Physical Therapist Career Guide 2024

Table of Contents

Physical Therapist Salary in United States for 2023

Average Annual Salary: $97,720 Hourly Rate: $46.98

Data sourced from the U.S. Department of Labor via the ONET Web API. Updated at December 8, 2023

Best College Majors for Physical Therapists in 2023

Projected Job Employment for Physical Therapist:

Estimated YearProjected YearEstimated EmploymentProjected Employment% ChangeProjected Annual Job Opening
20212031238,800279,20017%15400

Physical Therapist Career Path Overview

A career in physical therapy offers rewarding opportunities for those who have a passion for helping others improve their physical health and mobility. It's a path that requires a solid foundation in science, strong interpersonal skills, and a high level of compassion. This career path is filled with opportunities to work in various settings, including hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, schools, sports and fitness facilities, and nursing homes.

Education Requirements

The first step on the physical therapist career path is obtaining a bachelor's degree. While there is no specific pre-physical therapy major, most students opt for degrees in biology, kinesiology, or a related field that covers necessary prerequisites like chemistry, physics, and human anatomy. After completing an undergraduate degree, aspiring physical therapists must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited program. These programs typically take three years to complete and include both classroom instruction and clinical experiences.

Licensing and Certification

Upon completion of the DPT program, individuals must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to become licensed to practice as a physical therapist. Some states may have additional requirements for licensure. While not required, some physical therapists choose to become board-certified specialists. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers certifications in nine specialty areas including orthopedics, sports, geriatrics, pediatrics, and more.

Career Advancement Opportunities

With experience and continued education, physical therapists can advance their careers in several ways. They can become specialists in a certain area of physical therapy, move into administrative roles within a healthcare facility or open their own private practice. Additionally, experienced physical therapists often have opportunities to teach in DPT programs or conduct research that contributes to the field of physical therapy.

Skills and Qualities

Physical therapists need a variety of skills and qualities to be successful. They must have strong analytical skills to diagnose patient conditions and develop effective treatment plans. They should also have exceptional interpersonal skills to build relationships with patients and encourage them throughout their treatment process. Physical stamina is also important, as physical therapists often spend a lot of time on their feet and may need to lift or move patients. Finally, they should have a compassionate and empathetic nature, as they often work with patients who are in pain or facing difficult physical challenges.

Job Outlook and Salary

The job outlook for physical therapists is promising. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 18 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. The median annual wage for physical therapists was $89,440 in May 2019. Salaries can vary widely depending on the setting, specialty area, geographical location, and level of experience.

Physical Therapist Career Path Education and Training

The journey to becoming a Physical Therapist (PT) requires extensive education and practical training. This rigorous process is designed to equip prospective PTs with the necessary knowledge and skills to provide quality care to their patients.

Undergraduate Education

The first step on the physical therapist career path involves acquiring a bachelor's degree from a recognized institution. Although there's no specific prerequisite major, most PT programs prefer students who have a strong background in life sciences. Therefore, undergraduate studies often focus on subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, and kinesiology.

Graduate Education

Upon completion of an undergraduate degree, the next step is to pursue a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. DPT programs typically last for three years and are offered by accredited colleges and universities. They provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the human body, physiology, biomechanics, and therapeutic procedures.

Clinical Internships and Residencies

As part of the DPT program, students are required to complete clinical internships. These internships offer hands-on experience in different settings such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and private practices. Some PTs may also choose to complete a residency program after graduation, which provides additional specialized training in areas such as sports medicine, geriatrics, orthopedics or neurology.

Licensure

After completing their DPT degree, graduates must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to become licensed to practice as a physical therapist. The NPTE is a comprehensive exam that tests knowledge in physical therapy sciences and the skills necessary for entry-level practice.

Continuing Education

Once licensed, PTs are often required to undertake continuing education courses throughout their careers to stay abreast of the latest advancements in the field. This can include attending workshops, seminars, and conferences, or pursuing additional certifications in specialized areas of physical therapy.

Board Certification

For those PTs who wish to specialize further, board certification is available in several areas such as Orthopedic Physical Therapy, Pediatric Physical Therapy, or Neurologic Physical Therapy. These certifications require additional training and passing a specialist certification exam. In conclusion, the physical therapist career path involves a substantial commitment to education and training. However, this investment in time and effort leads to a rewarding career that makes a significant difference in the lives of patients.

