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What Does a Physical Therapy Career Entail?

A physical therapist, also known as a PT, is a person who assists medical patients during an illness or injury to help manage pain and improve mobility. These healthcare professionals are an active part of the medical process, including prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. Physical therapy is dedicated to patients who suffer from injury, illness, and chronic conditions. Before one can begin to practice as a physical therapist in the US, they must complete a doctoral degree and significant supervised training.

As a practicing physical therapist, you will be required to handle each patient with great care as prevention and recovery can be a highly painful, challenging, and frustrating process. It helps when you relate to the patient’s circumstance. You will also be required to customize all treatment to each person. While some cases will have similarities, all will have a unique set of issues that require a unique solution.

You will even face cases where you may not have the best answer. As a physical therapist, you must always be learning to treat your patients with the best care. You may also have to improvise with the limited tools and resources you have available. The best physical therapists will empower their patients to become a part of the solution and teach them about their unique condition. Additionally, physical therapists must always be themselves to gain the trust and respect of their patients.

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Components of A Successful Physical Therapy Career

The best way to have a successful physical therapist assistant or PT career is to follow a specific formula. This formula is a general guideline rather than an outright requirement. You must first begin with a reputable education and training from colleges and universities with accreditation in physical therapy. This will affect the type of employment for which you qualify upon receiving your final degree and work experience. You must also understand that your education does not end with the receipt of your PT license. To be successful, you must always be learning.

Whether you begin your own practice or work for an employer, you should surround yourself with the best team possible. This will create an optimal environment for patients to want to improve and work harder. If patients do not like their physical therapists or physical therapist assistants, it can be an uphill battle for them to complete their treatment. You should also work hard to be a positive person who is tough, fair, supportive, respectful, and encouraging. Being a physical therapist assistant or full PT is constantly walking a fine line between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough. You have to be able to read and listen to your patients to know when they have reached their breaking point and when they can go just a bit further.

PT Degree and Certification Overview

In order to become physical therapist assistants, students must complete a bachelor’s degree from a physical therapist assistant's (PTA) program. This is followed by a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and a state license to practice as a fully licensed physical therapist. A DPT degree typically takes three years to complete. Many program participants will also choose a residency or fellowship. It was not long ago that a professional master’s degree was sufficient; however, that requirement has since changed. In addition to the DPT degree requirement, it must be completed from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)-accredited program. It is important to note that some programs have a 3+3 format that entails 3 years of pre-professional undergraduate courses allowing students to become physical therapist assistants, followed by the 3-year DPT program.

Upon completion of the DPT degree and residency, all physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam, and some states require a background check and an additional law exam. It's also possible to become board certified in one of nine specialty areas and continued education is a requirement to maintain a state license.

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What Does A Physical Therapist Do?

The days in the life of a physical therapist assistant or full physical therapist will rarely be the same from one day to the next; however, the functions and motions will be similar. When it comes to the patients, you will establish an adaptable routine. You will review the medical history of the patient along with the notes from all other healthcare professionals. You will then diagnose the functionality and movement capabilities of the patient through observation and listening. You’ll customize patient care plans with exercises, hands-on therapeutic techniques, stretches, equipment recommendations, and the establishment of goals. Then you’ll also be required to evaluate and record progress and adapt the plan based on the progress or lack thereof with each patient. A PT works to minimize the dependency of patients to require medication and to avoid surgery.

What is the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Schools?

The biggest difference between a PT school and an occupational therapist (OT) school is the focus of care. A physical therapist works to restore mobility and minimize physical restrictions so that a patient can return to their previously expected level of functionality. An OT works to help patients with both physical limitations and those patients with cognitive or developmental disabilities. An OT school only requires a master’s degree for graduates to begin working without supervision; whereas, a PT school requires a doctoral degree.

Typical Physical Therapy Trade School Requirements

You will be required to complete an online bachelor’s degree or a pre-physical therapy program before you can apply for your DPT degree. The application process has become somewhat streamlined. All applicants can use the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service to complete one application online with the required materials and it will be distributed to all the admissions departments at all the PT schools to which you wish to apply. Before you are able to apply, be sure you meet the requirements for each CAPTE-approved program.

You should complete an online bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as kinesiology, exercise science, or biology. Look for part-time work or volunteer in a physical therapy environment during your undergraduate degree. Most physical therapy programs require hands-on experience before you will be approved into PT programs. And it will also help you network for the references that are required for admission.

physical_therapy_requirements You will also be required to complete the GRE. Your score will greatly influence your schools of choice. The same is true for your undergraduate GPA. The average GPA in 2012 was 3.52 for entrance into DPT programs. You might also have to complete paid or volunteer experience in a physical therapy environment under the supervision of a licensed PT. Each program will have a different requirement regarding the experience required. Do not forget your references and be sure to prepare for the fact you may have to visit the campus before acceptance to participate in an entrance interview. Keep in mind that some PT programs will approve in-state applicants over out-of-state applicants and you may be subject to a criminal background check prior to acceptance.

