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How Do You Become a Physical Therapist?

There is no better time than now to become a physical therapist. The rising demand for physical therapy services is happening among aging baby boomers and patients with chronic conditions. Physical therapy services are becoming increasingly accessible due to federal health insurance reform. This reform has created a strong need for more medical professionals in rehabilitative programs to help patients improve their mobility and reduce pain.

Are you ready to take on the challenge of helping patients by treating their injuries and helping them improve their physical limitations? There are many ways on how to become a physical therapist. Continue reading and follow the step-by-step guide on what you need to do to go into this field.

What is a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists treat patients with physical limitations due to injuries, illnesses, or physical deformities. They work with patients of all ages who are often referred to them by other doctors. Physical therapists develop exercise plans and recommend lifestyle adjustments and modifications to help their patients become healthier. The goal is to help patients reduce the need for prescription drugs, surgery, or more physical therapy.

After an initial evaluation, the physical therapist will treat the patient with a series of exercises and stretches. These exercises and stretches are often performed with various equipment to make it easier for the patients. A physical therapist has several tasks, including:

• Observe a patient and diagnose their condition and physical abilities
• Develop an individualized physical therapy program
• Monitor the patient’s progress in the program and make necessary changes
• Use therapeutic aids and supportive devices during the therapy session
• Create a plan the patient can use after the patient finishes the program

A physical therapist can practice general physical therapy. They can also specialize in treating patients in a particular field like pediatrics, sports, orthopedics, geriatrics, or neurology.

Can a Physical Therapist be a Contingent Worker?

Most physical therapists work in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, senior and assisted living facilities, sports and fitness centers, and medical clinics. If any of these organizations need an additional physical therapist but do not want to hire a permanent employee, then they can hire a physical therapist on a contingency basis.

A physical therapist works under a contingent contract temporarily for as long a necessary to complete the service. Services can last for a few weeks or a few months. Contingent work can be a way for a new physical therapist to gain work experience, obtain job references, and get paid.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physical Therapist?

Everyone needs to obtain an undergraduate degree and complete a graduate degree program in physical therapy to work in this field. It takes three to four years to earn an undergraduate degree and an additional three years to complete a Ph.D. program in physical therapy. Physical therapy students do not need to go to medical school.

The cost of this education will vary based on the college or university you attend. For example, attending public colleges and universities costs less than those that are private. Also, in-state tuition for a college or university costs less than the tuition for a school outside your home state.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Before being admitted into a graduate program, aspiring physical therapists need to complete an accredited bachelor’s degree program in a relevant field of study. While there are no specific undergraduate degree requirements, many physical therapists get a degree in biology, physiology, psychology, health science, kinesiology, or exercise science.

Most doctoral programs will require a minimum GPA of 3.0 or higher, so you must maintain a solid academic record throughout your studies. Outside of the classroom, you should take advantage of every opportunity to build relevant first-hand work experience in physical therapy. This first-hand work experience includes taking a part-time job, an internship, or a volunteer opportunity at a medical clinic, nursing home, retirement community, or rehabilitative healthcare facility.

Obtain a Doctoral Degree in Physical Therapy

To further develop as a knowledgeable practitioner of physical therapy, you will need to pursue graduate-level education and obtain a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. In the United States, all physical therapists must complete a program accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

For three to four years of advanced studies, doctoral students will acquire plenty of instruction in patient assessment, physical examination, prosthetics, orthopedics, medical screening, diagnostics, and treatment planning. Some physical therapists will choose to participate in a 1,500-hour clinical residency program after graduation to gain extra practice under the supervision of licensed physical therapists, too.

Coursework in a DPT program will vary depending on the university you choose to attend. Here is a sample of some of the classes you will take in a DPT program:

• Functional Anatomy
• Foundations of Examinations and Foundations of Interventions
• Neuroscience in Rehabilitation
• Movement Science
• Management of Musculoskeletal Dysfunction
• Clinical Medicine and Pharmacology
• Prosthetics and Orthotics

There are also classes on examining, diagnosing, treating, and managing specific patient groups based on age or diagnosis. These patient groups include pediatric patients, the elderly, cardiopulmonary dysfunction patients, or neuromotor dysfunction patients.

