How to Become a Physical Therapist

If you’ve ever fallen and suffered a strain, you may have needed to see a physical therapist during your recovery. Maybe you were in a car accident or had surgery — a physical therapist may have helped you rehabilitate. Physical therapists work in all kinds of capacities and with all types of people, from children, older adults and postpartum women to stroke patients, top-tier athletes and more.

And what about the commitment put into the discipline — how many years does it take to become a physical therapist? It’s more than just an undergraduate degree, volunteer hours, licensure or a fellowship. Some physical therapists will put in that time and then pursue additional continuing education PT credits.

Before diving into the details, here is a look at the broader picture.

What Is a Physical Therapist?

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) describes physical therapists as “movement experts who optimize quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education.” 

Physical therapists help their patients find relief in a number of ways, generally involving the movement of the body in the form of exercises. 

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

A physical therapist’s scope of practice includes rehabilitation and habilitation, performance enhancement and prevention and risk-reduction services. Physical therapist duties generally include examining patients, evaluating their condition, screening for injuries or illness, diagnosing conditions, determining a prognosis, developing plans of care, overseeing documentation and care and discharging patients at the end of treatment. 

Otherwise, their scope of practice varies state by state. Maryland, for example, specifies that “’practice physical therapy’ does not include taking X-rays, using radioactive substances or using electricity for cauterization or surgery.” Other states take similar stances, with Idaho stating that “the practice of physical therapy shall not include the use of radiology, surgery or medical diagnosis of disease.” You can find what the scope of practice for a physical therapist in your state includes and does not include on the APTA’s website.

5 Common Steps to Become a Physical Therapist

How long does it take to become a physical therapist? In general, the path to becoming a physical therapist will span anywhere from 6 to 8 years, depending on how long it takes you to move through each step, including your education, clinical hours, shadowing hours and more. The journey to becoming a physical therapist isn’t the same for everyone; however, these are the basic steps to enter the profession. 

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

If you’re looking for pre-physical-therapy programs, you may have all kinds of questions: “Do I need to go to med school to be a physical therapist?” Or, “What kind of education do you need to be a physical therapist?”

Look no further than your traditional bachelor’s degree. Few colleges offer a physical therapist bachelor’s degree, but earning a bachelor’s degree is one of the prerequisites for acceptance into a DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) program. Your bachelor’s doesn’t have to specifically be pre-physical therapy, but it should be in an applicable, health-related field. This will allow you to pick up foundational knowledge and skills required for the field, such as knowledge in: 

  •     Biology
  •     Anatomy
  •     Physiology
  •     Biomechanics
  •     Kinesiology
  •     Neuroscience
  •     Pharmacology
  •     Cardiovascular and pulmonary sciences
  •     Endocrine sciences
  •     Metabolic sciences
  •     Musculoskeletal sciences

Note that a background in softer skills such as behavioral sciences, cultural competence, communication, management sciences, finance, sociology, clinical reasoning, ethics and evidence-based practice will also be beneficial to your success as a physical therapist.

Looking to pursue a career in physical therapy? The question of what to major in for physical therapy is a popular one. Here are some common majors for physical therapy:

  •     Physics
  •     Anatomy
  •     Physiology
  •     Biomechanics
  •     Kinesiology

2. Gain Hands-on Physical Therapy Experience

Physical therapy shadowing is one of the main requirements for admission into most high-quality Doctorate of Physical Therapy programs. (Not all physical therapy programs require observation hours, and the amount and completion date of hours may vary by program.) For those that do require them, physical therapy volunteer hours can be paid or unpaid and may be completed in a variety of settings throughout a student’s undergraduate career.

Physical therapy volunteer or shadowing hours will help you learn technical skills and soft skills by observing licensed physical therapists interacting with their patients and taking on some of the duties for yourself such as patient preparation and movement (e.g., lowering or raising them). You will also gain exposure to working with patients from different backgrounds and with various conditions.

Physical therapy shadowing opportunities can be found in nearly any of the environments in which a physical therapist practices, from hospitals to research centers to fitness centers. Similarly, you may find yourself working across a variety of physical therapy practice areas, such as:

  •     Acute care
  •     Aquatics
  •     Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  •     Geriatrics
  •     Home health
  •     Neurology
  •     Oncology
  •     Orthopedics
  •     Pediatrics
  •     Sports
  •     Women's health

Exposure to a number of different areas may help you with clarity of career choice. Depending on where you choose to shadow, you may find out there are some areas that you prefer more than others.

3. Complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy Program

According to the APTA, the typical doctorate in physical therapy takes three years to complete. A typical physical therapy curriculum is 80% classroom and lab study, and 20% clinical education, so you’ll not only learn about your subject but also gain hands-on experience. Courses in your physical therapy education might include: 

  •     Biology/anatomy
  •     Cellular histology
  •     Physiology
  •     Exercise physiology
  •     Biomechanics
  •     Kinesiology
  •     Neuroscience
  •     Pharmacology
  •     Pathology
  •     Behavioral sciences
  •     Communication
  •     Ethics/values
  •     Management sciences
  •     Finance
  •     Sociology
  •     Clinical reasoning
  •     Evidence-based practice
  •     Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  •     Endocrine and metabolic
  •     Musculoskeletal system

Keep in mind that not all DPT programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). It’s important to choose a program that has CAPTE accreditation, so you can qualify to sit for the physical therapy licensure exam after graduation (and subsequently practice in your field).

Physical Therapy Education Requirements [SH5] 

It’s important to do your research to find a program that fits your specific needs and to ensure that you’re on track to meet all admissions requirements for physical therapy school. A Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is required to practice physical therapy on patients. DPT program requirements vary depending on the school but will generally include a Physical Therapy Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) application, including transcripts, GRE scores, references and observation hours.

Some DPT schools may have supplemental requirements such as a fee or the results of a physical examination; it’s up to you to make sure you know and have addressed each requirement for the schools to which you are applying. Each of these physical therapy school prerequisites will require time and attention to complete, so make sure you begin them with enough advance time before your application is due.

Doctor of Physical Therapy Program Options

There are on-campus and online doctor of physical therapy program options available. As mentioned, it is important to ensure that your program of choice meets the requirements of the state you wish to work in — such as having CAPTE accreditation so that you can obtain your physical therapy license after completing your education. 

As for attending a DPT program online versus on campus: While many students are used to on-campus settings, online DPT programs may lend more flexibility to students’ schedules as they continue to gain real-world experience outside the classroom or have personal obligations. Online physical therapy programs also allow you to study at the school of your choice without having to uproot your family or move across the country.

4. Fulfill Physical Therapy License Requirements

Physical therapy licensure is required in every state, but precise physical therapy license requirements vary by location. Be sure to check the requirements you need to fulfill in the state you wish to work in. To obtain a PT license, all aspiring physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). You are allowed five hours for the 250 NPTE questions, which will be objective, multiple choice and computerized. The NPTE content will cover the body systems (e.g., neuromuscular and nervous systems, lymphatic systems and musculoskeletal system) and non-systems (e.g., safety and protection, therapeutic modalities, research and evidence-based practice).

The NPTE exam is administered four times per year. To see the most current NPTE exam dates being offered, view the NPTE website.

What happens after the NPTE exam? A score at or above 600 is considered passing, meaning you’ll receive your physical therapy license to practice in your chosen state. Those with NPTE scores below 600 have the option of retaking the test; there is a maximum of three times in a 12-month period and six times in a lifetime.

After becoming licensed, some physical therapists wish to continue learning and expanding their knowledge. Two ways this can be done via PT continuing education: through clinical physical therapy residency programs and clinical physical therapy fellowship programs.

5. Attend a Physical Therapy Residency or Fellowship

If you want to specialize in an area of physical therapy, such as orthopedics or sports, you'll need to complete a residency program and/or a physical therapy fellowship. In addition to gaining the knowledge to work in a specialty area, you would need to record some or all of the clinical hours needed to earn certification through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.

Physical Therapy Residency vs. Fellowship Programs

How should you choose between a physical therapy residency vs. fellowship? What’s the difference between the two? When it comes to the field of physical therapy, a residency experience prepares an individual to become a board-certified clinical specialist. A fellowship, on the other hand, is designed for the graduate of a residency or board-certified physical therapist to focus on a subspecialty area of clinical practice, education or research.

Careers for Physical Therapists

Where do physical therapists work? Careers and locations that employ physical therapists vary greatly. Physical therapist work environments include:

  •     Hospitals
  •     Outpatient clinics or offices
  •     Inpatient rehabilitation facilities
  •     Skilled nursing, extended care or subacute facilities
  •     Homes
  •     Education or research centers
  •     Schools
  •     Hospices
  •     Industrial, workplace or other occupational environments
  •     Fitness centers and sports training facilities

In addition to these and the previously mentioned environments, some physical therapists set up private practices once their training is complete.

