If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a physical therapist, it’s important to know what qualifications are required for this profession.
Physical therapy is an essential healthcare specialty that helps people recover from injuries or disabilities. To become a successful physical therapist, you’ll need several key skills, educational prerequisites, and professional certifications.
“A career in physical therapy can be rewarding and challenging, but it is crucial to understand the necessary steps to achieve your goals.”
Whether you’re in high school and considering a career in physical therapy, or you’re already working in the medical field and looking to make a change, this article will give you all the information you need to get started.
In the following sections, we’ll delve deep into the educational requirements, mandatory exams, continuing education credits, internships, and practical experience necessary to become a licensed physical therapist. We’ll also discuss some extra qualifications like soft skills, leadership abilities, and patient communication techniques that can help you stand out in a crowded job market.
By the end of this article, you should have a clear understanding of what it takes to become a successful physical therapist, and take the first step towards achieving your dreams!
Educational Requirements for Physical Therapists
Bachelor’s Degree in Health Sciences
Students who want to become physical therapists must first earn a bachelor’s degree, usually in health sciences. The coursework should focus on science and math classes such as anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics and statistics. Students are also required to have strong communication skills since being able to communicate effectively with patients is essential.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), students can choose any undergraduate major but they should take courses that meet the prerequisites for their Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. Many schools offer pre-physical therapy programs which may offer more focused preparation for future DPT students.
Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program
After earning a bachelor’s degree, aspiring physical therapists must then attend a DPT program. The APTA requires all accredited DPT programs be three years or longer, full-time study consisting of theoretical coursework and clinical practice.
DPT programs typically include courses in medical screening, patient examination and assessment, pharmacology, orthopedics, neuroscience, and physical rehabilitation techniques. Students will be expected to complete multiple clinical internships throughout the course of their studies.
The aim of the DPT program is to provide graduates with an understanding of the human body, how it works and moves, and the ability to diagnose and treat physical issues.
Clinical Rotations and Internships
Clinical rotations and internships are an integral part of becoming a physical therapist. These hands-on experiences help students acquire practical knowledge while working directly with licensed physical therapists and patients.
DPT students spend at least 30% of their time as part of their curriculum in planned clinical education experiences. They are expected to complete a variety of clinical rotations in various settings like acute care, outpatient rehabilitation centers, schools and sports teams.
There are also programs that offer Clinical Residencies which provide post-DPT training where students can gain additional experience while practicing under the supervision of physical therapy specialists.
Licensure Exam Preparation
Graduating from an accredited DPT program is not sufficient for someone to become a licensed physical therapist. After completing their degree, graduates must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, or NPTE.
The NPTE assesses the basic knowledge required to be a safe and competent physical therapist. Students will need to plan ahead as the examination requires registration several months prior Mometrix Test Preparation offers preparatory guides and practice exams to help individuals prepare for this exam.
“Preparing for the licensure exam starts early and it requires commitment, discipline and study habits” -Karen Hock PT, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Physical Therapy at Marquette University.
The path to becoming a physical therapist is intense and long but those who succeed find a fulfilling career helping people overcome physical ailments. Understanding what is required to become a physical therapist allows you to begin planning your academic and professional journey so you can thrive in this challenging yet rewarding field.”
Experience and Training for Physical Therapists
Becoming a physical therapist requires completing at least a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program from an accredited institution. This graduate degree usually takes three years to complete, and students must have a Bachelor’s degree with appropriate prerequisites to enroll in the DPT program.
Additionally, physical therapists need experience working with patients before they can take the licensure exam. Some ways to gain clinical experience include volunteering or working as a rehabilitation aide in a physical therapy clinic, observing licensed physical therapists at work, and participating in internships during the DPT program.
Supervised Clinical Experience
In addition to earning their DPT degree, aspiring physical therapists need supervised clinical experience before taking the National Physical Therapy Examination. Most states require candidates to have completed between 500-1000 hours of clinical practice under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. During this time, students will learn how to assess patient needs, develop treatment plans, perform interventions, and document patient progress accurately and efficiently.
This experience is critical because it helps physical therapists refine their skills and confidence when treating patients independently. It also allows them to apply classroom knowledge practically and address common challenges that arise in different settings — like hospitals, clinics, schools, sports teams, and private practices.
