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How to Become a Physical Therapist

By Oluwadamilola Osisanya

Published:

Do you have a passion for helping others regain their strength and mobility? Are you intrigued by the wonders of human anatomy and the art of healing? If so, embarking on the path of becoming a physical therapist might just be your calling!

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll embark on a journey together to unravel the secrets of how to become a physical therapist. From the educational prerequisites that will serve as the foundation of your expertise to the diverse skillset you’ll need to master, and the invaluable advice to flourish in this rewarding profession – we’ll explore every avenue.

Career Summary

Physical Therapist Salary

Physical Therapist Salary

When considering a career path, one of the critical factors that often comes to mind is the potential salary.

Here are the key salary figures according to data from Glassdoor:

  • Entry Salary (US$66k)
  • Median Salary (US$88k)
  • Executive Salary (US$104k)

The median salary for a physical therapist is significantly above the general average salary across the United States, which was reported to be $61,900 in 2022.

Physical Therapist Job Description

A physical therapist is a licensed healthcare professional who helps patients reduce pain, restore mobility, and maintain overall physical function often affected by injuries, disabilities, illnesses, or age-related conditions. They utilize various therapeutic interventions, such as manual therapy, exercise prescription, and patient education, to develop individualized treatment plans.

These professionals not only focus on treating existing issues but also work preventively to avoid the occurrence of injuries or disabilities. They play a critical role in rehabilitation, working with patients in diverse settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, private practices, and home health agencies.

Physical Therapist Career Progression

Physical therapy is a field that offers multiple avenues for career progression.

Here’s a generalized progression path:

  • Entry-Level Physical Therapist: Upon graduation and successful licensure, you can start working as a licensed physical therapist. You will assess patient conditions, develop treatment plans, and guide patients through exercises and treatments.
  • Specialized Physical Therapist: With experience, physical therapists often specialize in specific areas, such as sports therapy, pediatric therapy, geriatric therapy, or neurological rehabilitation. This may require additional certifications or continuing education.
  • Senior Physical Therapist: Once you’ve gained several years of experience, you may advance to a senior position. As a senior physical therapist, you typically take on more complex cases, mentor junior staff, and assist in administrative tasks or research projects.
  • Physical Therapy Consultant: With your wealth of experience and knowledge, You may advance into a consulting role. Your role will be to advise healthcare organizations on best practices, policy development, and implementation of physical therapy services. You may also work with educational institutions to develop curricula or with corporations to establish workplace ergonomics programs.
Physical Therapist Career Progression

Pros:

  • Opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives.
  • Flexible work environment.
  • High job security and demand.
  • Provides room for continuous learning and improvement.
  • Great deal of autonomy.

Cons:

  • High level of emotional stress.
  • Working long hours.
  • Dealing with difficult patients.
  • May involve lots of time-consuming paperwork.
  • Potential for burnout due to high physical demands.

Useful Skills to Have as a Physical Therapist

  • Anatomy and Physiology Knowledge
  • Mastery of Physiotherapy Techniques
  • Good Communication Skills
  • Knowledge of Safety and Emergency Procedures
  • Excellent Interpersonal Skills

Popular Physical Therapist Specialties

  • Orthopedic Physical Therapy
  • Geriatric Physical Therapy
  • Pediatric Physical Therapy
  • Neurological Physical Therapy
  • Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy
  • Sports Physical Therapy

How to become a Physical Therapist

Physical Therapist 5 Steps to Career

When it comes to shaping a successful career as a Physical Therapist, a combination of determination, passion, and a commitment to learning is essential. Education and practical experience form the backbone of this transformative profession, equipping aspiring physical therapists with the knowledge and skills to make a meaningful impact in the lives of their patients.

Education

At the heart of the journey to becoming a physical therapist lies the pursuit of education. Acquiring the right educational background is not just a prerequisite but a crucial stepping stone toward your dream career in physical therapy.

Do I need a degree to become a Physical Therapist?

Yes, you do need a degree to become a physical therapist. In the United States, all physical therapists must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) accredited program.

