How to Become a Physical Therapist and the Salary You Can Expect

Physical Therapy

Have you been considering a career in physical therapy? It’s a rewarding occupation but it can take up to 7 years or longer to complete the program to become licensed to practice. Some can do it in as much as 6 years, but if you already have some college credits it can take even less time. Here is everything you need to know about the requirements for becoming a physical therapist, what the job involves, the steps to get there and the salary range that you can expect to be paid.

What does a physical therapist do?

A physical therapist is also referred to as a PT. The main focus of their job is to assist people who have trouble with movement due to illness or injury, to improve their mobility as well as managing their pain. Typically, a PT begins their role with a new patient by reviewing the medical history along with information supplied by the patient, and other medical professionals who have assessed, treated or referred the patient for physical therapy rehabilitation. The PT observes the patient and assesses the current status of their mobility, discusses goals and concerns with the patient, and works with each individual to develop a treatment plan. This may include any combination of hands on physical therapy manipulation, the use of various types of exercises including stretching, and also the use of equipment to increase range of movement, decrease pain and prevent further damage from progressing whenever possible. The PT is a part of the healthcare team for a patient, often working with referring physicians to achieve the desired patient outcomes.

Physical therapists are also teachers

A physical therapist in essence, becomes an expert in movement and how the use of a variety of exercises and other types of treatment can improve the quality of life for their patients. Another component of the duties of a PT is to educate patients, and sometimes their families or caregivers about their unique medical condition and how they can make adjustments to help themselves in addition to the care that is administered by the physical therapist. Often, patients are also prescribed a regimen to follow that may include certain exercises or stretching at home, or the use of appliances/equipment. They also learn which things to avoid to lessen the risk of further injury or pain. In some cases, the rehabilitation period must continue for an extended period of time and it may include the need to make lifestyle changes. PTs also teach patients how to use special equipment if needed, including walkers, wheelchairs, as well as familiarizing them with in-home treatment plans as needed. Answering patient questions is also an important part of the job, as well as addressing patients concerns and fully explaining the process and what the patient can expect in terms of outcomes. In some cases, patients will make a full recovery, but this is not always the situation. PTs must be able to explain in detail how the therapies will help, as well as presenting patients with the facts about the benefits as well as the limitations of the physical therapy plan.

Record keeping is a part of the job

Physical therapists must also have good record keeping skills. An important part of the job is documentation of medical records for accountability of services rendered to the patient well as for billing. Knowledge of coding for billing is also essential to make sure that he or she is properly reimbursed from insurance companies. Supervision of staff is another part of the job, including overseeing physical therapy assistants, ensuring that the clinic provides high quality service for patients and completes all of the required record keeping in accordance with the regulations that are outlined by state and federal mandates. Physical therapists must have a high skill set when it comes to running a clinic and maintaining proper records.

Educational requirements

Every state has requirements for licensing to become a physical therapist. There are several steps involved in fulfilling the educational and training requirements to become a licensed physical therapist. We are going to walk you through each of these steps so you will know precisely what it is that you must do to satisfy all of the required educational components along with preparation for the examination that is necessary to become licensed.

Prerequisites for acceptance into the DPT program

Most of the programs that are designed for physical therapist education require you to already have a bachelor’s degree before you enter. Some will accept a bachelor’s in almost any discipline, while others may require you to have certain classes already. This is one of the reasons why it’s a good idea if you haven’t already started college, to do your research and find out which DPT programs you may enroll in and what they require for admission. This will help you to do all of your prerequisite courses/degree in advance. Each program may be a little different so you want to make sure that you follow the path that will allow you to complete your program with the least amount of time and the least expense, so it literally pays in the long run to compare the different programs so you’ll know exactly what you need to do to prepare. Unless you enroll in a program that offers a bachelor’s degree that is in line with the DPT program, the first step is to obtain your bachelor’s degree. You will be required to have coursework in chemistry, physics, biology, physiology, kinesiology and anatomy.

