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How to Become a Physical Therapist

If you have a passion for helping others, excellent interpersonal skills, and you’re looking for a career in healthcare, a physical therapist might be a great fit for you.

Physical therapists work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities where they help people recover movement, relieve pain, become more flexible, and gain more independence. They use a variety of methods, including specialized exercises, massage, and strength and mobility training equipment. As a physical therapist, you will diagnose and treat people who have medical problems or conditions that hinder their ability to move. Your goal is to help them gain back the ability to perform daily tasks and a more active lifestyle. Exceptional communication skills, compassion, and the ability to be on your feet for long periods are essential. All states require physical therapists to have a degree and be licensed.

Physical therapists develop personalized treatment plans for a wide range of injuries and conditions, such as neck and back injuries, neurological disorders, sports injuries, and many more. They also advise patients and families about in-home treatment options and educate them on injury prevention. Physical therapists must comply with all applicable rules and regulations. To excel as a physical therapist, you need to stay current on different treatments and equipment and have good written communication skills to document patient information, treatments, and recommendations. You should be able to work independently and be able to evaluate injuries and conditions with accuracy. Attention to detail is a must. An intermediate level of computer and relevant software proficiency is also required. 

Sample job description

[Your Company Name] is searching for an experienced and certified physical therapist to join our team. You will be in charge of assisting patients with physical recovery from injuries and trauma. It will be your job to schedule appointments with your clients, prescribe medications relevant to the injuries if needed, and assess patients for relevant injuries. If you are interested in this position, please consider applying! To be qualified for this position, you will be required to have relevant degrees in physical therapy, as well as the ability to communicate accurate information to patients. Although this position is full-time, hours will be based on appointments rather than daily amounts. If you are interested in joining our team, are a motivated physical therapist, have a fantastic work ethic, and have good communication skills then this position is for you!

Typical duties and responsibilities

  • Review medical histories
  • Diagnose function and movement issues
  • Develop specialized care plans, goals, and expected outcomes
  • Use exercises and hands-on therapy to ease pain and increase mobility
  • Monitor progress and modify treatment as needed
  • Counsel patients and their families about the recovery process

Education and experience

Physical therapists need a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited program. These programs typically require a bachelor’s degree and prerequisite courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, and physics. Physical therapy students do clinical work while being supervised, and DPT programs usually take about three years to complete. 

Required skills and qualifications

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Compassion, empathy, and a desire to help people
  • Strong analytical and observational skills
  • Dexterity and physical stamina for exercises and hands-on therapy
  • Flexibility and resourcefulness to develop individualized treatment plans
  • Time-management skills
  • Keen attention to detail

Preferred qualifications

  • Valid state license
  • Continuing education certificates
  • Must be willing to complete all compliance standards
  • Ability to stand, walk, sit, use hands to feel, and reach with hand and arms
  • Ability to lift up to 50 pounds
  • Bilingual

Typical work environment

A physical therapist will be required to work with patients or clients who have physical injuries, pain, and trauma. Physical therapists will usually work in a clinic environment, although physical therapists commonly start their own practices as well. This position is likely to be full-time. The responsibilities of a physical therapist will vary depending on the clinic and location, though usually, a physical therapist will be responsible for consulting with patients in order to better understand and diagnose their problems, developing treatment plans and giving unique coaching, and occasionally using hands-on therapy if needed. Oftentimes, a physical therapist will be required to have relevant certifications to the position or clinic where they apply. Physical therapists may also be required to maintain patient records and data. A physical therapist will benefit from having excellent interpersonal skills because of the uniquely personal nature of the position.

Typical hours

Physical therapists usually work during regular business hours, although evenings and weekends might be required depending on your employer. Most therapists work full time, but part-time shifts are common.

Available certifications

Physical therapists practice in a multitude of fields and have multiple areas of expertise, so having certifications in this field is extremely crucial. Some of the best certifications available for this position are:

  • National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). The National Physical Therapy Exam is an exam and certification used to assess the professionalism and expertise of a credentialed or non-credentialed physical therapist wishing to practice. This exam is a must for any physical therapist, as it is nationally recognized and very beneficial for a physical therapist position.
  • Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). A Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist will be ensured to have an expert level of competency and understanding of strength and conditioning as it relates to physical therapy. This certification is offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is widely recognized as a beneficial credential for a physical therapist to hold.
  • Master Therapist (MTAPA). The MTAPA certification is offered by the American Psychotherapy Association and can prove to be beneficial for physical therapists looking to expand their credentials and certificates. This certification does require previous work experience, so it should be considered after work experience is gathered.

Career path

Physical therapists need to earn a high school diploma or its equivalent. A bachelor’s degree is strongly preferred, in preparation for a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree. This program usually takes three years and includes science courses and hands-on clinical work. Some graduates enter a yearlong residency program, which provides additional training and experience.

All states require physical therapists to be licensed and to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. Some states also conduct a criminal background check. Continuing education is typically required to maintain a state license.

Some therapists choose to become a board-certified specialist with the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.

US, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job outlook

SOC Code: 29-1123

2020 Employment239,200
Projected Employment in 2030288,300
Projected 2020-2030 Percentage Shift 21% increase
Projected 2020-2030 Numeric Shift49,100 increase

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, aging baby boomers who want to stay active will boost the demand for physical therapy and rehabilitation. Diabetes and obesity are on the rise, which means physical therapists will be needed to help people manage these and other chronic conditions. Doctors also are performing more outpatient surgery, and those patients will require physical therapy during recovery.

Some physical therapists choose to specialize in one field, such as geriatrics or orthopedics.