Typical Physical Therapy Certifications Needed

A specialized certification is not a requirement in physical therapy; however, it is an easy way to advance one’s career and to increase pay. After you complete the necessary unsupervised work experience as a licensed physical therapist, you will be able to complete a board certification in one of nine clinical specializations, such as cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, geriatrics, neurology, orthopedics, pediatrics, sports physical therapy, and women’s health. You must complete an exam and a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical work within your preferred area of specialization within 10 years of completing your residency in the specialized area.

Academic Standards Required

You will have to achieve a C average to attend average or less-than-average DPT schools. The average GPA of accepted applicants into doctoral programs was 3.52. Essentially, the better your GPA the more options you have to attend a reputable DPT program.

Exam or Experience Needed for Certification

You will require the completion of the GRE to apply to accredited DPT programs. Much like your undergraduate GPA, the better your GRE score the better the schools to which you can apply. You will also require either paid or volunteer experience in a physical therapy environment under the supervision of a licensed PT. You may need to verify these hours. The earlier you start to look for a work experience opportunity the better your chances for entry into your preferred DPT programs.

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Physical Therapy Degree & Certification Options

You must have a doctorate of physical therapy to become a physical therapist in the US. You can begin a career in the physical therapy field with alternative degrees and use these as stepping stones to the completion of your PT degree. Or, you can choose a support role in physical therapy and pursue career advancement through work experience and a change in employers. It is up to you to decide your end goals in the field of physical therapy.

Online Associate Degree

With an online associate degree, you could become a physical therapy assistant in most states. With this type of degree, you will learn physical therapist assistant procedures, clinical kinesiology, therapeutic exercises, and the ways to use assistive devices. All of your actions will be supervised by other physical therapy professionals. You will have some freedom and flexibility; however, your tasks will be far more basic than someone with a higher degree.

Example Courses for an Online Associate Degree

  • Communication
  • Calculus with Analytic Geometry
  • Fundamentals of Cellular Biology
  • General Chemistry I

Online Bachelor’s Degree

An online bachelor’s degree helps to take you closer to becoming a fully licensed physical therapist. With this degree, you are far more likely to be hired as a physical therapy assistant over someone with an online associate’s degree. You will begin to review more in-depth subjects, such as health science statistics, health psychology, pharmacology, and athletic injuries. This gives you a much wider range of employability within the field.

Example Courses for an Online Bachelor’s Degree

  • Cellular Biology
  • General Chemistry
  • General Psychology
  • Pre-Calculus or Calculus

Online Master’s Degree

If you choose to complete a master’s degree before your doctoral degree, it is highly likely your credits will transfer to your DPT program. It is essential that you choose a master’s degree program from an accredited college or university to minimize the risk of your credits not transferring. Keep in mind that a master’s degree in physical therapy no longer allows you to become a fully licensed physical therapist. It will, however, give you a significant advantage over candidates with a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree for other positions related to PT. Also, most accredited programs have eliminated their master’s degrees in PT and replaced them with the required doctorate in physical therapy degree programs.

Example Courses for an Online Master’s Degree

  • Patho-Kinesiology
  • Therapeutic Technology
  • Orthopedic Management
  • Physical Therapy Management

Online Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree in physical therapy is the only degree that will lead to your physical therapy license in the US. During these programs, you will learn the tools and skills necessary to be a successful PT, such as theoretical understanding, clinical experience, critical thinking, and clinical decision making. If you choose a residency or a fellowship during your DPT, you will improve your chances for more and better employment opportunities upon graduation.

Example Online Courses for Doctoral Degree in Physical Therapy

  • Gross Anatomy
  • Psychosocial Aspects of Disability and Illness
  • Administration
  • Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

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Primary Types of Physical Therapy programs:

You can choose from a number of specialty physical therapy programs. This will help you in your board certification and employment opportunities in the end rather than to pursue a general PT degree. Be sure to consider your specialty before you select a DPT program.

Pediatric Physical Therapy: Pediatric physical therapy is designated for the care of babies, toddlers, children, teenagers, and young adults.

Geriatric Physical Therapy: Geriatric physical therapy is designated to elderly patients with deteriorating physical and mental health.

Vestibular Rehabilitation: Vestibular rehabilitation, also referred to as vestibular rehabilitation therapy, is exercise-based therapy focuses on vestibular disorders and symptoms, such as vertigo, dizziness, imbalance, and gaze instability.

Neurological Physical Therapy: Neurological physical therapy specializes in the assessment and treatment of injury and disease of the nervous system.

Orthopedic Physical Therapy: Orthopedic physical therapists focus on the musculoskeletal system, including muscles, bones, joints, tendons and ligaments.

Cardiovascular/Pulmonary Physical Therapy: A cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapist works to improve the lung and cardiovascular health of their PT patients.