Specialized Training in a Specific Area of Physical Therapy
After earning their DPT and passing the licensure exam, physical therapists may choose to specialize in a particular area of physical therapy to enhance career flexibility and expertise. These specialized areas include:
- Sports therapy: Focusing on injury prevention and recovery among athletes and physically active individuals.
- Neurological therapy: Helping patients cope with brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurological conditions.
- Orthopedic therapy: Specializing in musculoskeletal problems like arthritis, joint replacements, and chronic pain.
- Pediatric therapy: Caring for infants, children, and adolescents who have developmental delays, genetic disorders, or physical disabilities.
To become a specialist in any of these fields, physical therapists must complete an approved residency program that involves between nine months to three years of training in the chosen specialization. Some programs also offer mentorship opportunities from experienced professionals, research projects, and board certifications that can enhance their professional standing and salary potential.
“Becoming a successful physical therapist requires dedication, discipline, and ongoing desire to learn new skills and improve patient outcomes.” -American Physical Therapy Association
Aspiring physical therapists need at least a DPT degree, supervised clinical experience, and specialized training to build a rewarding career in this field. Alongside academic excellence, they need excellent communication, interpersonal, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. These qualities are essential to adapting to different environments and building positive relationships with patients, families, colleagues, and healthcare providers. By meeting all these requirements and continuously expanding their knowledge base, physical therapists can make a profound difference in patients’ lives while achieving personal growth and fulfillment in their profession.
Skills Needed for a Career in Physical Therapy
Strong Interpersonal Skills
In order to be an effective physical therapist, you must have excellent interpersonal skills. Patients rely on their therapists not only for treatment but also for emotional support and encouragement. Without strong interpersonal skills, it will be challenging to establish trust and rapport with your patients.
As a physical therapist, you will work closely with people from all walks of life. You must be able to communicate effectively with each patient, listen actively, exhibit empathy, and show patience while keeping their best interests in mind.
“One important quality for a successful career in physical therapy is having good communication skills with diverse populations.” – American Physical Therapy Association
Excellent Communication Skills
The ability to communicate well is essential in any healthcare profession, and this is no different for physical therapy. Apart from communicating with your patients, you must also be able to interact effectively with other health professionals. This can include physicians, nurses, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and others who may be involved in the care of your patients.
Besides verbal communication, as a physical therapist, you will need strong writing skills. Documenting your patients’ progress is vital, and keeping track of their medical history and test results is critical. Therefore, you must read carefully, write effectively, and pay attention to details.
“Physical therapy involves significant documentation tasks such as reports that describe patients’ histories and treatment plans, so candidates must possess strong written communication skills” – Bryan Stiltz, chairman of the University of St. Augustine’s Department of Physical Therapy
Analytical and Problem-Solving Skills
Physical therapists are responsible for assessing patients’ conditions, developing rehabilitation programs, and monitoring their recovery process. To do this effectively, analytical and problem-solving skills are vital.
You must evaluate patients’ strength, range of motion, endurance, balance, gait, and overall functionality. After analyzing the data, you will diagnose their conditions and create a personalized treatment plan for them. If your patient is experiencing difficulties in achieving certain milestones, you must troubleshoot what could be going wrong with the rehabilitation program and adjust it accordingly.
“Physical therapy draws heavily on analytical and diagnostic abilities to assess patients’ needs, monitor progress, and identify barriers to recovery.” – Bryan Stiltz
Physical Stamina and Dexterity
Finally, physical therapy can be quite demanding physically, so physical stamina and dexterity are essential qualities to possess. You’ll spend hours on your feet, moving around from one patient to another, helping them perform various exercises and stretches.
Some patients may also require assistance with standing or walking, which means that therapists need to be able to support a patient’s weight adequately. It would help if you had excellent hand-eye coordination and motor control as well, especially when performing manual techniques such as massages, joint mobilizations, and manipulations.
“Those who hope to work in PT should have some experience working with people, and they have to be comfortable interacting closely with patients while frequently employing hands-on therapies. ” – Stephen Meyers, PT, Director at Johns Hopkins Rehabilitation Network
Pursuing a career in physical therapy demands more than just having technical know-how. Interpersonal skills, communication skills, analytical and problem-solving skills, physical stamina, and dexterity are indispensable components necessary to succeed in this field. Aspiring physical therapists who master these competencies set themselves up for success in helping individuals overcome injuries and illnesses, regain independence, and achieve optimal health outcomes.
