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What is a Physical Therapist?

For those who want a career that involves physical activity and helping others regain or maintain a healthy lifestyle, becoming a physical therapist is a career worth looking into. As a physical therapist, you’ll help those who have suffered physical injuries or setback to regain their mobility. Your clientele will be varying, as will the required levels of care. Some people will walk in and need help with simpler tasks, while others might be wheelchair bound and fighting to literally get back on their feet. If you’re ready to commit to a long-term education path, can easily adapt to a variety of situations, and are eager to help motivate and encourage patients to try their best, a career as a physical therapist could be the solution you’re looking for. Having compassion and a true willingness to help people is important. Some of your patients will be scared, angry, and frustrated with their situation. In those situations, you’ll need to be understanding but still firm enough to motivate them to put in the effort so they have a better chance of recovery.

If you’re looking at programs, you might see different titles for physical therapists such as LPT, RPT, and DPT. As of 2010, LPT (Licensed Physical Therapists) and RPT (Registered Physical Therapists) are obsolete, since you are required to have a license to work as a physical therapist. The PT abbreviation denotes having both a license and being registered. DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) is the norm for therapists who have completed a physical therapy program.

Physical therapists help those who have suffered injuries or debilitating illnesses recover. Injuries and illnesses can severely impact a person’s mobility, and physical therapists help these people regain as much mobility as possible. Physical therapists design exercise and endurance practices to help these people rebuild their muscles and gain enough strength to continue the healing process on their own. As a physical therapist, you will work with a variety of patients of all ages and walks of life, from young people recovering from sport-related injuries to older people recovering from strokes or other medical issues.

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Steps to Become a Licensed Physical Therapist

The process of becoming a physical therapist is pretty cut and dry. You’ll need to follow the steps in their correct order to become a PT. The entire process takes a minimum of six to seven years but can take longer depending on your individual circumstances. However, once you make it through the process, you’ll have a rewarding career ahead of you.

  • Step 1: Complete a Four-year degree

  • Step 2: Complete Your Graduate Degree in Physical Therapy

  • Step 3: Complete Clinical Internship

  • Step 4: Meet State Licensing Requirements


Step 1: Complete a Four-year Degree

An undergraduate degree is required before you can apply to and start a Physical Therapy program. If you are entering college with the intention of becoming a Physical Therapist, you should do two things. First, learn the course and/or major requirements for a physical therapy program that interests you. Second, choose an undergraduate major that complements physical therapy such as physical education, or take a lot of heavily medical-related courses such as biology, anatomy, physiology, and chemistry. When you’re looking at physical therapy programs, pay close attention to the courses required, as well as any academic requirements you’ll need to meet in order to be accepted, such as a certain grade-point average. Also, your major and the school should be regionally accredited, as this is a general requirement to attend many graduate programs.

A health-related degree is ideal, but it’s not a requirement. Keep in mind though, that several classes from health programs will be required, so if you opt to not declare a health-related major you’ll still need to find a way to fit those classes in.

Step 2: Complete Your Graduate Degree in Physical Therapy

During the application process, you’ll most likely apply to schools using the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). Using this tool will help you select the schools that offer what you want to study and ensure the program is accredited. Most doctor of physical therapy programs last three years. Programs are accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). As a physical therapy student, you will study Applied Physical Therapy, Life Span Development, Complex Conditions and a variety of other courses.

Step 3: Complete Clinical Internship

Most programs require you to complete at least one internship in acute care or an orthopedic department. It can be completed in a hospital or clinic so long as it is monitored by a licensed medical professional. The number of hours required to complete the internship varies by the school so it’s best to check the requirements of your particular school.

Step 4: Meet State Licensing Requirements

Each state also has a set of requirements physical therapist candidates need to meet. Determine in which state you want to live and learn their requirements. Once you know what they are, follow them to the letter. In most cases, your physical therapists program can provide information on licensing requirements for any states you might be interested in working in. You’ll also need to take the National Physical Therapy Examination which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states require background checks and fingerprinting. Check your state’s requirements regarding licensure.

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What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

A typical day for a physical therapist consists of completing a variety of tasks all centered around patient care. A therapist’s primary job is to work with patients to help them improve their mobility and fine motor skills, so part of the day consists of working with clients in the therapy room or other locations that are beneficial to the patient’s recovery. Between patient appointments, therapists meet with other caregivers to review and create treatment plans for patients, plan individual plans, and field questions patients might have regarding their progress. Depending on the work setting, the physical therapist might also have office duties that must be completed, such as paperwork or calling in prescriptions. Therapists also attend workshops and continuing education classes so that they can stay up-to-date with the latest technology and treatment methods.

Skills to Acquire

Physical Therapists use a variety of skills to do their jobs.

