How to Become a Physical Therapist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for a physical therapist. Get the facts about education, salary, licensing requirements and job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Physical Therapy degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapists help injured or ill people recover the capacity to function in their daily lives. They begin their work by reviewing a patient's medical history and observing the patient to diagnose the problem. Then they create an individualized treatment plan that may use exercises, stretching and more to improve overall health and wellness by managing pain and increasing mobility. Physical therapists must monitor a patient's progress and adjust the treatment as needed. They often educate patients about the recovery process and what challenges they may face. Physical therapists will often work with physical therapy assistants, physicians and other specialists to provide the best overall care possible.

These professionals need a doctoral degree and licensure to work in the field. The following chart provides more information about becoming a physical therapist.

Degree Required Doctor of Physical Therapy
Field of Study Physical therapy
Key Responsibilities Examine and diagnose physical dysfunction; set up plan of care; use exercise, stretching, machines and manipulation to ease pain and increase mobility and strength; counsel patients on how to best facilitate their recovery
Licensing or Certification All states require physical therapists to be licensed; board certification in a specialty is available
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028) 22%*
Median Salary (2018) $87,930 *

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists help patients recover and maintain maximum body movement and function. Your interventions might improve mobility, relieve pain and promote overall fitness and health for those with physical limitations due to injuries, surgeries or disease. You daily duties might include developing treatment plans and examining medical records, as well as testing and measuring strength, range of motion, coordination, posture, respiration, balance and motor function.

Step 1: Complete an Undergraduate Degree Program

You have several options on the undergraduate level, including bachelor's degree programs in health science, biology or physical education. If you earn a degree in another area, you might consider taking courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, the social sciences, mathematics and physics, which all are applicable to physical therapy.

Step 2: Gain Experience at a Medical Facility

Many physical therapy programs require observation/work experience in physical therapy, in addition to a bachelor's degree, for admission. If your undergraduate degree program didn't include an applicable internship or practicum, you might take advantage of volunteer positions or physical therapy internships offered by hospitals or clinics.

Step 3: Earn a Doctoral Degree in Physical Therapy

Medical terminology, patient interaction, skeletal anatomy, neuromuscular processes and therapeutic technology are among the possible course topics in a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. Content is delivered through a combination of academic courses, labs and clinical practice. A supervising physical therapist will evaluate you during the clinical component of the program. Look for programs accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association.

Step 4: Obtain a License

Completing a physical therapy program is an eligibility requirement for the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy ( As of 2014, the test consisted of 250 multiple-choice questions, 200 of which counted toward the final score. Areas covered in the exam include the musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular, metabolic, gastro-intestinal and integumentary systems. Some states supplement the written exam with a practical exam or other assessments.

Step 5: Complete a Residency and/or Fellowship

If you want to specialize in an area of physical therapy, such as orthopedics or sports, you'll need to complete a residency program and/or fellowship. In addition to gaining the knowledge to work in a specialty area, you'll record some or all of the clinical hours needed to earn certification through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are several related careers in the medical field that require a doctoral or professional degree, including audiologists and chiropractors. Audiologists specialize in treating complications of the ear, such as hearing issues, loss of balance or other inner ear problems. Chiropractors, like physical therapists, help patients manage pain using spinal adjustments and other techniques. They focus on neck and back pain by treating the muscles, bones, nerves and tendons in these areas.

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