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How to Become a Physical Therapist

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Physical therapists work with people to help them heal from injuries, surgeries, and illnesses.

Physicians may refer patients to physical therapists if they have lost some physical ability or are in pain due to an illness or injury. They evaluate the needs of their patients, design a program of therapy, administer that therapy, and assess their patients’ progress, making changes to their plans if necessary.

Physical therapists use a variety of methods, including therapeutic exercise and massage, to treat their patients.

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What kind of training is required to become a physical therapist?

Most states require physical therapists to have at least a master’s degree to practice, but many who are looking to enter the profession are pursuing Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degrees, and in the future this may be the minimum required degree.

DPT programs last three years, and applicants must have a bachelor’s degree. Most schools accept applicants with all types of bachelor’s degrees, as long as they have high grades in prerequisite courses like biology, including human anatomy and physiology; chemistry; physics; psychology; and statistics. Applicants may also be required to show documentation of health care work or volunteer experience.

DPT programs focus on the science behind physical therapy as well as the methods, techniques, and equipment used in the profession. Students learn about the cardiovascular, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, and neurological systems, and about the types of therapies used to treat problems in each system. They also learn how to examine and diagnose patients and design a plan of care.

Clinical experiences are a big part of DPT programs. Students will observe physical therapists at work in clinical settings and take part in clinical seminars to discuss connections between theory and practice. DPT programs also assign students to a number of long-term clinical placements.

Are there any certification or licensure requirements?

Physical therapists in the United States are required to earn a license from their state to treat patients. To earn a license, physical therapists need to meet the age, education, and testing requirements set by their state.

Some states require candidates for licensure to hold at least a master’s degree in physical therapy, but some require a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. All states require physical therapists to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination developed by the Federal of State Boards of Physical Therapy. States may set other requirements for licensure, such as background checks or additional exams.

How long does it take to become a physical therapist?

Bachelor’s degree programs typically take four years to complete, and most DPT programs are strictly full-time programs that must be completed in three years. Depending on the time you take to finish your bachelor’s degree or earn your license, or if you choose to complete a residency after graduation, it could take seven or more years to become a physical therapist.

What does a physical therapist earn?

The median yearly pay for physical therapists in the United States was $79,860 in 2012. The top 10 percent of earners in the field made more than $112,020 and the lowest 10 percent made less than $55,620 that year.

What are the job prospects?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physical therapists in the United States is expected to grow 36 percent between 2012 and 2020. Compared to the average expected growth for all other occupations (14 percent), growth in this field is especially strong.

While any licensed physical therapist has a good chance of finding a job in this climate, you can better your prospects by earning a doctoral degree and learning more about a type of physical therapy like orthopedic, neurologic, or pediatric physical therapy by completing a residency after graduation.

What are the long term career prospects for physical therapists?

As they gain experience and additional training, physical therapists may choose to become certified in a physical therapy specialty like orthopedics, geriatrics, sports, or neurology. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties certifies physical therapists in these specialties and more.

Becoming certified can give physical therapists opportunities to advance their careers. Physical therapists may also consider opening their own private practice, or pursuing additional education and going into higher education, research, or health policy and administration.

How can I find a job as a physical therapist?

Your clinical experiences in graduate school should help you make many professional contacts that you can later connect with in your job search. You may also find jobs through a staffing or recruitment service. Many hospitals and practices use recruiters to find qualified staff, including physical therapists.

How can I learn more about becoming a physical therapist?

You can learn more about what you will need to do to become a physical therapist in your state by researching your state’s licensure requirements. These standards are typically set by your state’s board of physical therapy.

The American Physical Therapy Association also has resources for those who are interested in entering the profession.

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