Physical Therapist Career Path Progression

The progression of a physical therapist's career typically follows a structured path that begins with obtaining the necessary educational requirements and culminates in leadership roles or specialized practice areas. This progression not only enhances professional growth but also opens up opportunities for increased responsibility and income.

Education and Licensing

The journey to becoming a physical therapist begins with acquiring a Bachelor's degree, preferably in a health-related field such as biology, physiology, or kinesiology. The next step is to complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, which usually takes about three years. After completion of the DPT program, graduates must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to become licensed practitioners. Some states may require additional jurisprudence exams that focus on state-specific laws and regulations regarding physical therapy practice.

Entry-Level Physical Therapist

Upon successful licensing, physical therapists start their careers as entry-level practitioners. At this stage, they apply the knowledge and skills acquired during their education and training to help patients regain mobility, reduce pain, and improve overall physical function. They work in various settings such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, schools, sports and fitness facilities.

Experienced Physical Therapist

With several years of experience under their belt, physical therapists gain expertise in evaluating and treating a wide range of conditions. They may develop specialties in areas like sports medicine, pediatrics, geriatrics, neurology, or orthopedics. During this phase of their career, physical therapists may also take on supervisory roles, mentoring less experienced colleagues.

Board-Certified Clinical Specialist

For those desiring further specialization, board certification is available through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). This certification is available in nine specialty areas including orthopedics, sports, geriatrics, pediatrics, neurology, women's health, clinical electrophysiology, cardiovascular and pulmonary, and wound management. Achieving board certification demonstrates advanced knowledge and skill in a specific area of physical therapy and can open up opportunities for leadership roles within that specialty.

Physical Therapy Director or Manager

After gaining significant experience and demonstrating leadership skills, physical therapists may progress to roles such as Physical Therapy Director or Manager. These positions involve overseeing the operations of a physical therapy department or facility, including staff management, budgeting, policy development, and strategic planning.

Doctorate and Academic Roles

Some physical therapists choose to pursue advanced degrees like a Ph.D. in physical therapy or a related field. This could lead to academic roles such as teaching in DPT programs, conducting research, or contributing to the advancement of the profession through scholarly publications.

Conclusion

The career path progression for a physical therapist is marked by continuous learning and professional growth. Whether they choose to specialize in a particular area of practice, take on leadership roles, or contribute to academia and research, physical therapists have numerous opportunities to make significant impacts on patient care and the broader field of physical therapy.

Physical Therapist Career Path Specializations and Subfields

As an ever-evolving field, physical therapy offers a myriad of specializations and subfields. They provide an opportunity for physical therapists to focus their practice on areas that interest them most, ranging from geriatrics to sports medicine. This article will explore the various career paths available to physical therapists who wish to specialize in a particular area.

Pediatric Physical Therapy

One popular subfield is pediatric physical therapy. Pediatric physical therapists work with children and adolescents, helping them improve their mobility, strength, coordination, and balance. They often work with children who have developmental delays, cerebral palsy, or other conditions that affect their physical abilities. A career in pediatric physical therapy requires a strong understanding of child development and a knack for working with young patients.

Geriatric Physical Therapy

Geriatric physical therapy is another major subfield. Geriatric physical therapists specialize in working with older adults, helping them maintain their independence and mobility as they age. They often work with patients who have conditions like arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease, or hip and joint replacement. To excel in this field, physical therapists must have a deep understanding of the aging process and the unique needs of older patients.

Sports Physical Therapy

Sports physical therapy is a subfield geared towards athletes. Sports physical therapists help athletes recover from injuries and improve their performance. They may work with professional athletes or amateur sports enthusiasts. This specialization requires knowledge of sports injuries and the specific demands of different sports.

Orthopedic Physical Therapy

Orthopedic physical therapy is another common specialization. Orthopedic physical therapists focus on the musculoskeletal system, treating conditions like sprains, strains, fractures, and surgeries. They often work in outpatient clinics or hospitals. A thorough understanding of human anatomy and surgical procedures is crucial in this field.

