How to Become a Physical Therapist

As the population ages and the wear and tear of many years begins to take a toll on the bodies of millions of Americans, the need for physical therapists is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade. However, physical therapists work with people of all ages for a variety of reasons. Physical therapy can treat injury and disease, but it can also prevent or delay the onset of mobility problems. It can be used to help a wide variety of patients, from ordinary folks looking improve their quality of life to athletes ensuring they can perform at the highest level.

Those who enjoy helping people and working in a health-oriented field may find physical therapy to be an attractive occupation. Additionally, people who like to be mobile themselves rather than confined to a chair and desk might prefer the hands-on nature of the job, which requires some degree of fitness and the ability to perform physical work as well. However, one of the most attractive aspects of the job may be that it allows physical therapists to make a living through acts of compassion and healing. Helping a victim of an accident or stroke learn to walk again can be very rewarding, as can assisting a disabled child or a wounded war veteran in overcoming limitations. There are countless opportunities for physical therapists to improve people’s lives and make a positive impact on the world.

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As a career, physical therapy pays well, the median annual wage in 2008 being $72,790, with the top ten percent making over $100,000 per year. Those starting out can expect to be paid close to $60,000 per year. Given that physical therapy jobs outnumber practicing physical therapists, pay should remain high for some time, and employment opportunities are expected to abound. Because most physical therapists tend to work in urban environments, there should be a high demand for physical therapists in rural and exurban settings in years to come.

To become a physical therapist, it is important to have a background in relevant science and health courses, such as anatomy, physiology, biology, biomechanics and neuroscience, among others. In addition to coursework, experience in a hospital or clinic can be helpful, and is sometimes required for those studying to become physical therapists.

Physical therapy programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which is a branch of the American Physical Therapy Association. There are currently 212 accredited physical therapy programs, including 203 that offer a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, and 9 Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) or Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT) degree programs, both of which qualify students for eligibility to take the PT licensing examination in all 50 states. By the end of 2015, all will be merged into the DPT program.

Obtaining a DPT typically requires three years of study, 80% of which is conducted in the classroom and lab and 20% in a clinical setting. Most DPT programs require a bachelor’s degree before admission to the program, but some allow for a 3+3 format, in which three years of relevant undergraduate work can qualify a student for admission. A few programs, called “freshman entry,” allow students to apply directly from high school, after which they are guaranteed acceptance to the physical therapy program following completion of certain undergraduate courses and maintenance of acceptable grades.

Attending an accredited program is crucial, because only those who have graduated from CAPTE approved programs are eligible for the licensure exam. When choosing which school to attend, you may want to check a number of factors, such as the exam pass rate for its students, cost, location and internship/clinical opportunities.

After graduation, you may want to enter into a residency or fellowship program so as to gain experience, and, if you would like, to choose a specialty. Although it is not required, physical therapists have the option of becoming board-certified specialists in a number of different areas, including:

  • Women’s Health
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Sports Physical Therapy
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Pediatrics
  • Geriatrics
  • Orthopaedics
  • Neurology

Given the growing need for physical therapists, physical therapy is a solid career choice for students who enjoy participating in the healing arts and want to earn a good living without the onerous time and expense of full medical school. In fact, in years to come health care specialists may be in higher demand than physicians as health providers look to cut costs and boost efficiency, so physical therapists will likely remain highly sought after.