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How to become a physical therapist

Published: Wednesday 7th October 2020

Physical therapist treating young boy

Becoming a physical therapist is having a moment. There are currently around 258,000 physical therapists in the US, and that number is expected to grow by 18% over the next 10 years. It seems like everyone’s rushing snap up jobs in this amazingly complex and challenging field.

But what are physical therapists and how do you become one?

What is a physical therapist?

Physical therapists work with people who face difficulties with pain management and movement to help them heal and recover. They use exercise plans based on rigorous assessments to help their patients regain their range of motion and autonomy. Pain and trauma can have a variety of sources, including musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, neurological and endocrinological.

Specialty areas of physical therapy include:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Geriatric
  • Integumentary
  • Neurological
  • Orthopedic
  • Pediatric
  • Sports
  • Community physical therapy
  • Palliative care
  • Back pain
  • Aquatics

What education do I need to become a physical therapist?

Physical therpist treating an old man on a table

In order to become a physical therapist, you need to complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy program, most of which last about three years. To enroll in a doctoral program, you need to have completed a bachelor’s degree in on or more of the following areas:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Kinesiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Pharmacology

Your doctoral program will need to be certified by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. You will also be required to complete a clinical internship with supervised experience. Doctoral programs usually include courses on the following subjects:

  • Applied physical therapy
  • Functional anatomy
  • Complex conditions
  • Life span development
  • Pharmacotherapy

Do I need any other experience or certifications?

You will need to get a license to practice in your state. Then, you will need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. You will probably also need to get a criminal background check and/or pass a law exam.

After completing your education and certification, you can apply for a clinical residency program for more training, and then to a fellowship for more specialized training.

Once you complete all the above, you can apply for board certification in a particular specialism by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. To do this, you must complete 2,000 hours of clinical work or an APTA-accredited residency program in specialty area and pass an exam.

Main duties

While they will vary depending on your specialism, a physical therapist’s duties include:

  • Using observational skills to diagnose patients
  • Screening for injuries
  • Determining a prognosis
  • Developing plans of care
  • Delivering manual therapy and therapeutic exercises to patients
  • Evaluating treatments
  • Overseeing documentation
  • Discharging patients

How a physical therapist can practice differs state by state. Learn about your state’s regulations.

Where are all the physical therapy jobs?

physical therapist working in a hospiptal

As a physical therapist, you can work for organizations like hospitals, clinics, rehab centers, sports teams, universities, hospices, outpatient clinics or spas.  However, many physical therapists prefer to work independently and start their own private practice. Others decide to go into academia and teaching.


Entry level salaries in physical therapy start at around $50,000. Mid-level salaries can grow to around $72,000. Once you have sufficient experience, you can earn up to $120,000+.

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