Before you can enter a DPT program, you’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree. While you can choose your major, certain prerequisite courses, such as anatomy, physiology, and biology, are typically required.

After earning the DPT degree, you must also pass a state licensing exam to practice as a physical therapist.

Why is it important to get a degree in Physical Therapy?

Getting a degree in Physical Therapy is crucial for several reasons:

  • Professional Licensure: To become a practicing physical therapist, it’s required in most countries, including the United States and Canada, to obtain a professional license. This license shows that you have met certain standards of professional competence. To get this license, you typically must graduate from an accredited physical therapy program, which will provide you with the necessary theoretical and practical knowledge.
  • Comprehensive Knowledge: Physical therapy involves the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide variety of conditions that affect the musculoskeletal, circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems. A degree in physical therapy provides a comprehensive understanding of these systems and how to treat conditions that affect them.
  • Clinical Experience: Most physical therapy programs include a significant amount of clinical education, during which you will gain hands-on experience treating patients under the supervision of licensed professionals. This practical experience is crucial for developing the skills you’ll need in your future career.
  • Job Opportunities: A degree in physical therapy can open up a wide range of job opportunities in hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centers, schools, sports, and fitness facilities, research institutions, and more. Some physical therapists even choose to open their private practices.
  • Specialization: A degree in physical therapy also allows you to further specialize in areas like sports medicine, orthopedics, neurology, pediatrics, geriatrics, cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation, and more. Advanced education and certification in these areas can lead to even more job opportunities.

How long does it take to get a degree in Physical Therapy?

The time it takes to obtain a degree in Physical Therapy can vary depending on the specific program. Still, generally, it’s a multi-year commitment involving undergraduate and graduate study.

In the United States, it typically involves:

  • Bachelor’s Degree: This usually takes about four years to complete. While this degree doesn’t need to be in a specific field, many prospective physical therapists major in biology, kinesiology, or exercise science, as these can provide helpful foundations for physical therapy.
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT): After completing an undergraduate degree, students must complete a DPT program, which typically takes three years. Some programs may offer a “3+3” accelerated option where students spend three years on undergraduate coursework and three years on the DPT, shaving a year off the traditional path.

So, in total, in the US, you’re generally looking at a commitment of at least seven years (four years for a bachelor’s degree + three years for a DPT) to become a physical therapist. Some people may take longer if they work part-time, take a gap year, or choose to complete a residency or other additional training.

How much does it cost to study Physical Therapy at university?

The cost of studying Physical Therapy at university can significantly vary depending on various factors.

In the United States, the average undergraduate tuition is $9,653 for state residents and $31,971 for out-of-state students, while the average graduate tuition & fees are $11,518 for state residents and $24,451 for out-of-state students.

These are rough averages, and the actual costs can be higher or lower. Additionally, these numbers don’t consider other costs like housing, books, insurance, and other living expenses.

Various financial aid options are available to help offset these costs, including scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and student loans.

Can I become a Physical Therapist through online education?

You can complete portions of the education required to become a physical therapist online but not the entire program.

Here’s why:

  • Undergraduate Degree: Many schools offer online bachelor’s degree programs, which can serve as your prerequisite for a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. Online programs allow you to complete coursework remotely. Still, you’ll need to ensure you meet all prerequisite courses required for physical therapy school.
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program: DPT programs are generally unavailable entirely online due to the hands-on clinical nature of physical therapy education. These programs often involve significant lab work, hands-on practice, and clinical rotations, which are not conducive to an online format.

However, hybrid DPT programs combine online coursework, in-person lab work, and clinical rotations. In these programs, you might complete some of your coursework online but also have to attend in-person sessions for certain program components.

After completing your DPT, you’ll also need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to become licensed to practice as a physical therapist. This examination cannot be taken online.

What are some web resources to learn skills to become a Physical Therapist?

Below are some resources specifically geared toward physical therapy. However, remember that these resources are meant to supplement, not replace, formal education and training from an accredited institution.