Neurological Physical Therapy

Neurological physical therapy is a subfield that deals with conditions affecting the nervous system. Neurological physical therapists work with patients who have had strokes, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, or multiple sclerosis. This specialization requires a strong understanding of neurological diseases and their impact on movement and function.

Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy

In the field of cardiopulmonary physical therapy, therapists work with patients who have cardiovascular or pulmonary conditions. These conditions can range from heart attacks to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Therapists in this field help patients improve their endurance and functional independence. Each of these specializations offers a unique way to apply the skills and knowledge of a physical therapist. By choosing a subfield, physical therapists can tailor their practice to their interests and strengths, making their career more fulfilling and effective.

Physical Therapist Career Path Job Market and Outlook

The job market for physical therapists is highly promising, with substantial growth expected in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for physical therapists will increase by 28% from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This surge in demand can be attributed to the increasing number of individuals who are staying active later in life and who require physical therapy services.

The Role of a Physical Therapist

As a physical therapist, your primary responsibilities will include helping patients recover from injuries, manage chronic conditions, and improve physical function and mobility. You will work with a diverse group of patients, from athletes recovering from sports injuries to elderly individuals working to regain mobility after a stroke or fall.

Diverse Opportunities in Different Settings

The job market for physical therapists is not limited to one setting or type of patient. Physical therapists can work in various environments, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centers, private practices, schools, home health agencies, and even corporate or industrial health centers. Each setting offers unique opportunities and challenges, allowing you to choose a path that aligns with your career goals and interests.

Advancement Opportunities

There are numerous opportunities for advancement within the field of physical therapy. You may decide to specialize in a specific area such as sports medicine, geriatrics, neurology, orthopedics, or pediatrics. Specializing often requires additional education and certification but can lead to increased job opportunities and higher pay. Additionally, experienced physical therapists may move into management or administrative positions within a clinic or healthcare organization. Others may choose to pursue roles in research or academia, contributing to the development and advancement of the physical therapy profession.

Job Outlook

As mentioned earlier, the job outlook for physical therapists is incredibly promising. The aging population, particularly baby boomers, are staying active later in life and are more susceptible to health conditions such as strokes and heart attacks that may require physical therapy. Moreover, advances in medical technology will continue to improve the survival rate of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects, creating additional demand for rehabilitative care. In conclusion, the job market for physical therapists is robust and expected to continue growing. Those who choose this career path can look forward to diverse opportunities, potential for advancement, and a positive job outlook.

Physical Therapist Career Path Salary and Compensation

Pursuing a career as a Physical Therapist (PT) can be both financially rewarding and personally fulfilling. As a PT, you have the opportunity to make a significant difference in people's lives, helping them regain mobility, manage pain, and lead healthier, more active lives. In addition to the personal fulfillment it offers, physical therapy is also a lucrative profession that offers competitive salaries and benefits.

Entry-Level Physical Therapist Salary

The salary for Physical Therapists varies depending on factors such as geographical location, years of experience, specialization, and the type of healthcare facility they work in. However, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of 2020, the median annual wage for physical therapists was $91,010. Entry-level physical therapists can expect to earn a lower wage as they are just beginning their careers. The lower 10% earned less than $62,120, and the highest 10% earned more than $124,740.

Experienced Physical Therapist Salary

As PTs gain experience and develop their skills, their earning potential increases significantly. After a few years in the profession, physical therapists can expect to earn salaries in the higher range. In addition to base salary, many physical therapists also receive additional compensation in the form of bonuses, profit sharing, and commissions. Moreover, some employers offer benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, and paid time off.

Salary by Specialization

Physical Therapists who choose to specialize in a specific area of practice often have higher earning potential. Some of the most lucrative specializations within physical therapy include Orthopedic Physical Therapy, Geriatric Physical Therapy, Neurological Physical Therapy, Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Pediatric Physical Therapy. While the average salary for all physical therapists is impressive, those who specialize can often command higher salaries due to their advanced training and expertise.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for Physical Therapists is promising, with employment projected to grow 18 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is primarily due to the aging population, which is expected to require more physical therapy services. In conclusion, a career as a Physical Therapist offers competitive compensation packages along with the opportunity to make a positive impact on people's lives. Whether you're just starting your career or are an experienced practitioner, the field of physical therapy offers plenty of opportunities for growth and advancement.

