Hack College Presents: How To Become A Physical Therapist

Nurse helping senior man with walker

A rich understanding of the human body and exceptional interpersonal skills are just a couple of the traits that make a truly qualified physical therapist. Due to the hands-on nature of physical therapy, the profession requires more than just scientific expertise in health and wellness. Therapists must also understand how to motivate and comfort a range of patients who struggle with physical injuries or disabilities.

If you are interested in dedicating a career to the human body, now is an excellent time to get a PT education. Physical therapists are in high demand. This guide will set you up with a basic understanding of the industry, the requirements of the profession and the best ways to launch a successful career.

Part I. The PT Industry

Physical therapy is a broad field. Therapy approaches vary according to the interests and passions of the individual provider. When you start your research, one of the first things to think about is the type of therapy you see yourself practicing.

Therapy is a highly individualized and personal process. It typically involves an initial appointment with the patient to develop a treatment plan that will promote the patient’s ability to move, reduce pain, restore function and prevent against disability in the long-term.

Categories of Physical Therapy

  • Acute Care involves short-term care for those who are in the hospital due to an illness, surgery, or trauma recovery and need immediate doctor care and supervision. Therapy will likely serve as the vehicle to rehabilitate the patient until he or she is medically safe and stable enough to leave.
  • Rehabilitation usually occurs while a patient is in short or long-term care after being admitted directly to a rehabilitation facility or hospital unit. PT experts help the patient improve their condition until he or she is able to be manage care independently.
  • Extended Care Facility is designed for elderly patients who need help in long-term nursing care, or rehabilitation centers. This may include hospice or end-of-life care.
  • Outpatient Clinic or Private Practice encompasses practices in any number of office, clinic or healthcare facilities, typically focused on muscle and orthopedic impairments. More than 80% of physical therapy is performed in these settings, outside of the hospital.
  • Sports & Fitness PT is used to prevent, treat and condition athletes of all experience levels in private practice, sports facilities or a wellness clinics. Schools will often employ a fitness PT to help student athletes to prevent or rehabilitate injuries.
  • Research Centers help advance research pertaining to the body, disease, injuries, and rehabilitative strategies.
  • On-the-job Therapy works with individuals who are hurt on the job or those who are trying to return to work from an injury. Physical therapists may help businesses promote the health, safety and productivity of their employees.

More than 80% of physical therapy is performed outside of the hospital in out-patient or private practice therapy clinics. Since this type of work requires such a high level of expertise, the degree of training required to become a licensed physical therapist has risen dramatically in the last several decades.

Depending on the state, a practicing therapist needs at least a master’s degree, but most often a physical therapist will require a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Once you graduate from a PT program you will be prepped and ready to take the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

All of the top PT programs will equip you with a degree, and most give you enough training to pass the exam. Once you complete that stage you are ready to practice as a physical therapist  — as long as you are practicing in a state that doesn’t require any extra prerequisites, which you can verify here.

Most states require continuing education courses or certification to maintain your license, and to stay up-to-speed on changes in the field. This is definitely the kind of career for those who think life-long learning is important.

For the most part, a bachelor’s degree in this field is a good stepping stone, but somewhat obsolete without further education. Interested students should pursue an undergraduate degree based in the sciences, and begin collecting observation hours to make for a competitive application to a PT graduate program.

Career and Salary Outlook

The aging baby boomers are creating a strong demand for PT services, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Many are staying active later on in life, and they are beginning to rely heavily on PT to help keep their body on pace with their active minds.

Employment in the PT field is expected to increase 39% from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. The median income in 2010 for a physical therapist was $76,310, with the top 10% earning more than $107,920. The field pays well, but the cost of a PT education isn’t cheap. So it’s important to consider all your options.

Working as a physical therapy assistant is a good way to get experience. Pay won’t be as high, but it requires less schooling and it could be a smart first step to make sure this is the kind of career you know you want to invest your money and time into.

Similar occupations like a speech pathologist or an occupational or recreational therapist may also be a nice fit. These involve similar patient relationships, but the type of therapy goals and environment are likely to be different.

Part II. Physical Therapy Degree Programs

If you decide to make the investment in a quality DPT program there is one absolute must for any program you are interested in: make sure it is nationally accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). CAPTE is the only accreditation that is accepted by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, according to APTA. A degree from a program without accreditation just won’t be taken seriously.

In general, DPT programs are full-time and span several years. Some students come right out of their undergraduate programs and apply directly to the DPT programs. Others take time off, get experience in another setting, or focus on making their applications competitive with healthcare internships and observation hours.