Licensing and Certification for Physical Therapists
Physical therapy is a healthcare profession that focuses on rehabilitation, injury prevention, and wellness. To become a licensed physical therapist, you must meet specific requirements set by the state where you choose to practice.
State Licensure Requirements
The first step in becoming a physical therapist is earning an advanced degree from an accredited physical therapy program. Most states require a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree to be eligible for licensure. This typically takes three years to complete, after an undergraduate degree is earned though some programs offer a six- or seven-year combined undergraduate and graduate program.
Once you have obtained your DPT, the next step is to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy administers this exam, which is required for state licensure. Some states may also require additional exams to be passed in order to receive their license.
In addition, many states require applicants to undergo a criminal background check and provide proof of liability insurance coverage. These regulations are put in place to ensure patient safety and promote ethical standards within the profession.
National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE)
The NPTE is a comprehensive exam that covers four main areas: musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, and other systems such as integumentary (skin), metabolic/endocrine, gastrointestinal/urinary, reproductive/pediatric, and lymphatic/hematological.
The exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions and takes approximately four hours to complete. It measures the knowledge and clinical reasoning skills necessary for entry-level practice as a physical therapist. Passing scores vary by state but typically range from 70-75%. If you do not pass the exam on your first attempt, you may retake it after a waiting period and for an additional fee.
While state licensure is required to practice physical therapy, many professionals choose to pursue specialty certifications as well. These certifications can help demonstrate expertise in specific areas of practice and set yourself apart from others in the field.
The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers certification in nine different specialties: cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, orthopedics, pediatrics, sports, and women’s health.
To qualify for a specialization examination you need to have two years of full-time clinical experience or equivalent. Examination criteria differ between specializations, but typically include questions related to anatomy, pathophysiology, evaluation methods, treatment interventions, outcomes assessments, pharmacology, imaging studies, equipment utilization, patient education, and professional ethics/legal concerns.
“Physical therapists play a valuable role in helping individuals recover from injuries, surgeries, and illnesses. Obtaining state licensure and specialty certifications can help ensure that you are providing high-quality care to patients and advancing professionally.”
Job Outlook and Salary for Physical Therapists
Projected Job Growth
Physical therapy is a rapidly growing profession with excellent job prospects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 18 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.
The demand for physical therapists will continue to rise due to an aging baby boomer population who are more prone to conditions such as stroke, arthritis, and mobility-related injuries. Additionally, as healthcare providers place greater emphasis on preventative care, there will be increased need for physical therapists to help patients develop exercise programs and lifestyles that promote overall wellness.
Industry Sectors with High Demand
While physical therapists traditionally work in hospitals and clinics, there are many other industries that require their services. Along with the growth in demand for physical therapy services, there has been an expanding range of workplaces where physical therapists can find jobs.
The BLS reports that home healthcare services, nursing care facilities, outpatient care centers, and individual and family service providers have particularly high employment rates of physical therapists.
Median Annual Salary
Physical therapists enjoy competitive salaries and benefits packages. The BLS reported the median annual wage for physical therapists was $89,440 as of May 2019. However, this varies depending on experience level, industry sector, and geographic location.
Physical therapists working in specialized hospitals or orthopedic and sports medicine clinics may earn higher wages due to the advanced nature of care provided.
“The salary expectation coming out of school at entry-level is around the mid-$60,000s nationally,” says Kyleigh Lakin, PT, DPT, owner of Healthy Steps Physical Therapy in New York City. “This amount will vary based upon location, setting and benefits, just to name a few factors.”
In addition to salary, physical therapists may receive benefits such as healthcare, retirement planning options, continuing education reimbursements, and paid time off.
Continuing Education for Physical Therapists
Becoming a physical therapist requires hard work and many years of study. However, the learning process doesn’t stop once you receive your degree.
The field of physical therapy is always evolving, with new research findings, techniques, and technologies emerging every day. Therefore, to succeed as a physical therapist, it’s essential to engage in continuing education throughout your career.
