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How to Become a Physical Therapist Guide
Staying active is a key part of remaining healthy, but doing so can sometimes be difficult. This is especially so for individuals who have undergone a traumatic injury, chronic illness, or other ailment. When such problems arise, physical therapists are there to help. Physical therapists help people of all ages and backgrounds, whether they have a health condition or simply want to prevent future problems, regain, or improve their ability to move.
So, if you have a passion for helping people and believe in the importance of an active life, keep on reading. Our step-by-step guide details how to become a physical therapist!
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1. Earn your bachelor’s degree in a related field and/or complete relevant prerequisites
The first step towards becoming a physical therapist is earning your bachelor’s degree in a field related to exercise, the science of movement, and/or sports. Majors might include health science, exercise science, and kinesiology.
Alternatively, if you feel as though undergrad is not the right choice for you, there are DPT programs. These programs recruit students straight from high school (without having received a bachelor’s degree). We’ll get more into these later, but for now, know that these are great for students who know that they’ve been interested in pursuing physical therapy from a young age. They allow such high school students to directly advance into the professional phase of their DPT programs so long as they have fulfilled certain prerequisites (e.g. specific courses, minimum GPA, etc.).
Fulfilling prerequisites, however, is not unique to programs for high school graduates. Ultimately, no matter which path you choose, most Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) graduate programs require students to have taken specific prerequisites beforehand. Thus, we highly recommend researching whether or not the doctoral programs you’re interested in have such requirements. If so, try to complete as many of these courses as you can before applying. Doing so may not only potentially increase your chances of acceptance into DPT programs, but will also give you a solid background for what you will cover in your doctoral program. Common prerequisite courses for DPT programs include physics, kinesiology, biology, chemistry, physiology, and anatomy.
2. Receive a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree
Once you’ve finished and received your bachelor’s degree, it’s time to apply to Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs!
The first year (or the first few years) of one’s DPT program will likely revolve around learning about the scientific foundation of physical therapy and the basics of the profession. During their last year or two, students will dive into clinical experience and lab work.
Despite these similarities across DPT programs, they exist in a few different formats. So, let’s get into them!
Also see: Grad school financing options
First off is a traditional DPT, which is the most common type for those coming out of undergrad. These programs typically take three years to complete. They have a comprehensive curriculum, covering everything from health and wellness, to physical therapy basics, to the profession itself. These also require their applicants to hold an undergraduate degree, to have fulfilled certain prerequisite courses, and to have a minimum GRE score (which varies based on school).
If you have already graduated from undergrad without fulfilling some of the necessary prerequisites for your desired program, however, there’s no need to worry! You can always take these courses at local community colleges instead.
This next type of DPT is for those without a bachelor’s degree. BS/DPTs, often called “3 + 3” programs, allow students to receive their doctoral degrees in six years rather than the typical seven (four years of undergrad + three years of traditional DPT). How exactly does this work, though?
Well, students enter BS/DPT programs as freshmen, straight from high school. Each BS/DPT program follows a specific undergraduate track. This means that students essentially “pick a major” before they apply. Typical tracks for such programs include natural science, exercise science, health science, life science, athletic science, or biology.
To ensure that students in BS/DPT programs are on the correct track and fulfill their necessary prerequisites, they normally work with an advisor for the first three years of the program. Once they reach the fourth year of their program (the “DPT level”), students take the same courses as those in traditional DPT programs, preparing them for the NPTE by graduation.
Freshman-to-Doctorate programs share many similarities with BS/DPT or “3 + 3” programs. They are also accelerated, taking only 6 years rather than the typical seven of the traditional route (of an undergraduate degree + traditional DPT). Students also enter these programs straight out of high school.
The primary difference between Freshman-to-Doctorate and BS/DPT programs lies in the difference of “picking a major.” BS/DPT programs require students to “pick a major” before they apply. Freshman-to-Doctorate programs require students to declare or choose a major once accepted. Typical major choices for Freshman-to-Doctorate programs include biology, sports studies, physiological sciences, and health services. While all major choices will prepare you for the DPT portion of your program, it’s best to pick the one that best aligns with your career interests.
Transitional DPT (those for practicing physical therapists)
Last, but certainly not least, are transitional DPT programs! These are typically directed towards practicing physical therapists who hold a master’s in physical therapy (MPT) rather than a doctorate in physical therapy. While MPT degrees used to be offered alongside DPTs, all accredited physical therapy programs became doctorate level as of 2015.
