How to Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists work with patients who are dealing with mobility and pain issues. Examples of physical therapy patients might include someone who is rehabilitating from a stroke, an amputee, an individual who suffered fractures in a motor vehicle accident, or those with chronic conditions, such as arthritis. Those who are interested in becoming a physical therapist can begin their journey with understanding the education, skills, qualifications and training required in order to move into the profession.

Physical therapist program requirements/prerequisites

Working as a physical therapist requires earning the Doctor of Physical Therapy, or DPT. In order to enter the DPT program, students must first complete a bachelor's degree. Some choose to get a jump-start on their education by earning an associate degree in physical therapy assisting, then transfer those credits to complete out the bachelor's degree program.

In order to begin, students must enroll in the proper associate or bachelor's degree program. The admissions office typically requires a high school transcript, completed application, references, a personal essay, and perhaps other specific information in order to consider a student for enrollment. Most schools will only accept students who have earned a minimum grade point average or test scores.

Once the bachelor's program is complete, students can then apply for the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. Applicants must have the bachelor's degree, as well as certain prerequisite courses completed, including anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics and biology. Most programs require students to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service, or PTCAS.

In addition to the classroom component, students must also complete internships that enhance their hands-on experience. Upon graduation, students can apply to a residency program, which is typically one year of study in a specialized area. Students can then take their education and experience even further by applying to fellowships.

Necessary skills and qualifications for physical therapists

All states require physical therapists to be licensed, but the requirements for licensure vary. One thing each state has in common is the National Physical Therapy Examination, administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states require physical therapists to undergo an additional legal exam and a background check.

Those who want to become board certified must first gain significant work experience -- at least 2,000 hours of clinical work or completion of a residency in the specialty area. They must also pass an exam to become certified. There are eight board-certifications available through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, including:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women's health
  • Orthopedics
  • Clinical electrophysiology

Physical therapists often work with patients who have a variety of issues, and so a wide range of approaches is required. To that end, physical therapists must be resourceful, very detail oriented and have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. They must also have the dexterity and physical strength to help patients move properly during their treatments. Compassion and empathy are also key qualities for those in this profession, as they are working with patients who are frustrated, unable to move properly, and possibly in pain.

Working environment for physical therapists

Physical therapists typically work in private offices, hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. Some also work in home health care or in the offices of physicians. Most work full-time and have regular office hours, but some work on evenings and weekends. Physical therapists must have a great deal of physical strength and stamina, as they may spend hours on their feet while working with patients. They might also help patients move, and that can lead to a higher incidence of back injury in this profession.

Work for physical therapists is expected to increase 36 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov). Much of this growth will come from aging baby boomers, the increase in chronic conditions, and significant advances in medical technology. Federal insurance reform will also offer more individuals the opportunity to take advantage of the services provided by physical therapists. The most jobs will likely be found in skilled nursing centers, orthopedic centers and hospitals, especially in rural areas.


American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, http://www.abpts.org/home.aspx

Physical Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-1

Physical Therapy Assistants and Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm#tab-1

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