As of 2010, there weren’t any approved entry-level physical therapy degree programs offered fully online in the U.S., according to APTA. There are several hybrid programs that are just starting to come online, and begin to go through the accreditation process. As these programs begin to gain clout they are likely to become a viable option for students looking for flexibility in their education — but until then, it is wise to be a skeptical consumer.

Here is a list of some of the top programs in the country, according to their academics, faculty and innovative practices.

University of Southern California (Los Angeles)

  • Specialized degrees: USC has a DPT Program, which awards a Ph.D. upon completion and prepares some 280 students a year for their professional career. To apply, applicants need an undergraduate degree in one of the core sciences. As part of the program, students participate in a residency focused in sports, pediatric, orthopedic or neurologic therapy. USC also provides continuing education training for individuals who are already practicing PTs and want to become advanced practitioners in a specialty area.
  • Industry perception: The USC programs have been ranked first on the U.S. News and World Report list of top programs in the country since 2004. The highly distinguished faculty travel around the world as guest lecturers, and the department recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Foundation for Physical Therapy to establish and a multi-site clinical research network.
  • Cost: The three-year program charges a flat fee of $55,000 for year one and two, and the third year costs roughly $33,000. The residency programs cost around $2,000, which is paid directly to the clinical site.
  • Financial Aid: The PT division of USC dispersed over $250,000 in financial aid scholarships for the 2010-2011 academic school year. Students are also encouraged to apply for university-wide aid as well.

University of Delaware (Newark, De.)

  • Specialized degrees: The UD DPT program spans three years, and includes four, full-time clinical internships, and three part-time integrated clinical experiences. Students will be placed in settings such as acute hospital care, outpatient, rehabilitation, orthopedic, pediatric, geriatric or neurologic medical facilities.
  • Industry perception: Ranked second by the U.S. News and World Report, UD has a good reputation among alumni. It can boast about a 100% first-time licensure passing rate for all students who’ve graduated from UD in the last ten years. Students also get to know the surrounding community, since UD has two full-service, outpatient clinics. Students work under the supervision of UD faculty to get even more hands-on experience.
  • Cost: The full tuition cost for the 2.5 year program will roughly calculate to $50,508 for Delaware residents and $101,016 for non-residents.
  • Financial aid: The DPT financial aid department offers a limited number of graduate assistantships for work study as well as need- and merit-based scholarships, grants and loans. Students are also encouraged to consider tuition assistance programs, which are offered by many hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and voluntary agencies. These programs typically offer students financial support, and ask for a year of committed work upon graduation.

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Institute of Health Professionals (Boston, Ma.)

  • Specialized degrees: The three-year, entry-level DPT program prepares students with bachelor’s degrees in other fields to become licensed PTs. The program culminates in a paid, full-time, internship — which has recently become a new model being used by schools across the nation. There are also programs designed for individuals with a master’s degree in PT, international students, and those looking for advanced credentials.
  • Industry perception: As a graduate school working within the MGH hospital network, the DPT program is highly regarded for the hands-on experience it can provide for its students in the clinical setting. Beginning in the first semester students get to work with patients in New England and the surrounding region including the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Children’s Hospital Boston.
  • Cost: The program tuition is $108,000 for the full program. That hefty bill is a little bit easier to swallow at BGH since 100% of the DPT graduates have successfully passed the licensure exam, and obtained a professional position within six months.
  • Financial aid: The financial aid package at MGH includes scholarships, grants, federal student loans, and financial literacy sessions.

U.S. Army-Baylor Physical Therapy (Waco, Tx.)

  • Specialized degrees: The Army-Baylor PT department offers a Master’s of Physical Therapy as well as a DPT program. The programs are open to any U.S. citizen, and prior military service is not a requirement. Applicants must, however, be under the age of 42, and able to meet the medical fitness standards for acceptance into the Department of the Army, Navy, or Air Force.
  • Industry perception: U.S. News and World ranked the Army-Baylor program 5th in the country in 2012. With a graduation rate of 97% over the past ten years, and a guaranteed job placement upon program completion, the program has remained competitive since it began in the 1970s.
  • Cost: Free. The only requirement is an 81 month active-duty service obligation that begins from the start of the program. The uniformed services pay for your tuition and fees, and they will also pay you a stipend of $41,000 per year, every year that you are in school and provide you with free medical and dental coverage. The 27-month program counts toward your service obligation, and you graduate as a commissioned officer and physical therapist in the armed services. Those who stay on with the military after their service obligation is complete will get some pretty great career opportunities including the option to apply for fully-funded post-professional programs, advanced degrees and APTA-credentialed clinical residency programs in orthopedics and sports medicine.

