Editorial

| 24 January 2024

The data in this blog is for general informational purposes only and information presented was accurate as of the publication date.

How to Become a Physical Therapist in 6 Steps

A USAHS physical therapy student works with a patient.

Ranked the third best healthcare career, physical therapy (PT) is rich in opportunity for people who want to help patients live better lives.1 Physical therapists treat injuries, disabilities and other health conditions through personalized treatment plans that include exercise and hands-on care.2

A Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is the entry-level degree for this position, so read on to discover the typical pathway to becoming a physical therapist.2

Table of Contents:

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in a Related Field
  2. Complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree Program
  3. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE)
  4. Obtain a License to Practice
  5. Complete a Residency (Optional)
  6. Earn Board Certification (Optional)
  7. FAQ
  8. Launch Your Physical Therapy Career With USAHS

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

Typically, the first step to becoming a physical therapist is to earn a bachelor’s degree, which most DPT schools require for application.2 Most DPT programs do not require a specific undergraduate degree as long as your coursework satisfies their admission requirements, which often includes courses in anatomy, chemistry and physics.3 Some of the best undergraduate degrees for physical therapy include biology, kinesiology and exercise science.

2. Complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Degree Program

Next, you’ll likely need to complete a DPT degree, which can take about three years.2

What to Look for in a DPT Program

When choosing a DPT program, it’s important to choose a program that fits your needs.

Ensure your DPT program is CAPTE-accredited.* You can only qualify for the required-for-licensure National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) with a degree from an accredited institution.4

Explore a DPT program’s total cost and financial aid opportunities. Ensure you understand the program’s tuition and fees so you can budget accordingly and apply for relevant scholarships to help offset these costs.

Investigate how long the program is. The length of the program determines when you can enter the workforce. The typical DPT program lasts about three years, but you may be able to find accelerated programs that allow you to graduate earlier.2

Visit potential campuses. Ensure the campus is convenient and you feel comfortable there. The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers five different campuses:

Focus on collaboration. At USAHS, our curriculum is designed to facilitate collaboration among occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs) and speech-language pathologists (SLPs), fostering an integrated approach we term “interprofessional education.” Since so many physical therapists work as part of a larger healthcare team, this is an essential skill to learn.5

Consider program pathways. USAHS offers two distinct program formats to ensure there’s a degree pathway that works for everyone:

  • Residential DPT: This is the traditional pathway, which features blended courses that include in-person sessions with online components and weekday on-campus labs. It is offered at all five USAHS campuses.
  • Flex DPT: This pathway involves online coursework and in-person labs on select weekends. It’s currently only offered at the San Marcos, CA, St. Augustine, FL and Austin, TX campuses.

Why choose USAHS?:

  • Student-centered philosophy
  • Hands-on learning opportunities such as simulation labs
  • Access to cutting-edge technology
  • Opportunities to engage in the profession through conferences and research

Applying to DPT School

Steps for how to apply to Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs.

Once you’ve picked a DPT program, it’s time to apply. The process of getting into physical therapy school is pretty straightforward once you know your program’s admission requirements.

  1. If required, take the GRE.
  2. Apply to the DPT program using the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) service.
  3. Submit any required documentation. At USAHS, we require:
    • A current resume
    • A statement of purpose
    • Prerequisite courses
    • Two reference letters from either two licensed physical therapists (preferred) or one physical therapist and one faculty member or academic advisor
    • A minimum of 40 volunteer, observation or work hours in a physical therapy setting.
    • A comprehensive background check

Getting into a DPT program is competitive since there are so few programs, so apply to more than one program.

DPT Curriculum

Once you’ve enrolled in the program, the DPT curriculum may include coursework in the following areas:

  • Anatomy
  • Patient Care
  • Pathophysiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Neuroscience
  • Pharmacology
  • Clinical reasoning

Clinical education, which involves supervised experience in a clinical setting in different areas of physical therapy, should also be part of your curriculum.2

Steps to becoming a physical therapist.