  • APTA Learning Center: The American Physical Therapy Association offers an online learning center with various courses and webinars, many of which are geared towards practicing physical therapists but can also provide valuable knowledge for students.
  • MedBridge: This subscription-based platform offers online continuing education courses for physical therapists. While many of the courses are designed for existing practitioners, they can also provide valuable knowledge for those studying to become physical therapists.
  • PTCourses.com: This website offers online continuing education for physical therapists and physical therapist assistants. The courses may provide useful supplemental learning while you’re pursuing your degree.
  • PhysicalTherapy.com: This site offers online continuing education specifically for physical therapists. Again, while these courses are primarily intended for those already in practice, they may provide useful learning opportunities for students.
  • Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy (JOSPT): This professional journal includes much research and knowledge on orthopedic and sports physical therapy. Accessing such journals can help you stay updated with the latest research and advancements in the field.
  • Physiopedia: This is like a Wikipedia for physical therapists. It’s a great free resource for information about conditions, treatment techniques, and more.

Practical Experience

Practical experience forms an integral part of the learning journey for aspiring physical therapists. Clinical experience imparts real-world skills and offers an invaluable opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge in real-life settings.

What are internship opportunities for a Physical Therapist?

Internship opportunities for aspiring physical therapists are typically incorporated into the curriculum of the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program as clinical rotations or clinical practicums. These internships are a crucial part of your education, providing you with hands-on experience under the supervision of licensed physical therapists.

During these clinical rotations, you may have the opportunity to gain experience in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centers, schools, home health care, and sports and fitness centers.

Your DPT program usually arranges these internships or clinical rotations as a graduation requirement. After completing your DPT program and passing your licensing exam, you may also look for residencies or fellowships, which are post-graduate opportunities that allow you to specialize further in specific areas of physical therapy.

What Skills will I learn as a Physical Therapist?

As a physical therapist, you’ll acquire many skills related to human movement, injury prevention, and recovery. These skills can be both technical and interpersonal in nature.

Here are some of the key skills you can expect to learn:

  • Patient Assessment: You’ll learn how to comprehensively evaluate a patient’s physical condition and capabilities. This includes taking a patient’s medical history, conducting physical examinations, and interpreting diagnostic tests.
  • Treatment Planning: Based on your assessment, you’ll learn how to develop individualized treatment plans to help patients meet their specific rehabilitation goals.
  • Therapeutic Techniques: You’ll acquire hands-on skills in various therapeutic techniques, such as manual therapy, therapeutic exercise, electrotherapy, and hydrotherapy.
  • Knowledge of Human Anatomy and Physiology: You’ll gain a deep understanding of the human body’s structure and functions, which is crucial for understanding injuries and designing effective treatment plans.
  • Education and Advising: You’ll learn how to educate patients about their conditions and advise them on strategies to manage their health, such as exercise at home or lifestyle modifications.
  • Interpersonal and Communication Skills: As a physical therapist, you’ll work closely with patients, often during challenging periods of their lives. You must communicate effectively, provide emotional support, and build trusting relationships.
  • Coordination and Balance: You’ll learn exercises and techniques to help patients improve their coordination and balance, which are critical for everyday tasks and preventing falls.
  • Knowledge of Pathology and Disease Processes: Understanding how diseases and injuries affect the body will help you create effective rehabilitation strategies.
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Each patient is unique, and their treatment plan must be tailored to their specific needs. You’ll need critical thinking to adapt and adjust treatments as needed.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists often enjoy a relatively balanced work-life situation, but like any profession, it can vary depending on individual circumstances, work setting, and personal preferences.

Physical therapists typically work standard business hours, which allows for a reasonable work-life balance. Some may work evenings or weekends to accommodate their patients’ schedules, but these hours are often planned and predictable.

Physical therapists working in hospitals or nursing homes may have more irregular hours. The physical nature of the work can be demanding, but it can also be rewarding and fulfilling, which can contribute to a positive work-life balance.

