowd when you’re applying to DPT programs.
Once you get into a DPT program, you’ll take courses like:
In almost all programs, you’ll spend about 20 percent of your time on clinical education and then in a residency. That’s when you’ll get hands-on training and clinical experience working with patients and really learn how to become a physical therapist.
Students who go the traditional route and complete a four-year bachelor’s degree before enrolling in a three-year or even four-year Doctorate of Physical Therapy program will spend about seven years training to become a physical therapist. If that sounds unpleasantly slow to you, there’s an accelerated pathway you should explore: 3+3 DPT programs.
These accelerated programs let students earn a Bachelor of Science (in a discipline like health sciences, physiology, or exercise science) and Doctor of Physical Therapy in six years instead of the usual seven or eight. Drexel University and Boston University both have 3+3 programs. Students pursuing this type of degree apply to both the undergraduate and graduate programs together under an early acceptance program.
Every state in the US requires physical therapists to be licensed to work legally, and licenses must be renewed regularly. States set their own licensing requirements for PTs—some require criminal background checks and letters of recommendation, for example—but all require physical therapists to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). You can find the licensure requirements for each state here, though it’s always a good idea to check in with your state’s licensing board to be sure that you’re looking at the most up-to-date requirements.
Once you have your license, you can begin working as a PT. Additional certifications aren’t required, but as in most professions, they will improve your résumé and broaden your potential practice. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers credentials in the following areas:
There are other certifications for physical therapists offered by other groups—such as the Certificate of Achievement in Pelvic Health Physical Therapy offered by the Academy of Pelvic Health Physical Therapy—but ABPTS certification is the gold standard in PT.
Keep in mind that this is a career that involves life-long learning. You will likely need to fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain your physical therapy licensure or certifications. You will also need to stay up-to-date on the latest research so you can be sure you’re giving your patients the best possible treatments.
The answer to this question depends on experience and location. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median pay for physical therapists is about $87,930 per year. You probably won’t earn that much right out of school, however. Entry-level physical therapists make closer to $60,000 per year. That’s plenty in some parts of the US, barely enough to scrape by in other areas. The good news is that you should make more money as you gain experience. According to US News and World Report, the best-paid physical therapists make over $100,000.
The relatively high pay is one good reason to become a physical therapist. The fact is, though, that many physical therapists are not motivated to join the profession by money.
Jackie Cunningham, PT, CBIS, explained why she loves being a physical therapist on the Special Tree Rehabilitation System website: “How many professions are there that on a daily basis you are thanked immensely not only by your clients but also their family? How many professions allow you to watch someone go from being paralyzed and unable to get out of bed to often moving their body again, walking and regaining their independence?”
That isn’t to say you won’t experience both ups and downs when you become a physical therapist. The pros are undeniable: work-life balance, good pay, personal satisfaction, and job security. The cons aren’t minor—the education required can be expensive, and you need to stay fit to do this job well—but no con can take away the pride and joy you’ll feel when watching the patients you work with improve.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org