Choosing the right school

All physical therapists must complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, which is also known as a DPT. There are over 200 programs which are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in physical Therapy Education, also known as CAPTE. It’s very important to remember this because the educational requirements are very specific. You don’t want to waste money on programs which are not accredited by this agency because they may not count towards the degree that you need. The average time for completion of a DPT degree is about three years. Once you’ve completed your bachelor’s program and have made sure to include the prerequisite courses necessary to gain admission to the DPT program of your choice, it’s time to apply for admission. If you’ve taken care of the first two steps and properly done your research then completed the bachelor’s degree with all of the necessary courses, you are ready to apply for admission to the DPT program. It is worth noting that all DPT programs require candidates who apply for acceptance to maintain a certain grade point average so this is another thing that you’ll need to check out. A good rule of thumb is to keep your GPA up the best that you can.

A central application system

Prospective PTs appreciate the centralized application program for applying for admission to the network of physical therapy schools. The PTCAS system is the main site where you get started. This can save you hours of research into the various schools providing this type of training and degree program. You’ll find that there are some programs that require you to have a bachelors while some others offer what is known as a freshman entry program and this will take you through the entire DPT program, however, not all of these programs offer the freshman entry program. Each program has its own special requirements and these can vary from one school to another, so it’s vital that you are aware of each requirement as you embark on your journey.


The first step in becoming licensed after you’ve completed all of the educational requirements to become a physical therapist is to prepare for your National Physical Therapist Exam, also referred to as the NPTE. The purpose of the exam is to ensure that you have achieved the competence that is required for an entry level PT after you’e graduated from an accredited program. The results of the examination helps the authorities that must evaluate each candidate to assess whether or not he or she meets the expectations and requirements for licensing. There are several free resources available to help you prepare for the examination. These resources are available from the FSBPT and they will provide you will all of the information that you need to know what is expected from the particular jurisdiction that you reside in. It’s important to remember that each state has its own specific regulations so you must make sure to study and prepare for the examination with the right materials that are specific to your state of residence. You can find information on the Physical Therapy Licensure Compact, the Model Practice Act, the Licensure Reference Guide, Scope of Practice and even access the Pass Rate Reports for your state at their website.

What to expect on examination day

After you’ve scheduled your examination, done your research for the pertinent information to your state and studies for the exam, the day will come for you to go in and show the world what you know. You will need to arrive at the examination center at least 30 minutes before the test is scheduled to begin. Make certain that you bring the two forms of identification which are required, or you will probably not be admitted to the center for testing. A form of picture government identification that is current and valid is the first type. This can be a driver’s license or a passport. You will also need to bring a second form of identification that has the same name as your first ID pre printed on it. They don’t accept social security cards, so another form will be needed. Check with the licensing center you’re scheduled with for a list of the specific types of ID they accept, and everything must match the information that appears on your “Authorization to Test” letter which you must also bring with your to the exam. You will be thumb printed each time you enter or exit the exam center. The PT examination consists of 250 questions and you are given up to 5 hours to complete the exam. You’ll be given 15 minute breaks throughout the testing period. It’s always a good idea to review the information on preparing for your examination along with the stipulations set forth by the testing center in your area to make sure that you are fully prepared and know what you can do, what you can’t, what you can bring in with you and what you cannot. All exams are administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy and the testing centers operate by a proscribed platform which is highly regulated to ensure that only qualified candidates are allowed to test as well as prevention of cheating on examinations.

Additional requirements

Due to the fact that each state has its own requirements for physical therapists, it’s difficult to say whether or not you will be required to complete additional licensing requirements. This is why it’s important to do your research to find out. Some states require PTs to gain a set amount of practical hands on experience, but this is different from one state to another. The Siskind Susser Chart of Physical Therapist Licensing Requirements by State is an excellent resource document that will provide you with useful links that take you directly to the websites that outline the requirements for each state.

What is the salary for a physical therapist?