As the field increasingly moves toward DPTs, however, physical therapists with a MPT may feel a push to go back to school and receive their doctorate. While doing so is not necessary, it may expand physical therapists’ knowledge in the field. This allows them to stay competitive as DPTs become increasingly common. Worried that you won’t have time for a Transitional DPT program considering your busy schedule? If so, you have the option of completing it online. To accommodate the busy lives of practicing physical therapists, many Transitional DPT programs are online, self-paced, and completed in a year.
And that’s it! As you can see, there are DPT programs for all types of individuals with different responsibilities and interests. So, it’s all about finding out which one suits you best.
To find out what programs are out there and potentially find some you’re interested in, be sure to check out this directory of CAPTE (Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education)-accredited DPT programs.
3. Pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE)
After you finish your DPT program, the next step is to take the NPTE, or the National Physical Therapy Examination. The computer-administered test, given by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), consists of 250 multiple choice questions spread across five sections. On a scale of 200-800, any score at or above 600 is passing.
The exam is offered four times yearly (in January, April, July, and October), with test-takers being allowed to take it up to 3 times per year. However, more likely than not, you will not need to retake the exam if you’ve graduated from an accredited DPT program. In fact, 91% of graduates from U.S.-accredited physical therapy programs passed the exam in 2020.
Still, if you feel as though you need a little more practice before taking the exam, be sure to check out these helpful resources:
- FSBPT physical therapist examination: Sample questions
- Mometrix NPTE practice exam
- NPTE PT practice test
With those in hand, we wish you good luck!
4. Obtain a license in your preferred state of practice
By now, you’re nearly ready to get to work. All that’s left to do is to obtain a license in your preferred state of practice. As licensure regulations vary by state, though, we’d highly recommend checking out these physical therapy license regulations by state to make sure you’ve fulfilled all the necessary requirements.
Once you receive your state license, you may work as a physical therapist in your state of licensure. Congratulations!
5. Continue(d) Learning!
If you’ve found your first job in physical therapy, we hope you’re enjoying working with patients and being able to put all your hard work into practice. With that said, though, you’re never quite done learning, right?
That’s right, according to the many state-by-state physical therapist boards! Thus, licensed physical therapists must complete a certain number of “continued education” hours every few years (with the amount varying by state). Such requirements keep physical therapists current with new developments and standards within the field. To find out what exactly the physical therapy continued learning requirements are in your state, be sure to check out physical therapist CEU requirements by state.
And with that, you’re all set! You’ve now completed all the necessary steps in becoming and maintaining your role as a physical therapist. Congrats!
However, if you ever want to further your practice or specialize in a specific area, there are some extra steps you can take. So, let’s briefly go over them.
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6. Complete a residency program (optional)
A clinical residency is a post-graduation program that allows physical therapists to begin specializing in an area of interest. Such programs include additional training, coursework, and supervised clinical experience. Clinical fellowships are similar, allowing physical therapists to go even further into their specializations. They often require applicants to have (1) completed a residency program or (2) be board-certified clinical specialists.
7. Obtain certification from ABPTS to become a board-certified clinical specialist (optional)
On that note, another post-graduation option is to become a board-certified clinical specialist through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists (ABPTS).
Interested physical therapists can become specialists in one of ten areas:
- Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
- Clinical Electrophysiology
- Wound Management
- Women’s Health
To become board-certified specialists in one of the above areas, applicants must at least pass the NPTE. They must also complete an American Physical Therapy Association-accredited residency program, or have accumulated 2,000 hours of clinical experience. Depending on one’s specialty areas, however, there may be additional requirements.
And we’re done! Whether or not you choose to pursue these additional steps in your physical therapy career, we wish you the best of luck and a happy, active life.
Related: Finance your physical therapy education with our free scholarship search tool
Frequently asked questions
How many years will it take to become a physical therapist?
Depending on your career pathway, state, and a number of other factors, it can take between three and eight years. Roughly, this may include three to four years of undergraduate schooling, and three to four years to complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. How long it will take to pass the NPTE and obtain your state license varies by individual.
Do physical therapists make good money?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists made an average of $91,010 in 2020. However, this average varied across industries, with some making more than others. Those working in nursing and residential care facilities made an average salary of $97,610 in 2020. Physical therapists in home healthcare services made $95,320, while those in hospitals made roughly $93,060. Therapists working in physical and speech therapists’ offices making an average of $85,680.