8 Essential Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist Rock Star

9 Essential Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist Rock Star

Do you want to work with patients that are recovering from injuries? Is your dream to help children, adults, the elderly, and athletes reach their full physical potential?

Then obtaining employment as a successful Physical Therapist could be the right move for you.

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 28% from 2016 to 226—much faster than the average for all expectations.

That’s 67,100 new Physical Therapist jobs opening up.

No wonder it’s one of the nine top allied health careers with the ultimate job security.

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

To become a successful Physical Therapist takes a determination to do well and an understanding of your career path.

Let’s take a look at the essential steps to becoming a Physical Therapist.

Understand the Role of a Successful Physical Therapist

The first step in figuring out how to become a Physical Therapist is understanding what the job entails.

On the surface, a career as a Physical Therapist might seem simple; you provide a “hands-on” approach to promote movement, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability.

But it’s so much more than that. 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

SEE ALSO: Physical Therapist Skills: What You Need to Succeed Now

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), “therapeutic exercise and functional training are the cornerstones of Physical Therapist treatment” and must be personalized based on the needs and demands of the individual patient.

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 Treatment 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.

And a Physical Therapist rock star can work in any practice setting—including in-home care—and handle any type of patient care whether from illness, surgery, accident, or trauma.

It’s a demanding and rewarding career field with many outstanding pros (and cons) of being a Physical Therapist. So, it’s no wonder that Forbes ranked Physical Therapists as having one of “The Ten Happiest Jobs.”

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

Now, how do you make your dream a reality?

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 start your new career, first, you need some Physical Therapist schooling. We’re not talking about just any schooling.

You need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field from an accredited institution. This is a requirement before you can enter a professional Doctor of Physical Therapy program (also called a DPT program)—the next step.

There are many options for your undergraduate degree.

Some schools offer a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in a Pre-Physical Therapy program. Or, you can earn your B.S. in biology, anatomy, health sciences, biomechanics, neuroscience, exercise science, public health science, 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 can’t just attend any school. You need to attend a professional, CAPTE-accredited Physical Therapist education program.

SEE ALSO: The Ultimate List of Physical Therapy School to Choose From

As for what you should look for in different physical therapy programs, you want to look for a PT school that offers 80% classroom and lab study and 20% clinical education in a clinical rotation. This includes at least 27.5 weeks spent in your final clinical experience.

Upon graduating from your DPT degree 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 Therapy residency post-graduation.

3. Obtain a State PT License

The next steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include obtaining a state PT license. Becoming a licensed physical therapist is essential if you want to practice your profession in the U.S.

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

To help you prepare, we recommend checking out APTA’s Licensure Examination Preparation.

4. Complete a Physical Therapist Residency

Once you have your license, you need to complete your Physical Therapy residency.

Often, this residency requirement is one year in length and is used to enhance your knowledge and practice.

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

  • 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. A good place to start is our article on the Top States for PTA Jobs: Salary, Employment Rate, Availability.

In addition, you want to figure out 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—the future of the physical therapy profession.

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!

A Physical Therapist recruiter can help you find the latest employment opportunities across the US. They can help you sift through all the noise to find the right job for you.

Recruiters are also excellent for answering tough questions like, how to get hired for the highest paying physical therapy jobs.

6. Attend Continuing Education for Physical Therapy

Remember, just because you have a job doesn’t mean your work is done.

The steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include continuing your education while you work.

In fact, for many states, it’s 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.

Specialize in Physical Therapy | 9 Essential Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist Rock Star

7. Further Specialize in a Physical Therapy

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

Specialization is the process by which the steps to becoming a Physical Therapist include practice and development in a particular area of practice.

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
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports physical therapy
  • 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.

That’s it! It’s a simple way to improve your career path to success and your Physical Therapist resume!

SEE ALSO: 7 Easy Ways to Improve Your Physical Therapist Resume


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.

Remember, you need to:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
  2. Earn a Doctorate of Physical Therapy
  3. Obtain a state PT license
  4. Complete your residency
  5. Find the right Physical Therapist job
  6. Continue your education
  7. Choose a specialty
  8. Obtain PT board certification


What step do you think is most important to becoming a successful Physical Therapist?

Share with us in the comments below!


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