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How to Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists perform a wide variety of tasks to help their patients get better. If you are interested in the medical field and exercise, then learning how to become a physical therapist may be of interest to you.

Physical therapists must know a lot about the body and how it works and moves to efficiently help their patients with the best treatment. Physical therapists must go to school, do clinicals, get board-certified, and then they can start working. Read on to learn more about how to become a physical therapist.

What Is a Physical Therapist?

A physical therapist, also known as a PT, works with patients who are either injured or in pain and need help with pain management or movement control. Some people who go to physical therapy have had surgery on a body part and need help to move that area again. Every patient is different and physical therapists need to know each part of the body to effectively help their patients.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

The duties of a physical therapist are straightforward when it comes to caring for a patient. Some of the day-to-day duties of a physical therapist are:

  • Develop a plan to help patients, and monitor outcomes and goals 
  • Check on and evaluate your patient progress
  • Come up with different programs that may include: exercises, stretching, and therapy
  • Education is very important in relaying information to your patient. A physical therapist must be knowledgeable about what they are doing to tell the patient what is beneficial for them

Essential Physical Therapist Skills

Knowledge of Physical Therapy

A physical therapist must have extensive knowledge of different muscles and bones to help patients. To practice physical therapy, they must complete a doctorate. A physical therapist also must know how to use different exercise machines to safely help their patients.

Non-Medical Skills

Even though you must have great medical training to be a physical therapist, there are some non-medical day-to-day skills you should have if you want to be successful. Some skills that you should have as a physical therapist are:

  • Being able to communicate 
  • Be an active listener
  • Be patient 
  • Be fit and healthy
  • Be polite 

These skills can go a long way in your career because they will make your patients feel more comfortable with you and assure them that you care about them.

Areas to Specialize In

There are multiple areas that a physical therapist can specialize in. Picking a specialized area helps you become an expert in that field and attracts certain patients to you that need help in that area. According to The College of St. Scholastica, there are nine areas you can specialize in. Some of the areas you can specialize are:

  • Pediatrics
    • You can do physical therapy with kids
  • Sports
    • You can work with athletes and help them with any injuries or issues they may have. Specializing in sports helps you understand the different movements that each sport entails to help each athlete
  • Women’s Health
    • Because women’s bodies are different from men’s, working in this field focuses specifically on a woman's body. You can help treat pelvic pain, pre- and post-pregnancy, and more. 
  • Geriatrics
    • Working in geriatrics helps older patients with muscle growth and strength. As their muscle strength deteriorates over time, you will work with these patients to show them exercises to keep up their strength. You can also work with patients who have arthritis, Parkinson’s, and more to help with pain and everyday activities
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary 
    • In cardio, you help patients who have been through heart attacks or have heart issues
    • With pulmonary, you help patients with who may have cystic fibrosis or other diseases with different breathing and endurance exercises
  • Clinical Electrophysiology 
    • Physical therapists who choose this specialty have to do some electrotherapy. This helps patients who may have blood clots, and helps release pain and ease muscle spasms
  • Neurology
    • In this field, you work with patients who have injuries to the spinal cord, brain, and head. Most of the time you will be working in a hospital to treat these patients
  • Orthopedics
    • Orthopedic physical therapists help people who have broken bones and need therapy to move again after being in a cast
  • Oncology 
    • Oncologist physical therapists work with patients who have been diagnosed with cancer or are recovering from it. Because cancer and treatment can have a large effect on the body, physical therapists help patients by keeping their strength up when they have weakened muscles

Physical Therapist Salaries and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a physical therapist is $89,440 per year. An entry-level physical therapist earns about $66,000. As your experience continues to grow over the years, you can make close to $100,000.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 22 percent job growth by 2028 for physical therapists. The BLS says this is because baby boomers are getting older and younger generations must care for and treat them.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Physical Therapist

To become a physical therapist, it takes seven years. You need to complete a four-year undergraduate degree and then three years of a doctoral physical therapist program. After a doctorate, you would have to do a clinical residency and clinical fellowship.

How to Become A Physical Therapist: A Step by Step Guide

Physical therapists go to schools that have accreditation in physical therapy and follow all licensing requirements. Going to these schools will give you the best experience and the knowledge you need to succeed.

If you are looking to become a physical therapist, these are the steps you need to follow to become one.

Step 1: Go to Undergraduate School

Earn a bachelor's degree at a school that offers a program aligned with your interests and budget. Most physical therapists have a degree in a health-related field. You can get a degree in exercise science, biology, anatomy, or any related fields that work with the human body.

Some classes you will take as an undergraduate will be:

  • Cellular histology
  • Pathology 
  • Behavioral Sciences
  • Exercise Physiology 

Step 2: Get Your Doctorate

After completing your undergraduate degree, you then need to find a physical therapy school to earn a doctorate in physical therapy (DTP). This program takes three years to complete. Some schools offer a dual undergraduate/DPT degree that you can finish quicker.

Some classes you will take in a DPT program will be:

  • Functional Anatomy
  • Neuroscience in Physical Therapy
  • Clinical Education
  • Musculoskeletal Disorders

Step 3: Clinical Residency

After you have earned a DPT and passed the national physical therapy examination, you will be a licensed physical therapist. After this, most physical therapists go on to get clinical residency experience to enhance their skills and get extra practice in the field. You may also join the physical therapy association (APTA).

Step 4: Clinical Fellowship

After your clinical residency, you then go on to a clinical fellowship. In a clinical fellowship, you will be able to focus on areas you want to specialize in. Getting this clinical experience will make you a better physical therapist to make sure you have all the experience you need.

Step 5: At Last, You Are Ready

After completing your clinicals, you will then be able to go on and practice being a physical therapist. You can get jobs at any physical therapy offices, hospitals, or own a private practice.

Should You Become A Physical Therapist

Becoming a physical therapist has its rewards. By becoming a physical therapist, you are able to help people and educate them on their bodies and how to properly move and manage pain.

If this sounds like something you may be interested in, get started by looking into physical therapy schools that fit what you want. As you progress in your education and career, you will figure out what area you want to specialize in and go on from there.


How long do I go to school for?
Physical therapists go to school for seven years, plus a clinical residency and clinical fellowship afterward.
Do I have to be licensed?
Yes. All physical therapists must complete an exam to gain a state license to practice physical therapy.
How many areas can I specialize in?
There are nine different areas you can specialize in: sports, oncology, neurology, cardio and pulmonary, women’s health, geriatrics, pediatrics, electrophysiology, and orthopedics.
How much can I make as a physical therapist?
On average, you can make $89,440 per year.
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