  • Communication skills:
    From talking to other medical professionals about treatment plans to explaining situations to patients, the ability to communicate with people is important.
  • Physical stamina and endurance:
    As a PT, there is a lot of physical activity involved. Assisting patients with standing, walking, and other tasks requires that the therapist have the strength and stamina for two.
  • Motivational skills:
    For patients who are stubborn, scared, or discouraged, physical therapists can be the best cheerleaders and coaches.
  • Knowledge of equipment:
    Therapists learn how to use most equipment during school, but when a new piece of equipment is introduced, the ability to learn how to use it on your own will be necessary.
  • Written skills:
    Preparing treatment plans and updating patient files require excellent writing skills and attention to details.
  • Teaching/instructing:
    Physical therapists have to explain treatment plans to patients, their families, and other medical staff. They also have to teach the patient what they need to do during therapy.

Alternative Paths

There are ways that you can work in an office with a physical therapist, such as during an internship or as a volunteer. But to work as an actual therapist, following the educational path outlines above is the only way to be a physical therapist.

However, if you’re interested in getting some experience in the field to increase your qualifications before completing a full degree or just to have the opportunity to make some money while you work toward your full degree, you could earn an associate degree in physical therapy first. While it’s true that you need to complete the full program to be a physical therapist, you can work as physical therapists assistant with just an associate’s degree in physical therapy. This can give you vital experience in the field and your job may even count towards your school credits. Even if it doesn’t, the chance to see a physical therapist in action will make your classes that much simpler and give you a leg up in your physical therapy program.

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Physical Therapist Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Physical therapists can work in a variety of medical settings. Many physical therapists work in the physical therapy departments in hospitals. They also work in independent physical therapy clinics and centers. Some gyms and workout facilities have physical therapists on staff to assist customers with techniques, and colleges and universities often have physical therapists on staff to work with athletes to help with recovery and to help prevent injuries. Finally, you have therapists that travel and offer physical therapy to people in their homes. For those who want to help train the next generation of PTs, teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level is also an option, but this is generally a path taken later on in a therapist’s career.

Salaries for physical therapists increase with the level of responsibility. The median salary for a new physical therapist is $70,000, while a therapist that works their way up to running a facility can earn $90,000 or more on average.

Potential Career Paths

A physical therapist can hold several job titles throughout their career. Most start out as therapists in a hospital environment, but as their careers progress, they migrate to other jobs in other types of medical establishments. Here is a list of jobs a physical therapist might encounter and experience during their career:

Physical Therapist:
this is where all physical therapists start out, usually in a hospital or clinic.

Senior Physical Therapist:
after physical therapists have been working for a few years, they might earn this designation to help them stand out from the newer physical therapists. Staff might call on a senior PT more because of their expertise.

Physical Therapy Manager:
as with any business, there are managers. A Physical therapy manager manages other physical therapists and might be in charge of running the facility.

Physical Therapy Director:
this therapist is in charge of the entire physical therapy department.

Rehabilitation Director:
This therapist could be in charge of an entire business, or the director of a rehab that is part of a skilled care facility or hospital.

Career Outlook

If you are planning to become a physical therapist, then we have good news. Demand for therapists is expected to grow at a rate of 28%, much faster than the average for career growth. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a minimum of 70,000 physical therapists will be needed between 2016 and 2026. The reasons for the demand revolve around two areas: Baby Boomers and chronic disease. Baby Boomers are living longer, and many are committing to active lifestyles, so physical therapists are needed to help them stay healthy and injury free. On the other end of the health spectrum, people with chronic diseases such as arthritis and diabetes often need help recovering their mobility after a medical setback. Also, modern technology is extending the life expectancy of both the baby boomers and those who suffer a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke. These people often require work with a physical therapist to aid in their recovery.

If you have particular parts of the country in mind when starting your career, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Montana have a high demand for physical therapists. If money is a motivator, Nevada, New Jersey, Arkansas, Texas, and Georgia pay their therapists the most. Also, it’s worth it to note, rural areas are also often in need of therapists, since the majority of physical therapists tend to reside in more populated areas. Rural areas often need the most help in acute care facilities, skilled care facilities, and orthopedic offices.

Advancing From Here

Physical therapists often remain in their profession for the majority of their working lives, maybe turning to teach later on when the demands of therapy might become too much. But other physical therapists have gone on to attain medical degrees and becoming doctors.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does a physical therapist do?

Physical therapists practice on patients with injuries or setbacks to regain their mobility. They focus on rehabilitation, treatment, and preventive care.

Where do physical therapists work?

Physical therapists work in clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, patients' homes, and private offices.

What is the job outlook for physical therapists?

According to the Bauru of Labor Statists, the projected growth rate for physical therapists from 2020 to 2030 is 21%.

What qualities should physical therapists have?

Physical therapists should be patient, determined, resilient, and compassionate. They also need to be collaborative, knowledgeable, and resilient.

How much can you make as a physical therapist?

Physical therapist make around $70,000 on average. Therapists that works their way up to running a facility can earn $90,000.

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