How to Become a Physical Therapist

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If you’re considering becoming a physical therapist, you’ve chosen a solid and rewarding career path. Physical therapists are in-demand, they earn a solid salary, and they help people every day.

However, aspiring physical therapists have to go through a number of challenging steps to reach their goal. In this guide, we’ll simplify the process for you! Keep reading for in-depth information on each step, from high school all the way to becoming a working physical therapist.

What is it like to be a physical therapist?

Physical therapists work with injured or ill patients to help them manage pain or improve movement. This may include helping people improve their balance or flexibility, recover from injury or surgery, or remain mobile in old age. It also includes working with people who have disabilities, as well as people who want to achieve certain fitness goals or simply become healthier.

You can expect to work with patients of all ages, even newborns. Physical therapists start by evaluating patients and reviewing their medical history. If physical therapy is appropriate, they create a plan of care to help the patient reach their goals. They then carry out the plan, monitor progress, and adjust the treatment plan if necessary.

Physical therapists practice in a variety of settings. You may work in a hospital or outpatient clinic, or a nursing facility. You can also work in people’s homes, in a school, or in a sports arena or fitness facility. Some physical therapists travel to different clinics, working all over a particular region or even around the country.

What types of physical therapists are there?

Physical therapists may choose to specialize in one or more areas. Adding a specialty certification requires 2,000 hours of experience in the specialty area and additional requirements, such as passing an exam or completing a residency. There are ten specialty areas of physical therapy:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary- Help patients heal from or manage heart and lung conditions, including recovering after heart surgery or heart attacks.
  • Clinical Electrophysiology- Treat conditions related to muscle or nerve damage.
  • Geriatrics- Work with elderly patients to manage conditions like osteoporosis, arthritis, and Parkinson’s.
  • Neurology- Help people with movement problems related to injury or disease of the nervous system.
  • Oncology- Work with patients who are recovering from or undergoing treatment for cancer, including managing weakness and pain.
  • Orthopedics- Treat injuries or conditions related to bone, muscle, joints, tendons, and ligaments. This is the most popular physical therapy specialty.
  • Pediatrics- Help infants, children, and teenagers with conditions such as cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, and autism. May also treat children with wounds, burns, and balance or coordination issues.
  • Sports- Work with athletes who are recovering from injuries.
  • Wound Management- Set to become an area of specialty in 2022, wound management involves treating both deep and superficial wounds, with an emphasis on how various body systems affect one another.
  • Women’s Health- Treat women with pelvic pain, incontinence, and pain related to pregnancy, menopause, recovery from breast cancer surgery, etc. Specialists in this area have a specific understanding of women’s bodies and may also work with female athletes and women who have a variety of conditions or injuries.

How much money do physical therapists earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists earn an average salary of $91,010. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $63,530, while the top 10 percent earn more than $126,780.

Your earnings will vary by your specialty and experience level. You may also earn more or less based on where you work. For instance, therapists in residential care facilities generally make more money than therapists in hospitals.

Location is another factor in your future salary. On average, physical therapists in Nevada and California are the most highly paid. They are closely followed by Alaska, New Jersey, and Connecticut. For example, California’s physical therapists earn an average of $104,500; Florida’s physical therapists make closer to $85,000 annually.

Of course, you also need to consider the cost of living when evaluating salaries by geographic location. When salaries are significantly higher in a certain location, it’s usually because the cost of living is higher there too.

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What is the job outlook for physical therapists?

Overall, employment for physical therapists is expected to grow by 18 percent through the year 2029. The national average growth rate for all careers is four percent, so jobs in this area are growing much faster than average.

Demand for physical therapists is expected to increase due to:

  • An aging population that stays physically active later in life
  • Growing prevalence of conditions such as diabetes and obesity
  • Advances in medical technology that permit survival of a greater number of infants with birth defects, as well as trauma victims, who will likely require physical therapy

This means that physical therapists will continue to be in high demand, making it a solid career choice.

What skills do I need to be a good physical therapist?

To be an effective physical therapist, you’ll need skills such as:

  • Compassion for others
  • Integrity
  • Listening
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Verbal and written communication
  • Strong reading comprehension
  • Strength and coordination
  • Adept with technology
  • Time management
  • Patience and persistence
  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Knowledge of science
  • Resilience

Of course, good physical therapists also need extensive knowledge of diagnosis, treatment plans, patient care, and their specialty area (if applicable). This is where your education comes in.

Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist

Before you decide to become a physical therapist, you should know that it’s quite a process. You’ll need to complete four years of undergraduate study, followed by three years of physical therapy school. You must pass a national physical therapy exam, get licensed in your state, and maintain your license with continuing education courses.

If that sounds confusing or overwhelming, don’t worry. Let’s break it down into a step-by-step process!

High School

The first major step toward becoming a physical therapist, of course, is graduating from high school.

To put your best foot forward, focus on the following:

  • Take challenging classes and earn a high GPA.
  • Get a strong score on the SAT/ACT.
  • Take AP courses in science, and take anatomy and physiology courses if offered. AP Statistics, Ap Psychology, and AP English Language & Composition are also helpful.
  • Participate in relevant extracurricular activities related to science and health.
  • If possible, volunteer or job shadow a physical therapist in a nursing home, hospital, or private clinic.
  • Participate in a competitive summer program for high school students interested in physical therapy, seek an internship, or take part in a research program. These opportunities are rare, but if you can find one, it will help your college application stand out.

Taking these steps will build your resume for acceptance to an excellent college. There, you’ll build your knowledge and skills before applying to a top-notch physical therapy school.

Additionally, following these steps will help you determine whether physical therapy is truly the right career for you. They will also give you experiences that put you on the path to success as a physical therapist.

College Applications

As you prepare your college applications, write a great personal essay and obtain strong letters of recommendation. Ideally, at least one of your recommendations should be from a science teacher. Be sure to apply to schools with strong science programs that will adequately prepare you for a career in physical therapy.

Now, it’s important to note that there are a couple different routes to physical therapy school. You can take the traditional path, which means applying to a relevant undergraduate program and earning your bachelor’s degree.

Some schools offer BS/DPT programs, also called 3+3 programs. In these programs, you earn a bachelor’s degree in three years, then go straight into the school’s DPT program. You earn your DPT in six years instead of the traditional seven. Admission to these programs is extremely competitive.

Undergraduate School

In undergraduate school, you’ll need to establish foundational knowledge for your future in physical therapy. You also need to begin working toward requirements for DPT school, which may include prerequisite courses, clinical experience, and minimum GPA and GRE scores.

Physical therapy programs don’t require you to have a pre-physical therapy or pre-med major. In fact, students with all sorts of different majors can gain acceptance to DPT school. However, the most common majors for future physical therapists are biology, kinesiology, psychology, and exercise science.

It’s helpful to choose a program that’s relevant to physical therapy, since most DPT schools have a number of prerequisites for admission. Typically, these prerequisites include:

  • Chemistry with lab (2 semesters)
  • Physics with lab (2 semesters)
  • Biology (2 semesters)
  • Anatomy with lab
  • Physiology with lab
  • Statistics
  • Psychology

Some students who choose unrelated majors take classes at local community colleges to finish DPT prerequisites before matriculation. Ultimately, it makes more sense to major in a science-related field, but you aren’t required to do so. Since each DPT school has slightly different requirements, visit the websites of the programs you’re interested in to see which courses you need to take. You can also view program requirements through the PTCAS directory.

You will also need a solid GPA and a good score on the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations). Unlike medical school, DPT schools do not have a specialized entrance exam. Most DPT programs also expect applicants to have experience in hospitals or clinics, whether volunteer or paid. Often, these experiences must be completed under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist.

Just as you did in high school, you should participate in relevant organizations and other extracurricular opportunities. Not only will the experiences make you a more qualified applicant, but they will also make you a better physical therapist.

Finally, DPT schools may require up to four letters of recommendation. You may need to supply recommendations from specific people, such as a physical therapist you volunteered with or a professor in one of your science courses. Again, carefully research the requirements for each of the programs you’re interested in, so you know what is expected of you.

Apply to Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Schools

It’s time to apply to DPT programs! You can begin submitting applications in July before your first year of DPT school, but each program has its own soft and firm deadlines. During this process, it’s helpful to use the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) directory. It includes general program information, admission requirements, course prerequisites, and deadlines.

DPT schools are not as competitive as medical schools, but they certainly aren’t easy to get into. Some of the most competitive programs admit only 10-12 percent of applicants. The Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) recommends applying to 3-6 DPT schools. Depending on your GPA, GRE scores, and extracurriculars, you may choose to apply to more if you feel a safety net is needed.

