Following a year with unprecedented clinical demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, a number of career roles in health care are experiencing immense growth and present a strong career outlook moving forward. Health care career professionals in these positions play an important role in the care of patients across the country, who rely on them…
What are you
most interested in?
What do you want to become?
How to Become a Physical Therapist
Alternate Career Titles:
Physical Therapist Job Description: Physical Therapists help patients improve movement and manage discomfort and pain
Physical Therapist Salary (Annual): $89,440
Physical Therapist Salary Range: $62,120 to $124,740
How Long To Become a Physical Therapist: 8 years
Physical Therapist Requirements: Doctoral of Physical Therapy Degree
Become a Physical Therapist
Physical Therapists help patients of all ages who are injured or ill to regain and improve movement, as well as to manage their pain. In doing this, they often provide rehabilitation and treatments to their patients, and discuss/educate them on methods of prevention to avoid future injury and improve chronic conditions. Aside from providing hands-on measures, PTs also discuss healthcare histories with patients, update patient charts and make note of any referrals. Due to the high demand for these services, there are many Physical Therapist advancement opportunities.
Depending upon the patient and their individual condition, Physical Therapists will develop personalized treatment plans, evaluations and goals. These treatment plans may include a variety of stretches, exercises and the maneuvering of equipment. There exists great variation among plans because, for example, a patient who has suffered from a stroke would be in need of vastly different therapies than someone else who has broken a leg. Oftentimes, PTs will work alongside Physical Therapist Assistants.
“In two words, being a Physical Therapist is extremely rewarding!” Michael Masi, DPT, a Physical Therapist practicing in North Carolina, said. “You’re helping people restore their function and achieve their goals in and outside of therapy. That’s probably one of the most rewarding parts of the career.”
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Education & Training
To become a Physical Therapists, professionals must complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree program and become licensed by the state they seek to practice in. While many DPT programs require that a student have first completed a Bachelor’s Degree, the programs themselves typically take three years to complete.
“There are specific prerequisites to meet in order to matriculate into the graduate program,” Masi explained. “Some colleges offer a ‘3 and 3 program’ in which the undergraduate courses are compacted into 3 years to hasten the process. These programs definitely will save you time and fast-track you into the program.”
Masi added that by enrolling in a “3 and 3 program,” learners subsequently tend to have to take less student loans out, however knowing that they wish to become a Physical Therapist immediately upon entering a post-secondary degree program is imperative. Not all learners, including himself, are sure this is the right career path for them during the early stages of college, leading many to first pursue a Bachelor’s Degree, followed by a Doctoral Degree.
“I have a Bachelor’s of Science in pre-clinical allied health, which was like a springboard into all sorts of health professions. I could have went into occupational therapy, radiology and of course physical therapy,” Masi explained.
Additionally, DPT programs include science-heavy classes on topics such as physics, pharmacology, anatomy, physiology, biology, etc. On top of the in-class curriculum, DPT students must complete at least 30 weeks of clinical work to take the National Physical Therapy Examination (administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy) and become licensed. To maintain this license, continued education is often required. Furthermore, some Physical Therapists choose to become board-certified specialists (sport, geriatric, orthopedic, etc.) after obtaining their license.
To advance as a Physical Therapist, professional can choose to become board certified in a specialty such as sports, geriatrics, orthopedics, etc. However, if a professional is not interested in becoming board certified, but still wishes to advance their career, they can also consider opening their own practice. In this case, they may need to hire and supervise staff members including Physical Therapist Assistants.
“There are many postdoctoral programs to go into including fellowships and residencies. Choosing one depends on what skills the professional is looking to develop or refine,” Masi explained. “Some PTs even provide mentorship for working within the private sector and creating their own businesses to advance.”
Experience & Skills
“Physical Therapy is a broad spectrum and there are many different settings in which we can work. Consequently, we play many different roles in our patient’s lives and we utilize different skills, but one need throughout most career settings is having a thorough understanding of musculoskeletal anatomy,” Masi stressed. “This is how you implicate the tissues to diagnose someone’s problem, pinpoint what’s causing pain and to helping you understand muscle overall.”
He continued by explaining that when a Physical Therapist begins to perform higher level skills, like dry needling, musculoskeletal anatomy helps these professionals to be able to access specific muscles with a needle. Thus, if a PT does not have the knowledge required to know where that muscle is located, they would have a really difficult time performing the necessary tasks. Additionally, they must be aware of all the parts of the body to avoid when performing therapies, such as arteries and veins.
“The better grasp a PT has on musculoskeletal anatomy, the better their understanding of why things are happening, how they happen, kinesiology, strength and conditioning and the practice of physical therapy overall,” Masi said. “Musculoskeletal anatomy is the foundation for our didactic education. Everything we learn is based on this.”
Also necessary to succeed as a Physical Therapist, professionals should have physical stamina and excellent time-management skills. Being able to manage patient appointments is integral to keeping on a schedule, and ensuring that all appointments in a day are met. Furthermore, PTs should have a vast understanding of the different parts of the body and how they operate, especially in terms of bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Lastly, dexterity is another skill that Physical Therapists should possess, because many treatments involve manual therapy along with therapeutic exercises.