3. Pass the NPTE

After graduation from the DPT program, the next step is to pass the NPTE.6

The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) offers the NPTE four times a year.7 The assessment aims to ensure you meet basic entry-level competency for licensure.8 The test costs $485, and you may take it up to three times during a 12-month period.9,10

In 2022, 85% of first-time candidates who were graduates of US accredited PT programs passed the exam.11

4. Obtain a License to Practice

Once you’ve received your NPTE scores, you’ll typically apply for your state’s license to practice.6 However, additional requirements may vary by state. For instance, some states require a law exam and a background check to complete the process.6 Contact your state board of physical therapy for more information about how to apply for a physical therapist license in your state.

Remember that if you wish to work as a travel physical therapist or virtual physical therapist, you’ll need a license to practice wherever your patients live.12

5. Complete a Residency or Fellowship (Optional)

Once you have your license, you can practice as a physical therapist, or choose to take a few extra steps to deepen your knowledge and practice.2

The differences between physical therapy residencies and fellowships.

You may choose to pursue a clinical residency or fellowship after getting your license. These optional programs are designed to increase the quality of your patient care and deepen your knowledge of best practices.13 Research also shows that fellow-trained physical therapists achieve greater treatment effect sizes than therapists who aren’t.15

A clinical residency is a post-professional learning experience centered on developing knowledge, skills and responsibilities of advanced physical therapy practice.13 These typically last one year and help prepare a physical therapist for board certification.6 The American Board of Physical Therapy Residency & Fellowship Education (ABPTRFE) currently offers residencies in the following areas13:

  • Acute Care
  • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopaedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health
  • Wound Management

A clinical fellowship is also a post-professional learning experience, but the goal is to expand a physical therapist’s knowledge, skills and responsibilities in a specific subspecialty.13 The candidate will need to have already completed a residency or specialty certification, or they must have board certification in the specialty area.13

ABPTRFE currently offers fellowships in the following areas13:

  • Critical Care
  • Hand Therapy
  • Movement System
  • Neonatology
  • Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy
  • Performing Arts
  • Spine
  • Sports Division 1
  • Upper Extremity Athlete

The application and admissions process for residencies and fellowships vary by state requirements, so if you wish to follow this pathway, consult each program’s admission guidelines.13

6. Earn Board Certification (Optional)

Another option is becoming board-certified through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS).2 Earning your board certification involves passing an exam and completing the required hours of clinical work within your chosen specialization.6

Employers prefer to hire board-certified physical therapists over those that aren’t.16 Many physical therapists who become board-certified may see a salary increase or non-financial awards such as job title changes or increased authority and responsibility, although this depends on the setting.

Currently, ABPTS offers board certification in the following areas17:

  • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopaedics
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health
  • Wound Management

Board certification applications are due in July, and you’ll sit the exam in February or March of the following year.18 You’ll also need to complete specialty-specific requirements.

FAQ

Learn more about what it entails to be a physical therapist through the questions and answers below.

What Do Physical Therapists Do?

A physical therapist is a healthcare professional who prescribes a treatment plan to improve a patient’s mobility and manage any discomfort or pain associated with movement.19 They may ask patients to perform exercises or show them how to use adaptive equipment like a cane.5 They work as part of a healthcare team that may include other physical therapists, surgeons, doctors, physician assistants and other specialists.

Where Do Physical Therapists Work?

Physical therapists typically work in the following settings20:

  • Therapy offices
  • Hospitals
  • Home healthcare
  • Nursing or residential care facilities

Some physical therapists are self-employed or may offer virtual physical therapy
services, while others may choose to work as travel physical therapists and travel the country to work where they are needed.

Launch Your Physical Therapy Career with USAHS

USAHS has been a leader in physical therapy education since its founding in 1979 and is now the largest physical therapy school in the United States.**

Our student-first philosophy means you’ll experience an immersive education and graduate as a practice-ready professional. Hands-on simulation labs and state-of-the-art technology combined with our unrivaled faculty-practitioners will prepare you to offer high-quality patient care now and in the future.