Physical Therapist Career Path Tips for Success

To be successful in a Physical Therapist career, it's important to plan strategically and follow certain guidelines. Here are some tips that will help you on your journey.

Education and Licensing

The first step on this career path is acquiring the appropriate education. A Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is required, which typically involves three years of study after obtaining a bachelor's degree. This program covers areas such as anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, pharmacology, and medical diagnostics. Upon completing the DPT program, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to become licensed. The licensing requirements can vary slightly from state to state, so it's essential to familiarize yourself with your specific state’s guidelines.

Gain Experience

Like many other professions, experience is key in physical therapy. Consider starting your career in an entry-level position at a hospital or rehabilitation center. This will provide you with invaluable hands-on experience and a chance to learn from seasoned professionals.

Specialization

There are numerous specializations within the field of physical therapy, including orthopedics, geriatrics, pediatrics, cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation, and sports medicine. Gaining a certification in a specific area can set you apart from other professionals and open up more job opportunities.

Continuing Education

Physical therapy is a dynamic field that continuously evolves with medical advancements. Therefore, it's crucial to stay updated by pursuing continuing education. This can be through workshops, seminars, online courses, or additional certifications.

Networking

Building strong professional relationships is essential in any career, including physical therapy. Joining professional organizations like the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offers opportunities to network with other professionals, access resources, and stay updated on industry trends.

Emphasize Soft Skills

While technical knowledge and skills are critical in this career, don't underestimate the importance of soft skills. Empathy, communication, flexibility, and problem-solving skills are highly valued in this field. Remember, success doesn't come overnight. It requires patience, dedication, and continuous learning. These tips, combined with your passion for helping others, can guide you towards a rewarding career in physical therapy.

What is the Job Outlook for Physical Therapists?

The job outlook for physical therapists is quite promising. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 18% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth can be attributed to the increasing demand for physical therapy services due to the aging population, chronic diseases, and medical advancements that make it possible for more people to benefit from these services.

What Does a Typical Day for a Physical Therapist Look Like?

A typical day for a physical therapist can vary greatly depending on their work setting and the specific needs of their patients. Generally, they may spend their day evaluating new patients, developing treatment plans, conducting therapy sessions, documenting patient progress, and collaborating with other healthcare professionals. They may work with patients of all ages and health conditions, including those recovering from injuries or surgeries, managing chronic conditions, or seeking to improve their overall fitness.

What Skills are Needed to Become a Successful Physical Therapist?

There are several key skills needed to become a successful physical therapist. These include strong interpersonal skills to build rapport with patients and work effectively with other healthcare professionals; analytical skills to evaluate patient conditions and develop appropriate treatment plans; physical stamina to stand, bend, lift, and move throughout the day; patience and empathy to work with patients who may be in pain or face challenges in their recovery; and detail-oriented nature to accurately document patient progress and adhere to treatment protocols.

What are the Educational Requirements for a Physical Therapist?

Becoming a physical therapist requires extensive education. Most physical therapists enter the field with a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. This typically involves three years of graduate-level study after earning a bachelor's degree. Coursework generally includes anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, neuroscience, and clinical practice. After completing their DPT, physical therapists must also pass a licensure exam to practice in their state.

What are the Advancement Opportunities for a Physical Therapist?

There are numerous advancement opportunities for physical therapists. Many choose to specialize in a particular area of physical therapy, such as orthopedics, pediatrics, geriatrics, sports medicine, or neurology. This often involves additional education and certification. Others may advance into leadership roles within their organization, such as becoming a director of rehabilitation services or opening their own physical therapy clinic. Furthermore, some physical therapists pursue careers in education or research.

How is the Work-Life Balance for a Physical Therapist?

The work-life balance for a physical therapist can vary depending on their work setting and schedule. Many physical therapists work full time, and some may need to work evenings or weekends to accommodate their patients' schedules. However, part-time and flexible schedules are also common in this field. While the work can be physically demanding, many physical therapists find it rewarding to help people improve their mobility and quality of life.