How to Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists treat patients of all ages who have difficulty with moving and performing physical activities due to illness or injury. This is a highly challenging and responsible role within the healthcare field offering attractive salaries and excellent long-term career prospects.

Before you find out how to become a Physical Therapist, let me first show you what the career entails.

Physical Therapist Scope of practice

The primary role of physical therapists is to examine each patient and develop a treatment plan that will reduce pain, restore functionality, promote mobility, and prevent further disability. They develop wellness programs to foster a healthier and more active lifestyle. According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), physical therapists provide care to over 750,000 patients every day in the United States.

In today’s cost-conscious healthcare environment, physical therapy is being called on more and more often as an alternative to expensive surgical procedures.  Therapeutic exercises and functional retraining are the primary methods of physical therapy treatment. Depending on the severity of the injury or disability, physical therapists may “manipulate” (move the limb within a certain range of motion)) or massage a muscle to stimulate blood flow and restore function. Physical therapists may also use electrotherapy, ultrasound (high-frequency sound waves that emit heat).

Although physical therapists do work in hospitals, more than 80% work in other settings such as private practice, home health agencies, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, sports complexes, rehabilitation hospitals, and corporate health departments.

Conditions that physical therapists treat include:


Back Pain

Fractures and Sprains





Sports Injuries

Traumatic Brain Injury


Career Satisfaction

A recent survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center showed that physical therapists report one of the highest job satisfaction ratings in the country. The survey showed that more than 75 percent of physical therapists who took part in the poll reported that they were “very satisfied’ with their career. Indeed, physical therapists were second only to members of the clergy in terms of overall job satisfaction and the only healthcare workers to make it into the top 5.

How To Become a Physical Therapist : Education &Training

As per APTA, all physical therapists must possess a graduate degree from an accredited physical therapist program before being eligible to sit for the national exam that will grant them the right to practice within their state.

Physical therapist degrees on currently offered on two levels:

  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Degree
  • Master of Physical Therapy Degree (MPT)


The Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), the accreditation body of The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), accredits entry-level education programs in physical therapy. Currently, CAPTE accredits 212 physical therapy programs throughout the United States. Of the 212 accredited programs, 203 are accredited doctoral-level programs and 9 are master’s level programs. Both degree programs prepare students to sit for the national licensing exam in all 50 states.  As per APTA, “The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) will require all programs to offer the DPT degree effective December 31, 2015.”

As per APTA, curriculum requirements 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, and musculoskeletal. Eighty percent (80%) of the DPT curriculum comprises classroom (didactic) and lab study and the remaining 20 percent (20%) is dedicated to clinical education. PT students spend on average 27.5 weeks in their final clinical experience.

Admission requirements

Most DPT/MPT physical therapists programs will require a bachelor’s degree for entry. Some programs offer a 3+3 option in which 3 years of pre-professional physical therapy undergraduate coursework must be satisfactorily completed before the student can be admitted into the 3 year professional portion of the program.

A few physical therapy programs recruit students direct from high school who evidence strong interest in pursuing a career in the field.  High school students who are accepted into these programs are guaranteed admittance into the professional portion of the 3+3 year program pending successful completion of prerequisite courses at the undergraduate level and any other specific requirements (such as maintaining a minimum GPA).

Selecting the best program for your needs

As you begin to research schools, keep in mind that you will only be eligible to sit for the national licensure examination if you have graduated from a physical therapists program that has been accredited by CAPTE. Once you have identified accredited programs you should consider the following factors when narrowing down your choices:

  • Program structure and curriculum
  • Types of clinical education and training opportunities (e.g. types of clinical settings that the school has affiliations with).
  • Faculty composition and cohesiveness (have they been published; how long have they been teaching; clinical specialty area?)
  • Student demographics (e.g. would you feel comfortable mixing with the student body?)
  • Facilities (e.g. classroom, laboratories, library)
  • Campus setting (e.g., do you prefer to study at a rural, urban, suburban campus?)
  • Geographic location and distance from home/family (do you want to study away from home or do you wish to commute to campus every day?)
  • Size of the university (would you be more comfortable in a smaller setting where you can stand out or would you prefer the anonymity of a larger campus?)
  • Size of PT program’s entering class
  • Licensure pass rates
  • Job placement statistics
  • Admission requirements
  • Cost and financial aid opportunities (are there scholarship opportunities, does the school employ teaching assistants?)
  • Extracurricular activities (you want to balance your study with social outings so try and find out if the school offers activities in which you have an interest)


Licensure as a Physical Therapist

All 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands mandate that physical therapists obtain licensure to practice. Each state maintains its own standards for certification and licensure must be renewed on a periodic basis with the majority of states requiring continuing education as a requirement of renewal. Physical therapists must practice within the scope of practice as defined by their state.

One of the main tools that most states use to determine whether to grant licensure is the National Physical Therapy exam (NPTE) administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). As per the FSBPT, the licensing authority of your state will individually determine eligibility requirements to sit for the NPTE. You should review the material distributed by the licensing authority where you intend to apply for licensure to ensure you are eligible before applying to take the test. It is a somewhat costly process so best to first determine that you meet all requirements. Visit the Web site of the FSBPT to learn how to contact your state licensing authority.

The NPTE is a competency-based test that covers theory and practice of physical therapy, examination, diagnosis, treatment planning, and injury prevention.

Post-Graduate Clinical Study

Licensed physical therapists may wish to pursue a residency or fellowship program to advance their knowledge and skill set.

  • Clinical Residency: A clinical residency offers clinical and didactic (instructional) education to significantly advance the physical therapist resident’s skill-set in providing patient care within a defined area of practice. The fellowship provides ongoing opportunities for clinical supervision and mentoring.
  • Clinical Fellowship: This program also offers clinical and didactic learning experiences but is geared toward physical therapists that are able to evidence clinical expertise prior to commencing the fellowship.This expertise must be in a clinical practice area related to the practice focus of the fellowship. As per APTA a fellowship program must offer a curriculum that:

1. Is focused, with advanced clinical and didactic instruction within a subspecialty area of practice;

2. Is intensive and includes extensive mentored clinical experience; and,

3. Provides a sufficient and appropriate patient population to create an environment for advanced clinical skill building.

Specialty Certification: Physical therapists have the opportunity to specialize through the American Board of Physical Therapy (ABPTS). Specialization allows physical therapist to build on an existing base of knowledge to gain deeper insight with regard to one mode of treatment.  Specialty certification is voluntary and physical therapists are not required to be certified to practice in any one area. Physical therapists may become board-certified in one of the following specialty areas:

  • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports Physical Therapy
  • Women’s Health

Earnings of physical therapists

There are currently more than 175,000 physical therapists licensed to practice in the United States. As per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic, the median salary for a physical therapist is $80,000. Earnings will be dependent on your title, years of experience, degree level, geographic location, and type of setting in which you work.