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How to Become a Physical Therapist

NurseJournal Staff
Updated April 18, 2023
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Physical therapists are in demand and play a vital role in healthcare. Learn how to become a physical therapist and what the work is like today.
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How Long to Become

6-7 years

Job Outlook

17% growth from 2021-2031

Degree Required

Doctorate of Physical Therapy

Physical therapists help patients recover from injuries or health conditions affecting their physical abilities. Demand is high and growing for physical therapists.

This guide explains how to become a physical therapist and what the work is like. Explore more information on this exciting and growing career field.

What Is a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists help patients recover from physical injuries or illness by working towards restoring functional mobility, flexibility, stability, balance, and strength. Physical therapists also help their patients resolve, reduce, or manage pain.

Physical therapists educate patients on helping themselves recover. This education involves using activity modifications and specific exercise programs. Physical therapists use a variety of modalities to help their patients: hands-on therapy, also called manual therapy, joint mobilizations and manipulations (passively moving and/or stretching joints), fascial release techniques, and passive stretching.

They may work in hospitals or health systems, independent practices, nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. Physical therapists can also be employees or contractors for sports teams, dance companies, or similar employers.

Often, a patient’s physician prescribes physical therapy, but some patients independently seek physical therapy care. Physical therapists have direct access, meaning you do not need a referral from a physician. However, some insurance companies — such as Medicare — require a physician referral.

Physical therapists train to observe a patient’s condition and physical abilities, identify the needed treatment, and modify treatment as the patient progresses.

Frequency of care fluctuates, and is up to the physical therapists. Based on need, they may see patients weekly, multiple times per week, or less frequently.

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Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists have a doctorate, but unlike a medical doctorate, this degree takes three years. All states require physical therapists to have a license. Some physical therapists choose to further their education by entering a residency or fellowship program.

After a certain period of work experience, physical therapists can also earn a board-certified specialist certification.

  1. 1

    Earn Bachelor’s Degree in a Related Field

    The first step is earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as recreation and fitness, exercise science, kinesiology, a healthcare discipline, or a pre-physical therapy program. The coursework should include anatomy, physiology, communication, and sciences.

  2. 2

    Complete a Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT)

    A doctoral program can take three years to complete. The coursework includes advanced and applied anatomy and physiology topics such as biomechanics (how bodies move) and neuroscience, applied psychology, and ethical and legal issues. Students also complete clinical hours.

  3. 3

    Pass the NPTE

    You must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to earn a license. Apply to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) to take the examination. The exact process and eligibility requirements vary by state; check them at the FSBPT website.

  4. 4

    Obtain a License to Practice

    Once you pass the examination, your state may have additional requirements for how to become a physical therapist, such as a jurisprudence examination. Check your state licensing authority for specifics.

Physical Therapist Education

You need a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. Some schools have a specific pre-physical therapy track. Other common bachelor degrees include exercise physiology, kinesiology, biology, sports and recreation, physical fitness, or even psychology.

The coursework should cover anatomy, physiology, human biology, and include communications and social science topics.

Doctorate of Physical Therapy Degree

Most students take three years to finish their doctoral degree, but some may continue with a residency or fellowship. This degree includes extensive supervised clinical work in real-life settings.

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    Admission Requirements

    3.0 GPA or higher in a relevant undergraduate discipline.

  • check-circle

    Program Curriculum

    Anatomy, biomechanics, principles and practices in physical therapy, specific conditions and their treatment, applied psychology for working with patients

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    Time to Complete

    Three years

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    Skills Learned

    Patient assessment, identifying the most effective treatments, how to demonstrate and teach difference exercises, how to use equipment, how to communicate effectively with patients about their condition, and how to help motivate them

Physical Therapist Licensure and Certification

You need a license to work as a physical therapist. Each state has its own board that oversees licensing, but many states participate in the Physical Therapy Licensure Compact.

A license from one compact state is valid across the participating states, though there may be some additional requirements, such as an examination in state law.

Many physical therapists go on to become board certified. Certification options include: geriatrics, neurology, pediatrics, sports, and wound management. While licensure does not require board certification, many employers require or strongly prefer it, especially for higher-level positions.

Working as a Physical Therapist

Demand is high for physical therapists. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 17% job growth between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the general job growth rate.

Physical therapist salaries reflect this demand. August 2022 data from Payscale reports an average $72,990 annual salary.

Your school’s career office can help you get your first job, and you can network through national and state physical therapy associations.

While the basic physical therapist responsibilities — assessment and treatment plan development — will likely be consistent wherever you work, you can find different specializations or settings based on your interests.

For example, work in a hospital may include in-patients recovering from serious illnesses or injuries. Your job would be helping them regain enough mobility to return home.

Meanwhile while in sports physical therapy, you would work with professional or amateur athletes recovering from a sports-related injury or trying to regain their ability to participate in sports.

Questions About Becoming a Physical Therapist

question-mark-circleHow many years does it take to become a physical therapist?

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, it takes three years to earn a doctorate. If you do not have a bachelor’s degree, it will take you four years to earn one. It may take less if you already have an associate degree or other college credit.

question-mark-circleWhat is the quickest way to become a physical therapist?

Most doctoral programs take three years. If you have a related master’s program in some other field, you may be able to apply some of the credits.

question-mark-circleHow hard is it to become a physical therapist?

You must be good at biology and science, and be able to communicate well with patients. While you are not licensed to diagnose conditions, you must understand medical conditions and the appropriate physical therapy intervention for those conditions.

question-mark-circleDo physical therapists get paid well?

Physical therapists earn high salaries compared to the U.S. average. The average physical therapist salary is $72,990, according to August 2022 Payscale data. Entry-level positions will often pay less. Salaries vary based on geographic location.

Page Last Reviewed: September 5, 2022

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