8 Essential Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist

Physical Therapists—also called PTs—play an important role in the evaluation, rehabilitation, and treatment of patients with chronic illnesses, injuries, and conditions.

They work in clinics, private offices, homes, hospitals, and nursing homes—wherever a patient needs them most. It’s just one of the reasons Physical Therapists are in such demand.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for Physical Therapists is exciting. The career field is expected to grow 22% from 2018 to 2028.

So what are the steps to becoming a Physical Therapist? It’s not as difficult as you expect. Let’s take a look at what’s involved.

Understand the Role of a Successful Physical Therapist

A career as a Physical Therapist is so much more than providing a “hands-on” approach to promote movement, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability.

Successful Physical Therapists must conquer a wide range of fundamental skills including:

  • A passion for helping people
  • A deep understanding of muscle, bone, and ligament structure
  • A commitment to patient’s health
  • And more

As for your daily duties, the steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include the ability to handle many responsibilities on a regular basis.

Some of those responsibilities include:

  • Patient Examination: testing muscle function, strength, joint flexibility, the range of motion, balance and coordination, motor function, postures, and more.
  • Diagnosis: determining the particular condition, quality of life, and the patient’s ability to reintegrate into the workplace.
  • Creation and Implementation of a Care Plan: designing a plan that includes short- and long-term functional goals and involves exercise, traction, mobilization therapy, vestibular training, motor learning, and patient/family education.

Does this career path sound like the perfect fit for you? Great!

It’s just a matter of following the next eight steps to becoming a Physical Therapist, which include obtaining the right education, certification, specialty, and job.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in a Health-Related Field

To begin, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field from an accredited institution.

Some schools offer a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) program in Pre-Physical Therapy. Or, you can earn your B.S. in biology, anatomy, health sciences, biomechanics, neuroscience, psychology, and more.

The key is to carefully choose a major that will help you on your steps to becoming a Physical Therapist by providing you with useful skills.

Also, be sure to keep your eye out for programs that offer a 3+3 curricular format—three years of undergraduate pre-PT study and three years in a professional DPT program.

2. Earn a Doctorate of Physical Therapy Degree

A Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree is typically three years in length and covers curriculum in a variety of areas including, but not limited to:

  • Biology,
  • Anatomy,
  • Physiology,
  • Cellular history,
  • Kinesiology,
  • Neuroscience
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Communication
  • Sociology,
  • Exercise physiology,
  • Biomechanics,
  • And more

The specialty of these subject areas means that you need to attend a professional, CAPTE-accredited Physical Therapist education program.

You want to look for a school that offers 80% classroom and lab study and 20% clinical education.  This includes at least 27.5 weeks spent in your final clinical experience.

Upon graduating your DPT program, you should be fully prepared to apply the essential knowledge and skills you gained during the study to the practice of physical therapy.

You’ll get to that point by learning under the guidance and supervision of faculty in both the classroom and clinic, including time spent in a Physical Therapist residency post-graduation.

3. Obtain a State PT License

The next steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include obtaining a state PT license. PTs are licensed in all 50 states, and the licensure required in each state may be slightly different based on the rules and laws governing physical therapy practice within that state.

A PT license ensures that you meet and maintain the prescribed standards of the state’s regulatory board, protecting the public and the career field of a Physical Therapist.

How do you obtain your PT license verification? It’s easy. There are two basic steps.

  1. Pass National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).
  2. Other licensing requirements may include a law exam and a criminal background check.

The NPTE is competency specific and covers the entire scope of a Physical Therapist’s practice including examination, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prevention, and consultation.

4. Complete a Physical Therapist Residency

This residency requirement is often one year in length and is used to enhance your knowledge and practice.

There are two main types or residencies that you can complete your steps to becoming a Physical Therapist:

  • Clinical Residency: This is a planned program designed to advance your preparedness for clinical practice. It combines opportunities for ongoing clinical supervision as well as advanced practice.
  • Clinical Fellowship: A fellowship is designed for Physical Therapists who demonstrate expertise in a specific area of practice.

However, not every state requires a Physical Therapist residency. Contact your state board to determine whether this step is necessary where you live.

5. Find the Right Physical Therapist Job

Now that you’ve completed all the required education on the steps to becoming a Physical Therapist, it’s time to get a job. This is easier and more difficult than you think.

First, you want to figure out where you want to work location-wise and if you want to work in a hospital, nursing home, in-home setting, school, or private practice. Each location comes with its own benefits and struggles.

And, you can’t forget a career as a traveling Physical Therapist.

Working as a traveling health professional is a rewarding career that lets you explore the world while you help patients. It’s a great option for Physical Therapists who want to earn more money, have flexible hours, and experience all there is to offer.

Can’t figure out what you want to do or where you want to work? Use a recruiter!

6. Attend Continuing Education for Physical Therapy

For many states, continuing your education is a requirement. Most renewal programs require the completion of continuing education credits.

You have many options when it comes to continuing your education, including:

  • Attending a national conference
  • Participating in a webinar
  • Taking a CEU course on a range of subjects
  • And more…

Make sure to check with your state board for specific licensing requirements to see what you need to renew your license each year.

7. Further Specialize in a Physical Therapy

In the physical therapy profession, there are also many opportunities to enhance your career through specialization.

Specialty certification is voluntary, but it can help you build a broader base for practice and open up many additional career opportunities.

A few Physical Therapist specialties include:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopaedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health

8. Obtain PT Board Certification

Once you choose a specialty as a Physical Therapist, you’ll want to obtain PT board certification in your profession.

These physical therapy certifications are necessary to become a board-certified specialist as described by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS).

How do you take this next step toward certification?

  • Complete at least 2,000 hours of clinical work or an APTA-accredited residency program in the specialty area,
  • Pass the exam.

Begin Your Physical Therapy Career

The steps to becoming a Physical Therapist are fairly straightforward. As long as you follow the outline that we provided above, you’ll be well on your way to a successful career.

Have any further questions on getting started? Fill out the form on our website and let us know.


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