Also to succeed in the role of a Physical Therapist, professionals should be kind and compassionate. This is because those seeking physical therapy could be experiencing pain and discomfort, as well as be frustrated due to their condition. Along with these characteristics, PT professionals should possess the desire to help others, exhibiting resourcefulness in their methods of treatment as needed. They should also be detail-oriented, result-driven and goal setters. Furthermore, PTs should have excellent communication and interpersonal skills, helping them to interact with and understand the needs of their patients.
“Physical Therapists should be caring, compassionate, personable, altruistic and professional,” Masi confirmed. “You can’t go wrong trying to embody the American Physical Therapy Association core values of professionalism.”
The role of a Physical Therapists is usually full-time, and the hours remain pretty “normal” and consistent. However, depending on patient schedules, some evening or weekend hours may be required. Additionally, this career can be physically demanding, as the responsibilities of these professionals may include standing on their feet for long periods of time, or lifting, moving and transitioning patients. With the physical nature of this career exists the potential for injury, however with proper training, mechanics and techniques they can most often be avoided.
“The lifestyle of a PT really depends on the work setting,” Masi said. “Some of us dress up in suit and tie, some wear khakis and polos to work at an office and others wear gym shorts and t-shirts and work at a gym. The one constant here is that the majority of us are health conscious.”
He added that because of the many different possible work settings and schedules within this career, there is no “average day” for all professionals throughout this occupation. A work day can be as fast-paced and exciting or slow and relaxed as a professional desires, they just must find the right area of physical therapy to work in (i.e. outpatient care, prenatal care, intensive care, etc.) and an ideal or appropriate workplace.
Due to growing demand, employment of Physical Therapists is projected to grow 22 percent from over the next decade, a rate much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand in this field is increasing primarily because of an aging baby boom population, advances in technology (i.e. the ability to perform greater rehabilitative care) and increased awareness of chronic conditions.
The majority of Physical Therapists are employed by PT offices, for the offices of Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists or Audiologists. However, some Physical Therapists may be employed by state, local or private hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, or they may be self-employed. Additionally, the state hiring the greatest number of Physical Therapists is California, followed by New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois.
“To find employment, I would recommend finding a recruiter and communicating with them about your employment preferences,” Masi advised. “They are usually great at connecting employers and employees in this field.”
Masi continued by explaining that finding mentorship is imperative when first starting out in this career. He explained that having a mentor is critical to understand the process of finding employment in this field, to determine if pursuing a fellowship is a good idea, to market a practice and to fully utilize social media to reach potential clients.
“You don’t learn everything in school. School teaches you how to be a good Physical Therapist, but not always all the other important elements of being a employee for business owners,” Masi said. “It doesn’t matter how great of a Physical Therapist you are, if you’re not opening to learning all the different parts of being in the occupation you’ll be held back.”
For these reasons, he stressed that having a mentor, and a network of other Physical Therapists, will offer additional insights into being successful in the field or point a professional in the right direction. No one knows a particular field better than someone with many years of experiencing working in that career.
The median annual wage for Physical Therapists is $89,440, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $124,740, and the lowest 10 percent earning less than $62,120. Additionally, the highest paying facilities were recorded as being home healthcare services, nursing and residential care facilities, state, local and private hospitals and the offices of PTs, Occupational Therapists, Speech Language Pathologists and Audiologists. The top paying states for Physical Therapists are Nevada, New Jersey, California, Texas and Alaska.
“The amount you earn is directly related to your years of experience within the company you work for, and the career setting you are in,” Masi explained. “However, if you own your own business, the potential is limitless.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is an individual membership professional organization representing more than 100,000 member physical therapists (PTs), physical therapist assistants (PTAs), and students of physical therapy. APTA seeks to improve the health and quality of life of individuals in society by advancing physical therapist practice, education, and research, and by increasing the awareness and understanding of physical therapy’s role in the nation’s health care system.
“There are many Facebook groups as well that serve all sorts of interests among aspiring or current Physical Therapists,” Masi suggested.
- Career shadow to ensure that physical therapy is something you are interested in
- Become familiar with the physical therapy centralized application process
- Find a mentor
- Apply to Physical Therapy Programs
- Find volunteer/paid work/experience at a physical therapy practice
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Michael Masi
Practice: Masi Fitness, www.thecharlotteathlete.com/mike.html
Location: Charlotte, NC
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Find mentorship ASAP.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Don’t do it for the money. Do it for the love of helping others.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Where can I find mentorship?”
Why did you choose to become a Physical Therapist?
“It was kismet. I was born to do what I do, the profession practically chose me. I have certain skill sets that set me up for a career in healthcare. I was smart enough to be a Physician, but I loved the flexibility a career as a Physical Therapist offered. For example, I could work with athletes in a gym or I could choose to work as a manager within a facility and never work directly with patients. Currently, I can work all day with strength-support athletes and at the end of the day my responsibilities don’t feel like work. That’s the coolest part of the career.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Practice. In every sense of the word.”
Credentialing organizations: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education