How to Become a Physical Therapist

A person holds a leg wrapped in a cast


Kayla Heisler
Kayla Heisler1.16k

Physical therapists (PTs) help injured people of all ages overcome and treat injuries. These health care professionals have a wide range of responsibilities that can include developing treatment plans to rehab their injuries and improve functionality to helping patients adapt to new levels of functionality and manage pain. 

Physical therapists can majorly impact the overall quality of life for their patients. In addition to gaining the proper education and training, PTs should have a strong sense of emotional intelligence, patience, possess the ability to work well with others and be able to adapt to different personalities.


Because physical therapists have a tremendous responsibility as they are responsible for the recovery process of the human body, becoming a physical therapist requires holding a significant amount of education. PTs must become well-versed in both clinical education and information about the body. All professional physical therapists in the United States must hold a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. The DPT must be awarded by an education program that has earned accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). In addition to this, all PTs must pass a state licensing exam to be eligible to practice. 

What is the best major for physical therapy?

Though most physical therapy programs require that students hold a bachelor’s degree, there is no specific bachelor’s degree required to enter most physical therapy programs. However, there are certain majors that are more popular than others for those who choose to enter into the field. Favored majors include psychology, biology, exercise science, physiology, and kinesiology

When selecting a major, students should consider that courses will allow them to fulfill prerequisite requirements. Students still in college who know that they intend to apply to a PT program should work with an academic advisor or pre-PT advisor to ensure that they take courses that will allow them to fulfill prerequisites and save time and money down the road. 

What GPA do you need to be a physical therapist?

Minimum GPA requirements vary from program to program. Keep in mind that the minimum GPA required to apply and the average GPA of accepted applicants may significantly vary. In 2011-2012, the average GPA of accepted applicants was 3.52 according to the American Physical Therapy Association. 3.0 is a common required GPA minimum. The Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) directory maintains a list of specific admission requirements for programs nationwide. 

What graduate school programs are required?

In the United States, all programs offer a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DTP) in order to become a licensed physical therapist. Most programs only require a bachelor’s degree in order to be admitted. The PTCAS is the standard application used.

How many years does it take to become a physical therapist and how much does it cost?

The standard amount of time it takes to complete a DPT program is three years; however, some programs may be completed in as few as 30 months. Additionally, there are some programs that admit college freshmen and allow them to graduate in six or seven years with both a bachelor’s degree and a DPT. Following graduation, physical therapists must also complete a residency, which usually lasts one year. 

Though becoming a physical therapist takes less time than some health care professions, there is still a significant cost associated with joining the profession. According to, state residents paid an average of $12,553 and out of state residents paid an average of $44,806 in tuition for the 2017-2018 school year.

A day in the life of a physical therapist

Though the daily routine of physical therapists varies depending on factors such as place of occupation and level of experience, there are certain tasks that are routinely performed by most physical therapists. The majority of physical therapists work during typical business hours, though some do work during evenings or weekends. Most physical therapists are expected to engage in examination and treatment plan formulation processes. They are responsible for assuming leadership roles in the rehabilitation process and for preventing patients from experiencing further harm. 

Depending on their place of employment, physical therapists can work a variety of different schedules. The level of seniority they reach can also be a determining factor in terms of schedule flexibility, though most practicing physical therapists do work full time. 

1. During the examination process, the physical therapist first takes the client's history. This can be gathered from the client themselves or from other doctors if the physical therapist if the patient is being referred.

2.  After learning about a patient’s medical history and pertinent information pertaining to their illness or injury, the PT performs tests to establish a benchmark. This way, the PT is able to potentially identify new problems and measure whether the course of treatment helps or hinders the patient’s recovery or management.

3. After gathering information and performing tests, PTs develop a treatment plan based on the information gathered. Depending on the course of action, the PT may help the patient complete a regimen of stretches and/or exercise. Some treatments require the patient to learn a series of exercises to be completed at home while others will be done only on site or under the guidance of the PT. Throughout the course of treatment, physical therapists often perform re-examinations to measure a patient’s progress. 

As a physical therapist works with a patient, they must modify the course of treatment as necessary based on patient progress. Sometimes they must reconfigure anticipated outcomes and manage patient expectations. It’s important for physical therapists to provide patients with a realistic outlook about their condition. Based on the progress a patient makes, the PT also has to develop and implement plans for patient discharge and provide the patient with instructions on how to navigate after physical therapy sessions end.

Where do physical therapists work?

There are a variety of settings where physical therapists may work. Some may work in hospitals to provide in-patient care for individuals staying at the hospital. Physical therapists may provide home health care and travel to different private residences to provide care to patients. Others may work at outpatient clinics or private practices caring for patients who are no longer hospitalized or who were not hospitalized. Some nursing homes employ physical therapists who specialize in elder care, and some schools employ physical therapists who specialize in pediatric care. Physical therapists may also work at specific fitness facilities or travel with athletic teams to provide care for athletes.

What salary can a physical therapist expect?

Physical therapists must undergo an extensive amount of training and face an incredible amount of responsibility for the well being of others. Because their position is so specialized, PTs are often well compensated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary earned by physical therapists in 2017 was $86,850. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $59,080, and those who earned the highest 10 percent earned over $122,650. PTs working in nursing and residential care facilities or home healthcare services were likely to earn the most, typically earning salaries above $92,300. Meanwhile, PTs working in the offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists or audiologists typically earned a lower median salary of around $82,620.

Expected career growth

If you’re considering a career in physical therapy, you’re in luck: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is projected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS anticipated that employment in the field will grow 28 percent from 2016 to 2026. 

One cause for the significant growth in the profession is that there are more people staying active later in life than previous generations which will likely lead to more occurrences of mobility-related injuries that will require physical therapy. An increase in the number of chronic conditions also means that there will be an increase in demand for physical therapists. 

Though there should be many opportunities in all settings, settings where the elderly are often treated are predicted to experience the highest amount of job growth. Because physical therapists often live in metropolitan or suburban areas, job prospects in rural areas are especially favorable.

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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.