The profession needs and values both physical therapists (PTs) and physical therapist assistants (PTAs). Both roles are important in assuring access to physical therapy services and in providing physical therapy interventions that allow clinicians to work at the "top of their license." Traditionally, PTAs remain with their first career choice within the field of physical therapy and follow career paths leading them toward advanced knowledge and skill in clinical work, education, management and administration, and other areas of interest and may even seek APTA's Recognition of Advanced Proficiency.
However, approximately 10% of PTAs decide to continue or resume their education to become physical therapists. The professional doctoral program prepares the student to provide all aspects of patient management, not just interventions, and to take leadership and professional roles in patient care, research, and education. Often, the physical therapist student will continue their education after graduation through residency and perhaps even fellowship training.
Individuals who are seeking a career in physical therapy should not consider PTA a "stepping stone" to a physical therapist career for a variety of reasons that will be explained here. Additionally, PTAs who are considering a change from PTA to PT may benefit from the information that follows.
For the PTA that is interested in pursuing a physical therapist professional education, there is only one "bridge" educational program that formally incorporates the PTA's knowledge, skills, and experience into the curriculum - the University of Findlay in Ohio.
"Bridge" programs were developed when the PT degree was at the undergraduate or baccalaureate degree (4 years) level, which allowed the few bridge programs to utilize some of the undergraduate PTA courses toward the physical therapist degree. University rules prohibit graduate programs, like our current DPT programs, from accepting undergraduate work toward graduate credits. Some PTA and general education course credits may fulfill prerequisites for PT programs; however, they must typically be less than 7-10 years old. PTAs who wish to transition to a PT education program may need to complete additional course prerequisites, such as advanced biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, math, and/or electives. Most PT programs require applicants to have a bachelor's degree and take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
PT students who were formerly PTAs report that the knowledge, skills, and experiences obtained while working as a PTA contribute greatly to their learning and that they experience many "aha moments" as they understand more fully why the interventions provided in the past were selected and effective in treating the patient. Although PTAs may easily meet the PT observation hours required by PT programs and have related expertise, it is possible they will also need to complete other volunteer (unpaid) PT observation hours or seek experience in a different clinical setting to be eligible for consideration in the admissions process. Not all PT programs require observation hours and admission requirements vary. All applicants to PT education programs should carefully review each program's requirements before applying.
BS Completion Degrees
A growing number of colleges and community colleges with PTA programs are developing articulation agreements with baccalaureate degree programs within their institution or with other colleges/universities that lead to health-related bachelor degrees. These programs offer PTAs the opportunity to gain advanced knowledge in areas within (eg, geriatrics) or related to physical therapy (eg, business administration, education) and/or prepare the PTA to apply to a graduate program in physical therapy. View list of those programs. Other trends in physical therapist education include an online component of the curriculum and weekend programs.
The first step in shifting from a PTA career path to a PT career path is selecting one or more DPT programs of interest. Research the admission requirements for each program and complete the entire admissions process. Visit the CAPTE and the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) websites for more information.
Please note: APTA does not promote or deter the development of PTA to PT bridge programs with colleges and universities, or the development of traditional PTA or PT education programs. Traditional and bridge PTA programs in the US pursuing accreditation must meet the standards established by The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).
For questions or additional information, contact the PTA Services Department at PTA@apta.org.