As with a PT student’s observation hours, licensed physical therapists may work in practice areas from acute care and home health to pediatrics or geriatrics and specialize in oncology, neurology, sports or even women’s health.

For more information, see Physical Therapy Careers and Salaries .

Salaries for Physical Therapists

The median annual wage for physical therapists was $87,930 in May of 2018; however, the highest 10% of United States physical therapists earned upward of $123,350. 

The median annual wages were above the median annual wage of the profession as a whole for those physical therapists working in nursing and residential care facilities ($94,010); home health care services ($92,660); and state, local and private hospitals ($89,950).  

Demand for Physical Therapists

The employment outlook for the physical therapy field as a whole is much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 22% between 2018 and 2028. And assuming an attrition rate of 3.5%, as models do, there could be a nationwide shortage of 18,350 physical therapists by 2025.

This strong employment outlook is largely due to this predicted shortage, as well as to the baby boomer population aging: Not only are they staying active later in life, but they are also susceptible to chronic and acute health conditions. As a result of this demographic shift, PT job prospects are predicted to be particularly good in settings where older adults are treated, such as acute care hospitals, skilled-nursing facilities and orthopedic care settings.

Prospects may also be especially favorable in rural settings as a result of an existing shortage of physical therapists, many of whom currently choose to live in highly populated suburban and urban locations.

A Day in the Life of A Physical Therapist

The process of becoming a physical therapist is just one step in the journey. What is it like being a physical therapist? While your subsequent physical therapy career will undoubtedly differ from that of others based on the environment, clients and specialty area within which you work, the following is arepresentation of the responsibilities and duties you may encounter in the daily life of a physical therapist. 

1. 7-7:30 a.m. | Arrive and Prepare 

Physical therapists themselves are often the first in the office, but arrival times may differ from day to day. They typically prepare by reviewing patient files and ensuring that the environment is clean and ready for the arrival of patients. Physical therapists may also take this time to answer emails or do other related follow-up for their cases.

2. 8 a.m.-Noon | Routine Patient Meetings

Appointments with returning patients will vary in duration and scope depending on the condition at treatment plan, but in general, a physical therapist will spend 30 to 45 minutes per patient, evaluating body usage and progress, assessing their response to treatment and making adjustments as needed, and educating patients and modeling exercises for them to do at home.  

Different patients will require different exercises and assessments. A patient with a sprained ankle only need to be shown stabilizing and strengthening exercises, whereas a patient who has had a stroke may need to start with the basics of movement.

3. Noon-1 p.m. | Take a Lunch Break

Flexibility is important when it comes to taking a lunch break as a physical therapist; lunch could fall anywhere from noon to 2 or 3 p.m. depending on your daily patient schedule. Many physical therapists will also use their lunch time for multitasking, whether that’s answering questions with staff, filing patient paperwork, taking notes about earlier clients and cases, cleaning up the therapy area or attending to a whole host of other priorities depending how the day is progressing.

4. 1-5 p.m. | Meet with New Patients

The time post lunch might be spent meeting with new patients; this timing may provide structure to the day and flexibility for scheduling. (Not all new patients are seen during the afternoon hours; as with many other things in physical therapy, flexibility is key — for patients and providers.)

Physical therapy appointments for new patients might involve any number of tasks, including collecting a patient history, examining the injury presented, creating a treatment plan for this particular patient to follow and setting goals for their care. Much of this is done in conjunction with the patient, as physical therapists work to empower patients to be active participants in their own treatment.

5. 5-6:30 p.m. | Use Spare Time to Catch Up

The “end of the day” varies widely for physical therapists based on the timing and duration of their patient appointments, which might run as late as 6 or 7 p.m. However, once a physical therapist has met with all of their patients for the day, most will take some time to collect their thoughts, catch up on administrative duties, finalize patient notes and check emails and calls one last time. This is an area where physical therapists and occupational therapists are similar. 

The Bottom Line

Physical therapists do a vital, demanding job that affects the quality of life of their patients immensely. It requires extensive education and training to qualify as a physical therapist. Fortunately, physical therapists have the opportunity to choose particular ranges of patients, settings and specialties in their career path, while earning a competitive salary and also knowing that what they do makes a difference.