Degree Level Tuition Total Costs
Associate's Degree $7,800 $29,400
Bachelor’s Degree $7,000 $59,600
Master’s Degree $12,500 $35,000
Doctoral Degree $33,000 $175,000

Potential Careers & Salaries for Physical Therapy Graduates

Just like any career, the higher the degree and education you complete, the more you can expect your salary to improve. If you are looking to hold the best positions throughout physical therapy, you must complete a residency in a specialty and then pursue the national board certification in that field. Holding this certification and specialization could increase your salary by more than $50,000 annually.

Median Salaries by Occupation

Occupation Entry-Level Salary Range Mid-Career Salary Range Late-Career Salary Range
Physical Therapy Assistant $44,800 $53,440 $59,500
Pediatric Physical Therapist $62,200 $73,500 $72,200
Exercise Physiologists $43,000 $52,300 $58,200
Geriatric Physical Therapist $66,800 $77,600 $87,700
Orthopedic Physical Therapist $67,100 $76,700 $88,300
Recreational Therapist $40,300 $41,300 $50,000
Physical Therapist $66,800 $77,600 $87,700

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Important Questions to Ask (FAQ)

How long does it take to earn an Online Physical Therapy Degree or Certification?

A doctor of physical therapy degree takes three years to complete. A board-certified specialization certification requires 2,000 hours of hands-on, unsupervised work experience with a license in PT.

How much does an Online Physical Therapy Trade School Degree cost?

The cost of physical therapy degree will vary in cost based on whether or not it is a public school or a private school. It will also vary between in-state and out-of-state tuition. In the 2018-2019 school year, the range for the best PT schools was $7,770 to $55,320 per year.

How many students graduate “on time,” in 12 months or 24 months?

On-time graduation for a DPT program is three years. If you complete a residency, it is another year. Of the best schools in the US, the average graduation rate was 86.1%. The lowest rate was 74% and the highest was 94%.

What kind of accreditation does the online program hold? How is it regarded in the field?

You should complete an undergraduate degree from a regionally accredited college or university to increase your chances at acceptance into a DPT program. And, if you wish to obtain a state license and practice physical therapy without supervision, you must complete a DPT program that is CAPTE-accredited.

Software, Technology & Skills Needed

It is important to consider that all healthcare fields are incorporating technology at a rapid rate and the technology changes yearly. You must be comfortable with technology and be able to adapt to change to be a successful physical therapist. And it might be a good idea to familiarize yourself with telemedicine, as it continues to grow in popularity, and it can help expand your client base.

As for skills you require to be a successful PT, you must be compassionate, detail-oriented, have dexterity, exceptional interpersonal skills, physical stamina, be resourceful, and manage time well. Do not forget that you must have superior listening and communication skills, as well as the ability to relate to your patients for the best results.

PT Trade School Scholarships

  • The Mary McMillan Scholarship
    Amount: $5,000 (PT Student); $3,000 (PTA Student)
    Deadline: December 1

    This award dedicates $5,000 to one physical therapy student and $3,000 one physical therapy assistant student in their final year of an accredited PT program. Award recipients must be nominated to be eligible.

  • The Caroline, Clara, Charles and Mildred Harper Scholarship
    Amount: $400 (1 Award); $500 (1 Award); $800 (2 Awards)
    Deadline: Varies (Previously March 28)

    This scholarship awards $2,500 altogether. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and their superior academic performance. The scholarship will be designated to assist with the second year of tuition.

Professional Organizations

  • APTA
  • WCPT


The American Physical Therapy Association

The American Physical Therapy Association is one of the industry-leading organizations with over 100,000 PT members, PT assistant members and students pursuing a DPT degree.



The American Council of Academic Physical Therapy

The American Council of Academic Physical Therapy provides various activities, PT education, post-professional education, and clinical education to all its members.



The World Confederation for Physical Therapy

The World Confederation for Physical Therapy is possibly the largest PT organization in the world with over 450,000 members with over 100 affiliate member organizations. The overall goal is to improve both the PT profession and the overall global health.

Choosing an Accredited School

You must choose a CAPTE-accredited doctorate of physical therapy degree program to be able to take the physical therapy licensure exam. Without this license, you cannot practice as a physical therapist.

Online vs On-Campus vs Hybrid if Available

Most accredited DPT programs will be more traditional, on-campus programs. You might be able to find a hybrid program; however, keep in mind that you will have to participate in labs and hands-on classroom experience.

Does the School Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Assistance?

As physical therapy schools become more competitive, you might consider the additional services and features they offer to graduates. The best schools should always have your best interest in consideration before, during, and after you are a student with their DPT program. This includes providing you with job placement assistance.

Why You Need to Consider the Overall National Rankings of the School and The Effects on Your Career or Salary

DPT schools are constantly in search of the best talent to improve their overall national rankings, as it is a direct reflection of their program and your abilities in the workplace. While the APTA does not rank these programs, many other sources do. And many employers will pass judgment on your potential skills and abilities based on the doctoral physical therapy degree program you choose. Those who graduate from the most reputable programs will find jobs more easily and make more money as you are likely to bring in more business and provide a superior quality of care simply based on your academic credentials.

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