What’s the Career Outlook for Physical Therapists?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 17% from 2021 to 2031, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Demand for physical therapy is expected to come from aging baby boomers, who stay active later in life and are susceptible to health conditions, such as strokes and mobility-related injuries, that may require physical therapy. In addition, physical therapists will be needed to treat people with mobility issues stemming from chronic conditions, such as diabetes or obesity.

Physical Therapist Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists have a wide range of job opportunities available to them. This is mainly because physical therapy can be beneficial in many settings for various age groups and health conditions.

Here are some of the job opportunities for physical therapists:

  • Hospitals: Many hospitals employ physical therapists to help patients recover from surgeries, accidents, or conditions that affect their physical abilities. Physical therapists work alongside doctors and other healthcare professionals to devise and execute treatment plans.
  • Private Practice: Many physical therapists operate their private practices. They might see patients who require assistance with pain management, mobility issues, and injury recovery, among other things.
  • Sports Physical Therapy: In sports and fitness centers, physical therapists help athletes recover from injuries and help individuals maintain fitness, and prevent injuries.
  • Pediatric Physical Therapy: Physical therapists may work in pediatric centers or schools to help children who have developmental disorders, physical disabilities, or injuries.
  • Geriatric Physical Therapy: As the population ages, there is an increasing need for physical therapists specializing in helping seniors maintain their independence and quality of life.
  • Research: Some physical therapists are involved in research, helping to develop new techniques and equipment to improve patient care.
  • Teaching: A physical therapist with enough experience and qualifications might choose a teaching career or instruct new generations of physical therapists at universities and colleges.
  • Corporate Settings: Some corporations hire physical therapists to provide care to their employees, for injury prevention and treatment and to improve overall health and wellness.
  • Occupational Health: Working in factories or large businesses to help implement safety programs, treat work-related injuries, and assist in return-to-work programs.

What Type of Companies Hire a Physical Therapist?

A variety of organizations across multiple sectors employ physical therapists.

The following types of companies and organizations typically hire physical therapists:

  • Healthcare Institutions: This includes hospitals, clinics, and specialized medical centers (e.g., cancer centers, orthopedic centers, etc.). They employ physical therapists to work in inpatient and outpatient settings.
  • Rehabilitation Centers: These include general rehab centers for patients recovering from various illnesses and surgeries, as well as specialized centers for conditions like stroke, spinal cord injury, and traumatic brain injury.
  • Sports Clubs: Many sports clubs, teams, and organizations hire physical therapists to work with their athletes. Physical therapists who specialize in sports therapy play a crucial role in the overall health and performance of athletes.
  • Nursing Homes/Assisted Living Facilities: In these settings, physical therapists help elderly residents maintain or improve their mobility and manage chronic conditions.
  • Home Health Agencies: These agencies send physical therapists to patients’ homes to provide therapy services.
  • Insurance Companies: Some insurance companies hire physical therapists as consultants or case managers to review treatment plans and ensure appropriate care is being provided.
  • Government and Military: The Department of Veterans Affairs, military hospitals and bases, and other government agencies often employ physical therapists to care for service members, veterans, and other government employees.

Should I become a Physical Therapist?

Deciding to become a physical therapist is undoubtedly a significant choice that demands careful thought and consideration. Rushing into this decision is unnecessary; take the time to make the best choice for your future.

Assessing your interests, strengths, and skills is crucial before embarking on the journey to becoming a physical therapist. This profession requires a genuine passion for helping others regain mobility and independence and understanding the human body and its mechanics.

Take a step back and reflect on whether these qualities align with your attributes and if you feel a true calling to make a positive impact through healing and rehabilitation.

Additionally, consider your long-term goals and aspirations. The field of physical therapy offers a diverse range of opportunities, including research and teaching. Take the time to determine the path that aligns with your ambitions.

Becoming a physical therapist is a commitment that requires dedication and perseverance. It is a profession that can improve your life and the lives of others around you. Make the right decision, and enthusiastically embrace the next chapter in your life story.

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Oluwadamilola Osisanya

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