How to Become a Physical Therapist

Education, Licenses and Other Requirements

Physical therapists (PTs) use different techniques to relieve pain, restore function, improve mobility, and prevent or limit permanent disabilities in patients who have been in accidents or have disabling conditions. They supervise physical therapist assistants and aides and work with them as well as with doctors and surgeons.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapist and patient
A physical therapist works with a patient. Vicky Kasala Productions / Photodisc / Getty Images

Physical therapists need certain personal characteristics, also called soft skills, in addition to the hard skills they learn through their formal training. These qualities play an important role in one's ability to succeed in this occupation. Before you decide to pursue this occupation, it is a good idea to evaluate whether you have them.

Physical therapists must be service-oriented. They should be compassionate and have good interpersonal skills. PTs also need good listening, critical thinking, observational and analytical skills.

Required Education

To practice as a physical therapist you will need to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a program that has received accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Previously one could become a PT by earning a bachelor's or master's degree. While those who earned those degrees in the past can continue to practice, new entrants to the field must have a DPT.

Expect to spend approximately three years in a DPT program, typically year-round, if you enter with a bachelor's degree. Some programs are freshman-entry programs, which one may enter with a high school diploma. Students spend the first three or four years taking general education and prerequisite courses before moving on to the three-year doctoral program.

DPT candidates will take many of the following courses, in addition to completing a clinical internship and possibly a research project:

  • Human Anatomy
  • Kinesiology and Biomechanics
  • Exercise Science
  • Professional Behavior
  • Lifespan Development
  • Structure and Function of the Nervous System
  • Pulmonary PT
  • Introduction to Musculoskeletal Examination
  • Professional Issues
  • Motor Learning and Motor Control
  • Pathology for Physical Therapy
  • Critical Thinking for Physical Therapy
  • Nutrition for PT
  • Intervention for the Individual with Neuromuscular Disorders
  • Assistive Technology
  • Biomechanics

Getting Into a DPT Program

Since admission requirements and procedures vary by program, you should check with the program you are interested in to learn about their policies. In general, applicants to freshman-entry programs must have a high school diploma, while those who wish to enter three-year DPT programs need a bachelor's degree. The bachelor's degree can usually be in any subject although the student will typically need to have taken prerequisite courses in science. Additionally, some programs will only admit candidates who have a certain number of volunteer hours in a PT setting. CAPTE maintains a frequently updated list of accredited programs on their website.

What You Must Do After You Graduate

After graduating from a DPT program, you will have to apply for a license from the state in which you want to work. Requirements vary from state to state so you should make sure to find out what they are in the state in which you want to work. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) maintains contact information for state licensing authorities on their website.

Regardless of where you want to practice, you will have to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, administered by FSBPT. Your state may also require a law exam and a criminal background check. You will probably be required to take continuing education courses to maintain your license.

As you progress in your career you may decide to specialize in an area of PT, for example cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, women's health, geriatrics, pediatrics, neurology, orthopedics, or sports. If so, you will also have to take an additional exam that the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) administers. In addition to passing that exam, to become certified you will also need clinical experience in your desired specialty. Please see the ABPTS website to learn more about the minimum eligibility requirements for board certification.

Getting Your First Job

Once you've earned your degree and gotten your license you will, of course, want to find a job. A perusal of job announcements published in various sources revealed the qualities employers are looking for in entry-level job candidates. These are in addition to the minimum job requirements. Here is a sampling:

  • "Possesses an ability to communicate with patients, families, staff, physicians, support agencies, vendors, and others."
  • "Must have sensory skills to differentiate clinical signs and symptoms and the emotional stamina to deal with a variety of stressful situations including emergency response to patient incident."
  • "Basic computer skills required."
  • "Expected to assume other responsibilities in the department such as program development, staff education, and student education."
  • "Actively and positively contributes to morale and team-work and requires the same as subordinates."
  • "Deals effectively with situations involving the attitudes, opinions and feelings of others."