Obtain Physical Therapy Licensure and Certification

After completing an accredited physical therapy program, graduates in all states and U.S. territories must obtain a license to practice physical therapy. All physical therapy candidates must be able to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). The NPTE is a standardized exam that evaluates competency in the theories and practices of physical therapy.

It is also necessary for physical therapists to demonstrate their proficiency by obtaining certification through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). After receiving at least 2,000 hours of practice in a chosen specialty area, the board can certify a physical therapist to specialize in an area of physical therapy. Nine physical therapy specialties are recognized by the ABPTS. A tenth physical therapy specialty will be added in 2022. These specialties are:

• Cardiovascular and Pulmonary – Physical therapists who specialize in this area help patients heal and manage heart and lung conditions. These include heart attack recovery, recovery from open-heart surgery, or managing respiratory conditions like COPD.
• Geriatrics – This specialty focuses on helping elderly patients manage musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis or neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease.
• Orthopedics – This specialty focuses on treating patients with certain injuries or musculoskeletal disorders affecting their bones, muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments.
• Neurology – Physical therapists who specialize in this area focus on helping patients with neurological disorders, injuries, or impairments. These neurological issues include Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
• Pediatrics – This specialty focuses on treating newborns to teenagers with genetic or other health issues that affect their quality of life. These issues include autism, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions.
• Oncology – An oncology physical therapist treats patients who are receiving treatment for cancer or are recovering from cancer. They help these patients deal with weakness, chronic pain, and loss of bone density.
• Women’s Health – Physical therapists in this relatively new specialty help women of all ages with pregnancy, menopause, pelvic pain, incontinence, and other physical issues affecting women.
• Electrophysiology – This specialty is another relatively new field where the physical therapist treats patients with nerve and muscle damage wounds and compromised skin issues.
• Sports – Physical therapists in this specialty work with amateur and professional athletes by providing them with injury treatments and rehabilitative services.
• Wound Management – This specialty will become board certifiable in 2022. Physical therapists in this specialty will treat deep and superficial wounds. The wound management specialty requirements and objectives are still under development.

Specializing in one or more areas of physical therapy allows you to demonstrate your expertise, enhance your credentials, and open more employment opportunities. Before you start the certification process in a specialty, be sure you understand the requirements. Each physical therapy specialty has unique requirements. Yet, they all require at least 2,000 hours of direct patient care in the specific specialty within the last ten years.

You can also choose to go into a residency or fellowship program. A clinical residency program allows a physical therapist to receive clinical supervision and mentoring within a defined area of physical therapy. A clinical fellowship occurs after a residency and is designed to provide additional clinical experience in a physical therapy specialty.

Job Outlook for Physical Therapists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the employment of physical therapists will skyrocket faster than other healthcare professions by 36%, thus creating 73,500 new jobs before 2022. The median annual salary of a physical therapist is $91,010, according to the BLS. Physical therapists who work in nursing or residential care facilities have the highest median annual salary of $97,610. The highest-earning physical therapists can earn up to $126,780.

There is a strong demand for physical therapists, and this demand will continue every year over the next ten years. The aging baby boomer population continues to grow, and the number of people with chronic health conditions related to obesity also continues to rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 15,000 job openings in physical therapy are expected each year for the next ten years.


Physical therapy is an ideal career path for you if you are attracted to the healthcare field, have a desire to help others, have the resourcefulness to customize individual treatment plans, and possess the stamina to provide therapeutic exercises. When you follow these steps to become a physical therapist, you will earn the credentials you need to make a positive difference in improving the quality of life of your patients by helping them move better and eliminating their pain.

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