If you’re wondering what kinds of continuing education opportunities are available in the field of physical therapy, keep reading.
Mandatory Continuing Education Units (CEUs)
Most states require practicing physical therapists to earn a certain number of “continuing education units” or CEUs each year. These CEUs ensure that practitioners stay up-to-date on the latest developments in their field. They may be earned through online courses, conferences, workshops, or other professional development activities.
Organizations like the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offer a vast array of CEU programs and resources. The organization also helps members track their CEUs so they can meet state requirements easily and efficiently.
Specialized Training and Certifications
Many physical therapists pursue additional training and certifications beyond their initial degree to specialize in a particular area of practice. For example, some PTs seek certification to work with pediatric or geriatric populations, while others might choose to specialize in sports medicine or orthopedics.
- To become a board-certified clinical specialist in one of eight different areas, a physical therapist must have completed at least 2,000 hours of direct patient care within their specialty and pass an exam offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.
- Pediatric clinical specialists need to complete 2,000 hours of patient care with children under the age of 18 and pass an exam offered by the Academy of Pediatric Physical Therapy.
- To become a certified Geriatric Clinical Specialist, physical therapists need to log at least 2,000 hours of clinical work within geriatrics, earn CEUs in geriatric topics, and pass a certification exam through the APTA.
Other certifications available include neurologic clinical specialist certification, women’s health clinical specialist certification, and sports physical therapy certification.
Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Residency Programs
For those who want to explore a specific area of practice more comprehensively, DPT residency programs can offer rigorous and structured study experiences. These residencies provide hands-on training focused on specialized areas such as neurology, orthopedics, or pediatrics.
Residencies typically last 1-2 years and offer valuable mentorship from experienced clinicians. They are often located in academic medical centers or hospital systems that allow residents to rotate through different departments and learn from experts in each area.
“As you continue your professional journey, remember that continuing education is not just about fulfilling state requirements. It’s an opportunity to sharpen your skills, expand your knowledge, and improve outcomes for your patients.” – The American Physical Therapy Association
Becoming a physical therapist requires ongoing learning and development throughout your career. From mandatory coursework to specialized certifications and residency programs, there are many opportunities for PTs to keep their skills sharp and stay updated on the latest advances in the field.
Whether you’re a new graduate or seasoned practitioner, committing to continued education can help you achieve your goals and stay competitive in a continually changing industry.
Frequently Asked Questions
What education is required to become a physical therapist?
To become a physical therapist, a doctoral degree in physical therapy (DPT) from an accredited program is required. Most programs last 3 years and include classroom and clinical components. Before applying to a DPT program, a bachelor’s degree in a related field is typically required. Some programs also require prerequisite courses in subjects such as anatomy and physiology.
What skills are necessary to be a successful physical therapist?
Successful physical therapists possess a variety of skills, including strong communication and interpersonal skills to effectively work with patients, their families, and other healthcare professionals. They also need good problem-solving and critical thinking skills to develop appropriate treatment plans, as well as physical dexterity and stamina to perform hands-on therapy. Lastly, physical therapists must be compassionate and empathetic, as they often work with patients who are experiencing pain or discomfort.
What licensure or certification is required to practice physical therapy?
In the United States, physical therapists must be licensed in the state in which they practice. To become licensed, they must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) and meet any additional state-specific requirements. Some physical therapists also choose to pursue board certification in a specific area of practice, such as pediatrics or sports therapy, to demonstrate their expertise.
What types of settings do physical therapists work in?
Physical therapists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, private practices, schools, and nursing homes. They may also work in patients’ homes or travel to different locations to provide therapy services. Some physical therapists specialize in a particular area of practice, such as orthopedics, sports therapy, or neurology, and may work in settings specific to their area of expertise.
What is the job outlook for physical therapists?
The job outlook for physical therapists is positive, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 18% growth in employment from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This is due in part to an aging population that requires more physical therapy services, as well as advances in medical technology that allow for more effective treatment of injuries and illnesses.
What is the salary range for physical therapists?
The salary range for physical therapists varies depending on factors such as experience, location, and specialty area. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for physical therapists in the United States was $91,010 in May 2020. The lowest 10% of physical therapists earned less than $63,290 per year, while the highest 10% earned more than $126,990 per year.