Physical therapists help people live healthy and active lives. And the outlook for a career as a PT is strong: U.S. News & World Report listed physical therapist as the #3 "best job" in health care and #6 overall, based on number and percentage of projected openings from 2021 to 2031 as determined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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What Physical Therapists Do
Physical therapists are movement experts who improve quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education.
Physical therapists diagnose and treat individuals of all ages, from newborns to people at the end of life. Many patients have injuries, disabilities, or other health conditions that need treatment. But PTs also care for people who simply want to become healthier and to prevent future problems.
Physical therapists examine each person and then develops a treatment plan to improve their ability to move, reduce or manage pain, restore function, and prevent disability.
Physical therapists can have a profound effect on people’s lives. They help people achieve fitness goals, regain or maintain their independence, and lead active lives.
Visit ChoosePT.com, APTA’s official consumer information website, to learn more about the benefits of physical therapy.
Where Physical Therapists Work
Physical therapists practice in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, people’s homes, schools, sports and fitness facilities, workplaces, and nursing homes.
How Much Physical Therapists Earn
The median salary for a physical therapist is $85,000. Salaries vary based on position, years of experience, degree of education, geographic location, and practice setting.
Demand for physical therapists varies by geographical region and area of practice, but PT unemployment rates are typically low across the country. The need for physical therapists is expected to remain strong as the United States population ages and the demand for physical therapist services grows.
Physical Therapist Education and Licensure
To practice as a physical therapist in the U.S., you must earn a doctor of physical therapy degree from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education-accredited physical therapist education program and pass a state licensure exam.
The length of professional DPT programs is typically three years. Primary content areas in the curriculum may include, but are not limited to, biology/anatomy, cellular histology, physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, pharmacology, pathology, behavioral sciences, communication, ethics/values, management sciences, finance, sociology, clinical reasoning, evidence-based practice, cardiovascular and pulmonary, endocrine and metabolic, and musculoskeletal.
Approximately 80% of the DPT curriculum is classroom (didactic) and lab study and the remaining 20% is dedicated to clinical education. PT students spend on average 27.5 weeks in their final clinical experience.
If you are an internationally educated PT or PTA, please read more information on internationally educated PTs and PTAs.
Getting Into a DPT Program
Most DPT programs require applicants to earn a bachelor's degree prior to admission. Other programs offer a 3+3 curricular format in which three years of specific preprofessional (undergraduate/pre-PT) courses must be taken before the student can advance into a three-year professional DPT program.
A few programs offer freshman entry, recruiting students directly from high school into a guaranteed admissions program. High school students accepted into these programs can automatically advance into the professional phase of the DPT program, pending the completion of specific undergraduate courses and any other stated contingencies, e.g., minimum GPA.
The list of programs at PTCAS includes requirements for each programs.
Choosing the Right Program
APTA does not rank DPT education programs. Programs are accredited by CAPTE, which assures quality in physical therapist education. Among the factors you should keep in mind when choosing your program:
- Cost and financial aid opportunities. Most DPT students graduate with student loans. Make sure you are financially aware and prepared. Programs offer different student experiences and have different costs.
- Program length. The traditional DPT program is three years, but some programs compress academic requirements into a shorter time span, which could help you manage the total cost of your education experience and enter the field faster.
- Demographics and setting. You will be investing a lot into your physical therapy education. Make sure that you select a program where you feel at home.
You may wish to contact current students and recent graduates of the program, or interview employers who hire new graduates, to ask about a program’s strengths and weaknesses.
The Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service allows applicants to use a single web-based application and one set of materials to apply to multiple DPT programs.
Licensed physical therapists may choose to pursue a residency or fellowship program to enhance their knowledge and practice.
A clinical residency is designed to advance a physical therapist's preparation as a provider of patient care services in a defined area of clinical practice. It combines opportunities for ongoing clinical supervision and mentoring with a theoretical basis for advanced practice and scientific inquiry.
A clinical fellowship is a planned program of postprofessional clinical and didactic education for a physical therapist who demonstrates clinical expertise in an area of clinical practice related to the practice focus of the fellowship. (Fellows are frequently postresidency prepared or board-certified clinical specialists.)
Physical therapists also have the opportunity to become board-certified clinical specialists through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Specialization is the process by which a physical therapist builds on a broad base of professional education and practice to develop a greater depth of knowledge and skills related to a particular area of practice. PTs are not required to be certified in order to practice in a specific area.