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Physical Therapist Careers: How to Become a Physical Therapist

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated June 29, 2021

Guide Overview

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?How to Become a Physical TherapistHow Much Does a Physical Therapist Make?Physical Therapist Job MarketWhere Do Physical Therapists Work?  Related Careers in Physical Health:

Guide Overview

A Guide on Career Paths, Job Prospects & More

If you’ve ever had an injury known someone who had an injury, chances are you’ve interacted with a physical therapist.  Physical therapists work with patients of all ages to diagnose physical injuries, create treatment plans, and help patients rehabilitate from injuries and prevent new ones. There are many work environments and specializations available to physical therapists — physical therapists work with everyone from athletes with knee injuries to children with chronic illnesses, in environments as diverse as large hospitals and small private clinics. Here we present the nitty-gritty of what physical therapists do and how they advance within the profession.  

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapists help people of all ages suffering from illness or injury rehabilitate, manage their condition, and prevent further illness or injury. The duties of a physical therapist include reviewing patients past medical history, diagnosing physical issues that patients have, developing treatment plans for patients, and administering hands-on physical therapy. Physical therapists also consult with surgeons and physicians on treatment for patients. Physical therapists work with patients and their families to update them on the patient’s prognosis and make sure that patients are following their treatment plans. Some physical therapists specialize in a particular area of treatment, such as geriatric care or sports therapy.  

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Becoming a physical therapist is at least a 7-year commitment (or 3 if you’ve already completed an undergraduate degree). However, the hard work has payoffs: physical therapistscan earn an average yearly salary of $70,982. And of course, as you gain more experience, your earning potential as a physical therapist increases. Here’s the lowdown on the path to becoming a physical therapist:

Degrees required to become a physical therapist:

Physical therapy careers require, first, a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field. Common fields of study for aspiring physical therapists include biology, chemistry, biomedical engineering, physics, and physiology.

After completing your undergraduate degree, you must complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. This degree lasts for between 3 to 4 years, depending on the program you choose. Coursework for DPT students includes classes in anatomy, physiology, rehabilitation sciences, pathology, orthotics and prosthetics, and pharmacology. During the DPT degree, students may already choose which area they want to focus on, and take specialized classes in that field. For example, physical therapists may take specific classes in neurology, orthopedics, or pediatrics to advance their knowledge in that area and gain an edge when they apply to jobs that cover that specialty.  

Physical therapist career ladder:

After completing a bachelor’s degree and a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, the next major step towards becoming a physical therapist is becoming licensed. While licensing requirements change from state to state, the main hurdle to obtaining a license is passing the National Physical Therapy Examination, or NPTE. This exam tests knowledge of physical therapy, both theoretically and practically. In some states, people seeking a license also must undergo a criminal background check and additional exams.

Typically, physical therapists enter residency programs after completing their DPT degree. Residency programs usually last for between one and three years, and offer recent graduates the opportunity to work alongside experienced physical therapists and gain hands-on experience. Residency programs also offer the ability to specialize in a particular area of practice, such as pediatric, geriatric, or neurologic physical therapy.

After a residency program, physical therapists can either work for a small practice or work for a larger organization — such as a sports team, hospital, or university — that requires physical therapists on staff. After gaining experience in the field, physical therapists can apply to become a board-certified specialist by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS), which allows them to gain a special certification in areas including neurology, orthopedics, oncology, pediatrics, and other areas. After working for some time and obtaining a specialty, some physical therapists choose to open their own private practice.

How Much Does a Physical Therapist Make?

As with most professions, salaries for physical therapists vary widely based on a therapist’s years of experience. According to Glassdoor Salary Data, entry-level physical therapists made an average of $63,529 in 2018, whereas physical therapists with 15 or more years of experience earned an average salary of $81,226. A therapist who falls somewhere between these two extremes—not fresh out of school, but not quite a seasoned vet—can earn an average yearly salary of $70,982, according to Glassdoor salary data.

Physical Therapist Job Market

There are currently an estimated 239,800 physical therapists in the United States.  Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that employment of physical therapists is project to grow 28 percent between 2016 and 2026, faster than the average for other occupations. According to the BLS, as the baby boomer generation ages, demand for physical therapists will rise. Because demand for physical therapists is rising, currently employed physical therapists will enjoy increased job security.

Where Do Physical Therapists Work?  

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, more than 80% of physical therapists practice outside of hospitals. Typical positions for physical therapists include:

  • Hospice
  • Research Centers
  • Home Health
  • Sports Physical Therapy
  • Outpatient Clinics (Private Practice)
  • Schools and Preschools
  • Continuing Care/Nursing Home Facilities
  • Rehabilitation Hospitals
  • Local, State, and Federal Government (such through the Veteran’s Health Administration or the Department of Defense)

Within these places of employment, physical therapists may work in a certain specialization. Whether you like to work with young children or aging folks, athletes or veterans, there are plenty of diverse career opportunities in the physical therapy field.

For health care professionals, it’s the people who make the job. They’re interested in treating patients and helping them live healthy lifestyles. Such professionals can also pursue a number of other careers that make people a priority, including the ones listed below.


Average Salary: $57,700

Degrees required: Bachelor’s degree


Average Salary: $42,118

Degrees required: Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree


Average Salary: $35,390

Degrees required: High school or Bachelor’s degree

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