Learn more about our DPT degree program or apply today.

*The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), 1080 Marina Village Parkway, Suite 500, Alameda, CA 94501, (510) 748-9001, www.wascsenior.org.

For programmatic accreditation, https://www.usa.edu/about/accreditation/.

**Based on total DPT degrees conferred, as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Data is captured by IPEDS through interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/).

Sources:

    1. U.S. News, “Best Health Care Jobs,” U.S. News, https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/best-healthcare-jobs.
    2. American Physical Therapy Association, “Becoming a PT,” American Physical Therapy Association, https://www.apta.org/your-career/careers-in-physical-therapy/becoming-a-pt.
    3. American Physical Therapy Association, “PT Admissions Process,” American Physical Therapy Association, https://www.apta.org/your-career/careers-in-physical-therapy/pt-admissions-process.
    4. Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, “Eligibility Requirements,” Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, https://www.fsbpt.org/Secondary-Pages/Exam-Candidates/National-Exam-NPTE/Eligibility-Requirements.
    5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Physical Therapists: What Physical Therapists Do,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified September 2023, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-2.
    6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Physical Therapists: How To Become a Physical Therapist,”
      Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified September 2023, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-4.
    7. Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, “2024 Dates & Deadlines for PTs,” Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, https://www.fsbpt.org/Secondary-Pages/Exam-Candidates/National-Exam-NPTE/Dates-and-Deadlines.
    8. Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, “National Exam (NPTE),” Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, https://www.fsbpt.org/Secondary-Pages/Exam-Candidates/National-Exam-NPTE.
    9. Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, “Exam Registration and Payment,” Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, https://www.fsbpt.org/Our-Services/Candidate-Services/Exam-Registration-Payment.
    10. Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, “Retake Exam,” Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, https://www.fsbpt.org/Secondary-Pages/Exam-Candidates/National-Exam-NPTE/Retake-Exam.
    11. Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, “NPTE Exam Year Reports,” Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, https://www.fsbpt.org/Free-Resources/NPTE-Pass-Rate-Reports/NPTE-Exam-Year-Reports.
    12. The Non-Clinical PT, “Telehealth Physical Therapy (PT) – Your Guide,” The Non-Clinical PT, last modified September 2023, https://thenonclinicalpt.com/telehealth-physical-therapy/.
    13. American Board of Physical Therapy Residency & Fellowship Education, “For Physical Therapist Residency & Fellowship Participants or Prospective Participants,” American Board of Physical Therapy Residency & Fellowship Education, https://abptrfe.apta.org/for-participants.
    14. American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists, “Residency vs Fellowship,” American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists, https://aaompt.org/Main/Main/Education/Difference.aspx.
    15. Jason Rodeghero, Ying-Chih Wang, Timothy Flynn, Joshua A. Cleland, Robert S. Wainner and Julie M. Whitman, “Fellowship Education on Clinical Outcomes for Patients with Musculoskeletal Conditions,” JOSPT, last modified January 2015, https://www.jospt.org/doi/10.2519/jospt.2015.5255.
    16. American Physical Therapy Association, “Employer View of Specialist Certification,”
      American Physical Therapy Association, https://specialization.apta.org/for-specialists/marketing/employers.
    17. American Physical Therapy Association, “Become an ABPTS-Certified Specialist,” American Physical Therapy Association, https://specialization.apta.org/become-a-specialist.
    18. American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, “From Application to Celebration: The Path to Your Specialist Credential,” American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, https://specialization.apta.org/become-a-specialist/from-start-to-finish.
    19. Cleveland Clinic, “Physical Therapist,” Cleveland Clinic, last modified January 2023, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/24625-physical-therapist.
    20. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “ Physical Therapists: Work Environment,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified September 2023, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-3.

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