How to Become a Physical Therapist: A Complete Guide

As many as 200 unique patients walk (or hobble) through the doors of physical therapy clinics each week. That means that each year, talented and passionate physical therapists around the world collectively conduct about 300 million therapy sessions! 

Do you think you might have the physical strength, brainpower, social ability, and creative problem-solving skills necessary to become a physical therapist? This is a large and growing field that can net you a lucrative salary. Most physical therapists love the day-to-day challenges inherent in the job, and they never experience the same day twice!

The number of physical therapy jobs is rising by the day, so the time to pursue this path is now! Do you know if you have what it takes to join the ranks of these pain reduction heroes? Keep reading to learn more about becoming a physical therapist, from start to finish!

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

The primary physical therapist’s role is to help individuals with illnesses or injuries improve the way their bodies move. This might also involve assisting with pain management. They are important members of rehabilitation teams, where they work with patients as they strive to meet physical goals. 

Physical therapists need a strong understanding of human anatomy. They need to use creativity and scientific principles to generate individualized recovery plans for their patients. They make careful observations as they keep track of patient progress and adjust their recommendations accordingly. 

Some physical therapists choose to specialize and work with a targeted population. For example, you might choose to work with special needs children, in geriatrics, or with injured athletes. 

Education for Physical Therapists

Physical therapists are highly specialized medical professionals. They require specific education, training, and certifications to begin practicing. To become a physical therapist, you must earn a DPT degree from an accredited program.

Bachelor’s Degree in a Related Field

Those interested in physical therapy careers should begin by earning a bachelor’s degree. Some schools might have an undergraduate “pre-physical therapy” track, but that is not necessary. Any major that involves coursework in the hard sciences, including anatomy and physiology, is appropriate. 

To decide on an undergraduate major, you might want to look at the admissions requirements at your graduate school of choice. Prerequisites will vary across institutions. 

Common majors for future physical therapists include sports medicine, pre-med, health science, or biology. 

Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree

The next step will be to apply for and complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. This takes the average student between two and four years. 

At the beginning of your program, you’ll take a lot of foundational coursework in anatomy, pathophysiology, medical imaging, and related topics. From there, you will begin to gain hands-on, practical experience with patients. Typically, students are ready to graduate once they have completed the practical component of the program. 

Licensing for Physical Therapists

Once you graduate with your DPT degree, you will need to become licensed to practice in your state. The requirements of licensing will vary depending on where you live. Regardless, the first step is to pass the NPTE (or National Physical Therapy Examination). 

You will take the NPTE exam on a computer. It will consist of 250 multiple-choice questions. The maximum score on the exam is 800 points and you must achieve a minimum score of 600 points to pass.

You will have the opportunity to sit for the exam four times each year: Winter (January), Spring (April), Summer (July), or Fall (October). If you are unsuccessful on your first attempt, you may retake the exam two more times in one year. Don’t worry – 89% of students passed the exam on their first try in 2021! 

In some states, passing the NPTE is enough to become licensed. Other states have more specific criteria, such as background checks or additional training. Your university should be able to provide you with more guidance as you approach graduation. 

If you’re concerned about passing the NPTE, you can get some extra help from Therapy Team

How to Begin a Physical Therapy Career

Most physical therapists straight out of school will pursue additional practical experience before launching into a full-time, unsupervised position. Many new PTs choose to complete a residency program, not unlike medical doctors. It’s a great way for new professionals to hone in on a potential specialty within the field. 

If you already know what specialty you’d like to pursue, you might choose to pursue board certification right away. 

The ten specialty areas include:

  • Women’s Health
  • Wound Management
  • Sports
  • Pediatrics
  • Orthopedics
  • Oncology
  • Neurology
  • Geriatrics
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary

To qualify for board certification, you must attain 2000 hours of clinical experience. Some specialties have additional unique requirements. Completing a residency will allow you to log many of the hours you need to complete the practical requirements. 

Get a Job in the Field

From there, you will be ready to begin practicing! You will most likely be able to leverage your connections from school and your residency to find a satisfying position. There is no shortage of jobs for qualified PTs, so you should be able to begin your career right away! 

Physical therapists work in many settings, from hospitals to sports arenas. Some even work with children in schools! With the right training, you might find yourself in an exciting and fulfilling position in an unexpected place!

Yes, it takes a lot of work and preparation, but you will help so many people once your professional practice begins!

Vanquish Pain: Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapy is not an easy job and requires a lot of intrinsic skill and compassion that even the best professors can’t teach. If you think you have what it takes to step up and help patients vanquish pain, definitely become a physical therapist! It is a calling as much as a career, and you’ll get the satisfaction of helping people every single day!

If you’re still on the fence about choosing a career path in physical therapy, there’s no shame in looking into other options! Stick around for more posts about the many other jobs available to you, from home decor to healthcare. 

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