How to Become a Physical Therapist

A human body is an amazing thing. The body and the brain it contains are the pinnacle of evolution on our planet. It is also notoriously prone to injury, especially as we age. Some of these injuries can be debilitating because of the pain they cause or limitations in bodily movement. Thankfully, this fact has led to the development of the field of medicine, and more specifically physical therapy. A physical therapist is a health care professional who specializes in helping individuals who have problems with movement or pain. Whether caused by an accident or a degenerative disease, a physical therapist examines the patient, and then devises and implements a plan to help improve the patient’s life through exercise and various techniques and devices. Therapy is very often a long term process, requiring many visits with many patients. You are going to be busy and not always successful, but you get to go home every day knowing first hand that you did your part to make someone else’s life better—and that’s a good thing.

Years of Education

6–8 years after high school

Degrees & Licenses

  • Master of Physical Therapy
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy
  • Licensure varies by state

Job Availability

Good to Excellent

Income

$50,000–$100,000

Perks

  • You get to help people reduce their pain.
  • Free access to gym equipment.
  • You get to wear tracksuits to work.

1. Be an athlete, take care of yourself, set an example.

Strong man carrying anotherPrepare yourself in high school for a life of helping people with their physical problems. That preparation should include an interest in athletics and bodily health, of course, but it should also include an intense interest in the biological and physical sciences. If you want to become a physical therapist you are going to have to be well versed in the physical structures of the body and the chemical processes that make it all work. You should also be aware that your career is going to be based upon spending your days around people who need your help. If you’re not a “people person” you should definitely consider a different career path.

2. Find a college and complete an undergraduate degree.

Check with the American Physical Therapy Association website for an accredited school in your area. You don’t necessarily have to get your undergraduate degree from the same institution that you plan to attend for your graduate studies, nor do you necessarily have to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a related subject, though one like exercise science or biology makes sense. Some colleges do it all in one program, or have a physical therapy track for undergraduates. The thing you need to keep in mind is that all graduate schools have prerequisites courses you will need to take in order to qualify. In the case of physical therapy programs, those prerequisites will probably include: biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics, psychology, calculus, and statistics. Graduate programs are also extremely competitive, so don’t screw around. Your GPA is important, and your level of understanding and subject competency are even more so.

3. Apply to a physical therapist graduate or doctoral program.

Getting into a post-graduate program may be the most difficult part of the process. Graduate programs are small by design, and can be picky about who they choose to allow into their doors. They want candidates who are most likely to follow through and be successful. The application process requires a minimum GPA somewhere in the 3.5 range, as well as a very high GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores. They will need your complete transcripts, letters of reference, background checks, and a personal narrative telling why you should be their new student. Many schools will also require an interview when you are in the final stages of being chosen. Make the most of your experience. You are going to have a very important job and you should feel obligated to do your very best and learn as much as you can.

4. Complete a clinical internship as a part of your education.

Put everything you’ve learned in classrooms to work and learn a whole lot more. On average, most graduate programs spend about three-quarters of the time in classrooms or labs, and the rest is spent working in a clinical setting. That means you’ll be shadowing a licensed professional physical therapist for a while, and eventually working directly with patients under their direction. As with any educational experience of this nature, you will have an amazing opportunity to see somebody at work. You will see things you like and don’t like. Most importantly, you will have a chance to work with patients. Very often people find that they learn the most when they are actually putting their knowledge into action. You are beginning the long journey of building new knowledge based upon personal experience.

5. Pass the exams and get licensed.

Every state has slightly different requirements and testing standards. You will need to check with your state board to find specific details. You will need to have attended and graduated from an accredited college with either a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) or master of physical therapy (MPT). The state board will have you fill out an application, which may include proof of your education and letters of recommendation. Once that has been turned in by the registration date, you will have to wait to see if you have been approved for the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). If approved, they will send you instructions regarding the test and a date for testing. A permit may be issued to practice while you wait. They only offer tests a couple times per year, so prepare yourself and do your best.

6. Find a job.

What kind of physical therapist do you want to be? Most physical therapists work in the offices of other healthcare providers. This could mean that you are providing therapy services to patients in a hospital or clinic. It might also mean that you work in concert with a chiropractor or possibly some other variety of therapist, such as an occupational or speech therapist. You could also find yourself working in an assisted living or nursing facility working with the elderly. Many physical therapists provide home healthcare to people who are injured and have a hard time leaving their homes. Most physical therapy jobs tend to be in more densely populated areas, but don’t limit yourself. Your willingness to work in a rural area will improve your odds of employment immensely.

Advancement and Specialization

Amputation needs physical therapyA physical therapist, much like any medical practitioner, must continue their education to remain licensed. Beyond that, one can choose to improve one’s education even more with clinical residencies and clinical fellowships, which involve both classroom learning and hands on learning with an expert in the speciality you wish to pursue.

Specializing requires a continued educational focus on one particular area in your scope of practice. There are opportunities for board certification in some of the specialties, though it may not be necessary.

Some of the most common specialities include:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopaedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports Physical Therapy
  • Women’s Health

Further Reading for Aspiring Physical Therapists

PTEXAM The Complete Study Guide (Scott M. Giles). Comprehensive information including three interactive examinations with explanations of correct and incorrect answers.

2016 NPTE Review & Study Guide (Susan B. O’Sullivan). Customizable testing and review software, with test-taking strategies, and licensure information for each state.

Physical Therapy Content Master Flashcards (Scott M. Giles). This is a great portable study tool. Flashcards have been around for a while for a reason—they are efficient and they work.