University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (Pittsburgh, Pa.)

  • Specialized degrees: Pitt offers student who’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree a three-year, full-time professional DPT degree program. Students can also get specialized clinical experience in areas such as women’s health, neurological rehabilitation, industrial rehab and spine care.
  • Industry perception: Another program with high national rankings, Pitt partners with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), and the Centers for Rehab Services to place students in various clinical settings such as acute care, pediatrics, geriatrics, rehabilitation, sports medicine, and orthopedics.
  • Cost: For Pennsylvania residents the tuition is a flat rate of $34,344 annually per year, for three years. Non-residents will pay $39,033, per year.
  • Financial aid: Students are offered financial aid packages consisting of scholarships, grants, loans and fellowships depending on student need and academic merit.

Northeastern University Bouve College of Health Sciences (Boston, Ma.)

  • Specialized degrees: The entry-level DPT program at Northeastern accepts freshman to a six-year program, which includes two six-month paid experiences working in a clinical environment such as a K-12 school, nursing home, pediatric care facilities or camp for children with disabilities. Students can also earn a concentration in their studies in the areas of early intervention for infants and toddlers or sports conditioning and athlete management.
  • Industry perception: As one of the longest accredited PT programs in the United States, and the only program in the country to include a cooperative education rotation embedded into the degree program, the PT program has an excellent reputation in the industry.
  • Cost: The tuition for an entry-level DPT is about $100,000 over the course of the six years, students do however work as full-time, paid employees for 12 months over the course of the program.
  • Financial aid: Student financial services tries to help students cover the high costs of a private education with the Northeastern Promise, which guarantees secure financing options. They also offer the standard set of scholarships, loans, and grants.

Part III. Breaking into the field

If this is the career path for you, stay focused on the end from the beginning. Even though seven years of undergraduate and graduate education may sound like a long time, you will be much better prepared if you stay on top of the job process early.

Organize Your Job Search

The fun part of finding out what kind of therapist you want to be is the student-therapist job shadow. What types of patients would you like to treat? How big/small is your ideal practice? What kind of working environment makes you feel the most comfortable? Browse job boards like this one, even if you aren’t looking for a job — it can give you ideas of the kinds of jobs that look interesting.

Take on as many internships and assistantships while you can. Not only will this help you shop PT specialties, but this process will also set you up with some important professional connections that could prove invaluable after you graduate.

Finally, craft your resume to show-off the unique interests and passions you have beyond your PT education. Do your research on the culture of the work environment and structure your resume to correspond. Take a look at this resume advice specifically for the PT field.

5 Tips from Professional Physical Therapists

  1. Highlight other skills on your resume besides your PT education and experience. Add a pilates certificate or business experience to stand-out. The current industry demands are favoring the job-seekers, which provides the applicant with some room to tailor the job hunt to their own interest and passions. – Janet Bezner, deputy executive director of the American Physical Therapy Association
  2. We make a commitment to mentoring people and watching them grow.. [new hires] need to be team members. – Pamela Hackett, founder and managing partner Pediatric Therapeutic Services
  3. Whether you send personal cards to people or whether you produce a video demonstration on your site for patients, do something to stand out, give yourself the edge in physical therapy marketing. Do something that catches somebody’s intention. – Dr. Kareem Samhouri PT from Global Fitness LLC., physical therapist and fitness professional
  4. Basically it is about being outgoing and enjoying interaction with others. You can see up to fifteen patients a day and if you can’t relate to them and they don’t like to deal with you, they won’t come back. –  Scott Kesterson, Westlake Physical Therapy
  5. If I could do it again, I would get my bachelor’s degree in something different from the health field, but still have a strong background in science and kinesiology. Volunteering or working in hospitals or clinics to gain experience in the profession is a must. – John Popovich, University of Southern California DPT graduate

There’s Never a Dull Moment in PT

Those that excel in PT programs and careers are self-motivated, adaptable, and eager to work with people. But if you’re passionate about physical therapy, working as a certified therapist is probably the most rewarding and dynamic career path available to you.

The human body never ceases to amaze, and one career is certainly not long enough to see it all. Improving the quality of patients’ lives is the most fulfilling aspect of this profession and you will have plenty of opportunities to do so if you take this route.