How to Become a Physical Therapist

Learn how to become a physical therapist. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in physical therapy.

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Physical Therapist Career Requirements

Physical therapists apply exercise and rehabilitation techniques to treat injuries or abnormalities that limit people's ability to move. Along with reducing pain and increasing mobility, physical therapists work with patients to prevent disability through fitness and healthy living. Becoming a physical therapist involves earning a graduate degree from an accredited physical therapy program and obtaining a state license. The following table contains the core requirements for physical therapists:

Common Requirements
Degree Level A postgraduate professional degree is necessary; most physical therapists earn Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degrees, but some earn Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degrees*
Degree Field Physical therapy*
Licensure All states require licensure for physical therapists*
Key Skills Attention to detail for observing ailments and evaluating treatments, dexterity for providing hands-on therapy, interpersonal skills for working closely with patients*
Computer Skills Accounting software like MediGraph, Biometrics video game software, medical software like Clinicient Insight and Hands On Technology TheraWriter PT**
Technical Skills Experience with physical therapy tools, such as balance beams, reflex hammers, physical therapy tables and muscle testing equipment**
Additional Requirements Physical strength and stamina for spending long periods of time standing and working with patients*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Complete an Undergraduate Program

To prepare for admission into a graduate degree program, aspiring physical therapists must typically complete a bachelor's degree program. No specific degree majors are required at the undergraduate level. Doctoral programs often require a minimum undergraduate GPA for entrance, such as at least a 3.0. Many physical therapy programs also require applicants to have completed prerequisites in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics and psychology, so students should choose courses with future study in mind.

Success Tip

  • Seek out volunteer opportunities. Undergraduate students may benefit from volunteering at the physical therapy units of hospitals or clinics. Volunteer opportunities allow students to observe the physical therapy process and gain training under licensed professionals. In fact, first-hand experience in multiple physical therapy environments, like inpatient, outpatient and rehabilitative settings, is often required for admission into physical therapy graduate degree programs.

Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree

All physical therapists are required to complete professional physical therapy degree programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), only nine of the 212 accredited programs in physical therapy awarded master's degrees as of June 2012, while 203 programs offered doctoral degrees. Master's degree programs may last 2-3 years, and doctoral degree programs generally take three years to complete. Along with supervised clinical experience, curricula include classroom and lab instruction in patient examination and evaluation, prosthetics and orthotics, medical screening and diagnostics.

Success Tip

*Use clinical requirements to gain experience and develop interpersonal skills. Clinical experience helps aspiring physical therapists prepare for careers in which they interact with patients on a daily basis. Students should also use this time to gain exposure to different clinical specialties, like neurorehabilitation and children's physical therapy, and begin thinking about specializing in a specific field in the future.

Step 3: Obtain Licensure

All physical therapists must be licensed by the states in which they practice. After completing accredited physical therapy programs, candidates in all states and U.S. territories must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. This exam assesses an applicant's competency in physical therapy theory, practice and consultation.

Step 4: Attend a Residency Program

Following graduate school, some physical therapists further prepare for the profession by completing residencies. According to the APTA, residency programs are typically comprised of 1,500 hours of clinical physical therapy practice within 9-36 months. These programs allow residents to examine and diagnose patients under the supervision of licensed physical therapists while training in a specialty. Residents may also contribute to medical research, educate patients on illness prevention and supervise other health care professionals.

Step 5: Consider Becoming a Specialist

A physical therapist may choose to become a specialist in a field of physical therapy by obtaining certification through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS), which offers eight different designations. Common specialties include geriatrics, neurology, sports and orthopedics. ABPTS certification candidates must be licensed physical therapists with at least 2,000 hours of practice in their chosen specialties. Applicants then need to pass a 200-question specialist certification exam, which measures the knowledge and skills of physical therapists in relation to their specialties.

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