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Physical Therapy: Required Education to Be a Physical Therapist

A physical therapist (PT) evaluates, diagnoses and treats patients with disorders that limit their abilities to move or function normally in daily life. This career may be a good fit for people who have good interpersonal skills and a desire to help others with their physical limitations.

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Educational Requirements for PTs

Before they are allowed to practice, physical therapists must have earned graduate degrees from accredited academic programs in physical therapy. These programs culminate in either master's or doctoral degrees and take 2-3 years to complete. To gain admission to physical therapy programs, students typically need to earn bachelor's degrees, complete certain science prerequisite courses, gain volunteer or observation experience in the area of physical therapy, submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores and maintain acceptable grade-point averages.

Students in physical therapy programs may study topics like human anatomy, biomechanics, musculoskeletal system pathology and neurological dysfunction management. They may also participate in clinical internships and take hands-on clinical courses, which provide training in patient care, screening, assessment, treatment and intervention.

Licensure Requirements

All PTs must be licensed by their states. While each state has its own requirements, most require that candidates have graduate degrees in physical therapy from accredited programs and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. Some states may have additional requirements, such as jurisprudence exams. There may also be continuing education (CE) requirements to maintain licensure in certain states.

Certification Information

Although board certification is voluntary for physical therapists, earning certification in a clinical specialty may open up opportunities for career advancement. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers board certification for physical therapists in eight specialty areas, including cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology and geriatric physical therapy (www.abpts.org). To be eligible for certification, candidates must have licensure and completed at least 2,000 clinical practice hours in their specialty area. Eligible candidates who pass a day-long, multiple-choice exam are awarded specialty certification. Certified specialists must be recertified after ten years.

Advancement Information

In addition to earning specialty certification as a way to advance their careers, PTs can participate in continuing education to stay current on the latest advancements in physical therapy, even if they do not need CE to maintain their licenses. Professional organizations, such as the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), sponsor national conferences, live classes and online lessons for practicing PTs. Some PTs go on to open their own private practices, while others opt to perform research or teach.

Salary and Employment Outlook

Physical therapists could see employment opportunities increase 39% from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This much-faster-than-average job growth is due in large part to an aging population's need for rehabilitative services to manage illness or injury and recuperate from surgery. Not surprisingly, job prospects should be best in settings that provide care to elderly patients. Rural locations are also expected to offer favorable employment opportunities. The median annual salary for physical therapists was $79,860, as of May 2012.

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