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What Major Do You Need to Be a Physical Therapist?

Here's everything you need to know about becoming a physical therapist, from the education requirements and job duties to the median wages and career outlook.

Career Information at a Glance

Physical therapists help people rehabilitate their bodies after an injury or an illness. They may conduct guided exercises, stretching and other hands-on therapies with their patients to help rebuild muscle, heal bones and manage pain. Physical therapists must have a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and be licensed in their state in order to practice. The table below offers a quick overview of the physical therapy profession.

Degree Required Doctor of Physical Therapy
Training Required Optional residency after graduation
Licensure Required State license required; optional board certifications available
Key Skills Physical stamina, communication skills, compassion, detail-oriented
Job Growth (2018-2028) 22%*
Median Salary (2018) $86,850 per year*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Do Physical Therapists Do?

Chronic conditions, illnesses and injuries can leave the human body immobile and in debilitating pain. Physical therapists (often called PTs) design and oversee individualized programs to help people regain mobility, alleviate pain and rebuild their bodies. PTs first diagnose the problem by observing and questioning the patient, then they talk about goals to reach and devise exercises to get to that goal. Along the way, they may modify the plan based on the patient's progress.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists must complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited school. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) handles accreditation of DPT programs in the United States, so prospective students would need to attend a program that's been accredited by the CAPTE. DPT programs can be completed in three years. Applicants need to hold a bachelor's degree, and some schools ask for specific undergraduate coursework in areas such as anatomy, physics, biology, and physiology.

Do Physical Therapists Need a License?

All physical therapists must be licensed by the state in which they intend to practice. Licensing requires passing the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is administered by handled by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). Each state has its own rules about licensure; some do a criminal background check and others require a law exam.

What About After Graduation and Licensure?

Physical therapists can practice medicine after they've completed their degree and been licensed. However, there are other ways they can further their education and expertise. A clinical residency is done under the supervision of a mentor and is meant to help a relatively new graduate sharpen his or her skills. Residencies can take anywhere from nine to 36 months to complete. A fellowship is a step up from a residency and typically takes between six and 36 months. Once they've gotten some experience under their belts, physical therapists can apply to become a board-certified specialist. This involves an examination and a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical work.

How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?

The median salary for physical therapists in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $86,850 per year. The highest-paid physical therapists worked in continuing care retirement communities and assisted living facilities for the elderly, skilled nursing facilities, the home healthcare industry, child day care services, and other schools and instruction.