There is a broad range on the pay scale for a licensed physical therapist. Much depends upon the area that you choose to set up your practice, the amount of experience that you have and also the specializations that you might have chosen within the field. We’ve gathered information from multiple sources to give you an idea of the kind of salary that you can earn at entry level, intermediate, advanced and with specializations.

Statistics on office location

A little over a third of PTs work in offices which may include spaces shared with occupational therapists which are different, and speech and hearing specialists with a little over a quarter working in a hospital environment, with ten percent working for home healthcare agencies, and the remainder working either in their own practices as self-employed or for nursing homes/residential homes. According to, the salary range for a licensed physical therapist is between $79,039 to $93,094. This is just an average estimate though. In order to have a better sense of what your earning potential in the field will be, you can do the research on the area that you live in or plan to practice within to find out what PTs in your area are making. There can be a wide gap in the average salaries earned from one locale to another. Some things that you’ll want to investigate more fully include the base bay, and also any bonuses offered along with retirement plans and other elements within the overall compensation package offered.


The field of physical therapy is a broad one. As a student who is planning out their career path, it’s a good idea to review the many specialties that are available within the discipline. The specialties can be reviewed through the American board of Physical Therapy Specialties. This will give you an idea of what is available and the direction that you may want to take your career. The ABPTS is a certifying agency that recognizes the advanced specializations through certification in specific areas of PT. There are a total of eight different certifications that you can obtain through this agency after completing all of the requirements for each. Some PTs will specialize in pediatrics, while others may choose cardiovascular and pulmonary certifications, geriatrics, orthopedics, neurologic, clinical electrophysiologic certification, sports disciplines or women’s health.

Fees required for specialty certification examinations

You will need to prepare for the specialty examinations just as you did for your initial licensing. All candidates must meet with minimum eligibility requirements with a current license to practice PT in the US, and of course, the submission of the examination fee along with the fees charged for reviewing. This is worth considering in advance because the application review fee is $500 if you are a current APTA member at the time of your application to take the exam. If you are not an APTA member, the price of the fee goes up to $845, and these rates are subject to change so you’ll want to keep abreast of any changes so you’ll be adequately prepared. This is just the application review fee. Next you must submit the examination fee prior to being admitted as an eligible candidate to take the exam. If you’re an APTA member, the examination fee is $800 and if you are not, the fee to take the examination goes up to $1,525.

Why specialize?

Specializing in a particular area can serve multiple purposes. First and foremost, it can allow you to work with specific populations and in areas that you are the most passionate about. Specializations provide you with the credentialing that can allow you to work in your chosen section of the profession. In addition, having a specialization can give you more credibility and it can increase the chances of securing the best positions within the physical therapy realm of practice.

Continuing education requirements

As with any profession requiring licensing and certification, physical therapists must engage in ongoing continuing education to keep their licenses and certifications current as they do expire within a set amount of time. While each state has their own requirements and regulations governing mandatory continuing education, an example of what you can expect was retrieved from the Washington State PT requirements for continuing education. In this state, PTs much have at least 32 hours of continuing education to renew their PT license. In addition to this, they are required to have at least 200 hours of time logged in working as a physical therapist or of employment as a physical therapist within a two year period. It’s easy to remember that you must renew your license every two years by your birth date and the requirements must be fulfilled within this two year period.


Physical therapists enjoy a wonderful career that is spent improving the quality of life for others. It can be a demanding job at times, but the rewards of seeing patients make progress and gain a better range of movement and reducing their pain levels can be very satisfying. The education requirements for becoming a licensed PT are stringent because there is so much that a PT needs to know. The skills required are interpersonal, for communicating effectively with patients and their families, record keeping for maintaining medical and billing records as required by state and federal agencies, and an expertise in how the variety of therapies, equipment and treatment strategies an be used to enhance the quality of life for others. Becoming a physical therapist is a journey from the beginning to passing the exam, but it’s also an exciting venture when you take the time to adequately prepare for each stage along the way. If you do a little pre-planning, research the requirements for education in your state and follow the steps that we’ve outlined here, you can have smooth sailing as you prepare for an exciting new career in physical therapy.

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