Physical Therapist: Career Summary, Occupational Outlook and Education Requirements

Research what it takes to become a physical therapist. Learn about educational requirements, licensure, job outlook and salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Physical Therapy degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists, or PTs, create rehabilitative programs for people with injuries or chronic illnesses to improve their physical function and quality of life. PTs are responsible for knowing a patient's medical history and reviewing any referral from other healthcare professionals before they begin to diagnose a patient's movements through observation. Once they have diagnosed their patients they must develop an individualized care plan to meet established goals. These treatment plans may combine exercises, stretches, therapy and other equipment to minimize pain and increase movement in a patient. Physical therapists need to track progress and modify treatment if needed. They also may need to educate a patient and their family on how best to manage the recovery process and what to expect. The following table shows an outline of what you might want to know about becoming a physical therapist.

Degree Required Doctorate degree
Education Field of Study Physical therapy
Key Skills Help to improve physical function through treatment and therapy
Licensure Licensure is usually required; requirements vary by state
Job Growth (2014-2024) 34%*
Average Salary (2015) $85,790*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Can I Expect From a Career as a Physical Therapist?

If you become a physical therapist, you will work with people who have health problems, such as arthritis, stroke, cerebral palsy and injuries, which could impair their physical functioning. You will develop customized treatment plans to help increase range of motion, reduce pain and prevent disabilities in your patients. Treatments may include therapeutic exercise, massage, electrotherapy or the use of special equipment. You will keep records of your patients' progress, set goals and adjust treatment plans as necessary. You may coordinate your treatment plan with other healthcare professionals who treat your patients, such as physicians, nurses, social workers and dentists.

Will Job Prospects Be Favorable?

Between 2014 and 2024, employment of physical therapists was projected to increase by 34%, which is much faster than average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov). The trend points to an increase in people with physical disabilities resulting from an aging population and technologies that allow trauma victims and babies with birth defects to live longer lives, as well as an increase in chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity.

The BLS also reported in 2015 that physical therapists earned an average annual income of $85,790. The best job prospects were expected to be seen in rural areas and in settings where the elderly are often treated, such as nursing homes and orthopedic offices.

What Education Will I Need to Complete?

To become a physical therapist, you need to earn a doctorate degree in physical therapy, which takes about three years to complete. To gain admission to this program, you should earn a bachelor's degree and complete some science courses, which may include anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics, statistics and psychology. You may also be required to gain some physical therapy experience.

Once enrolled in this graduate degree program, you take courses in pathology, pharmacology, radiology and neuroscience. You also learn clinical skills, such as performing physical examinations, making diagnoses, implementing interventions, assessing outcomes and managing a practice. Your clinical work may take place in acute care, outpatient or inpatient settings.

To practice physical therapy, you'll need a license. Licensure requirements vary by state, but may include graduating from an accredited program, passing state jurisprudence exams and passing the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). Continuing education is required by many states to maintain licensure.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

A similar career that requires a only a master's degree is an occupational therapist. These professionals also treat injured, ill or disabled patients. They work to improve the skills these patients require for everyday living and working. A couple related careers that require a doctoral or professional degree include audiologists and chiropractors. Audiologists work with patients experiencing hearing issues and diagnose and treat those issues. Chiropractors treat health problems in the neuromusculoskeletal system. They use spinal adjustments and other techniques to treat pain.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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