Most DPT programs participate in the PTCAS referenced above. This allows you to apply to multiple programs using a single application, similar to the Common App for undergraduate schools. If you apply to a program that does not use the PTCAS, you’ll need to apply directly to the school using their individual application. It costs $155 to apply to your first program through PTCAS, then $60 for each additional program.

When you apply, requirements will include:

  • Sending transcripts and GRE scores
  • Supplying references
  • Submitting observation hours (must be verified by your supervisor)
  • Submitting supplemental materials (such as a resume and essay) if required by the specific programs you’ve selected

You’ll hear directly from DPT programs about admission decisions. Some programs may require an interview. If you’re selected for an interview, it means you’re a strong candidate for admission. Read up on the school’s interview process, look up commonly asked questions, and practice a bit. Let your passion for physical therapy and your positive qualities shine through!

Earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree

Once you’re enrolled in a DPT program, you’ll begin with some introductory courses. These courses will focus on anatomy, biomechanics, imaging, and pathophysiology. You’ll likely do hands-on work with cadavers as part of your anatomy training.

During the second year, you’ll take courses related to neurobiology. You will have your white coat ceremony and begin rotations, giving you more extensive hands-on practice and interactions with patients. Most DPT students also complete an internship in a local clinic, hospital, or other physical therapy setting.

As you complete your third year, you will begin combining all of your knowledge and practice to build treatment plans.

Take the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) and Obtain a License

After you earn your degree, you must become licensed in the state you wish to practice in. To gain licensure, you have to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). The test is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) four times annually. It costs $485 to take the test.

The NPTE is a computer-administered exam with 250 multiple-choice questions. Questions ask about body systems, system interactions, therapeutic modalities, safety and protection, professional responsibilities, equipment, and research and evidence-based practices.

Your exam is scored on a scale of 200-800. Scores above 600 are considered passing. You’re allowed to take the NPTE up to three times in one year. But here’s some good news: In 2019, 91% of first-time test-takers who graduated from accredited DPT programs passed the exam.

With a passing score, you’re on your way to obtaining licensure. The process varies by state, so you will need to look up your state’s requirements. This may include background checks, compliance training, and passing a jurisprudence exam (a test about your state’s rules and laws).

Most states also require you to meet continuing education requirements every two years to keep your license. Continue education courses help you stay up-to-date with advances in science and medicine.

Optional: Residency, Fellowship, & Board Certification

Some physical therapists choose to further their practice with steps like residencies, fellowships, and board certification. These steps are not required; you are ready to practice after obtaining your license.

Clinical residencies are post-graduate programs involving coursework, training, and clinical experience. They give you in-depth, advanced preparation to specialize in a preferred area of physical therapy.

Specialists can become board-certified through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). The ten available specialties are listed and defined near the top of this guide. To become board certified, you’ll need to complete experiential hours, fill out an application, and pass a certification exam. Additional requirements vary by specialty.

Fellowships are awarded to physical therapists who demonstrate expertise in an area of practice related to the fellowship’s focus. It’s an opportunity for a funded learning experience in a focused area of practice, research, or education. Most fellows have completed residencies and/or are board certified.

Final Thoughts: How to Become a Physical Therapist

It takes hard work, dedication, and time to become a practicing physical therapist in the United States. But if you’re certain the career is a good fit for you, then it’s a wise investment in your future. You’ll have great job prospects, earn a high salary, and help people live better, healthier lives.

If you’re still in high school, get a head start by honing your knowledge of science, earning a high GPA and SAT/ACT scores, and participating in relevant activities. Gaining some experience now can help you ensure that physical therapy is truly the field for you.

After that, aspiring physical therapists must:

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree (preferably in a science-related field).
  • Get physical therapy observation hours under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist.
  • Take the GRE.
  • Apply to DPT programs.
  • Graduate from physical therapy school with a DPT (3 years).
  • Pass the NPTE.
  • Obtain a state license and start practicing!
  • If you’d like to deepen your practice in a specialty area, pursue a residency, board certification, and/or a fellowship.

It’s a long process, but if you’re passionate and determined, you can do it—and you’ll even enjoy yourself along the way. Good luck!

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