How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant and the Salary You Can Expect

Physical Therapy Assistant

When considering starting down the path of becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant, there are several short and long term options you can choose from. The base level is that of Physical Therapy Aide, which has far less stringent requirements both in the education you need and the type of literally, hands on experience you have acquired. Taking it to the next level, you will be able to attain the position of Physical Therapy Assistant which is the topic of this article.

Being a Physical Therapy Assistant is nothing like being a massage therapist. Massages may be a part of the therapy for a patient, but the position is a professional one in the field of medically administered healthcare. You will have legal and ethical standards to uphold in the performance of your duties, and will work closely with doctors and other healthcare professionals in executing the overall treatment plan for the patient.

A qualified Physical Therapy Assistant will not only use manual methods to assist in the total healing of the patient but also learn how to use special equipment designed to repair physical damage done to the body as a result of an accident or a disease. You may work with a patient for many months in getting them back to full health, so having the soft skill of being able to establish and maintain a professional relationship with people is another key component of the profession.

Basic Requirements

Like any professional position, not everyone will have the innate necessary skills to become successful in this position. The most obvious quality needed is to have a certain level of physical dexterity with your hands. This is not something that can usually be taught, so failure to recognize this has the potential of either failing to clinical aspect of the training or worse, actually causing further physical damage to a patient in actual practice. Another key characteristic of the position is to constantly remember that while surgeons and doctors work from the inside out, a Physical Therapy Assistant works from the outside in. Thus, you will usually see the results of all your hard work slowly, over time, rather than immediately. Patience is necessary to become a true professional in the field.

The ability to combine science and problem solving skills is essential. There will be a lot of Biology and Physiology involved in the classroom education, but you will also need how to make the right decisions by being able to specifically identify the specific problem and make any necessary adjustments during the course of treatment. This also requires the ability to pay close attention to detail, as there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to the practice of being a Physical Therapy Assistant.

As you continue to read this article, it is worthwhile to know that U. S. World and News Report ranked a Physical Therapy Assistant as number 3 of all Best Health Care Support Jobs. Visit the link to learn how the rankings were determined, but it is clear that if you have what it takes to enter the field you will have one of the most rewarding jobs in the healthcare field.

Classroom Education

The minimum education required to begin a path to becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant is an Associate’s degree. There are an estimated 360 colleges that offer the education so you may have to do some searching to find one in your area. Be sure not to enroll in a program for Physical Therapy Aide, where the pay is much lower and the level of actual patient involvement is also much lower. Be sure the college you enroll in is one that is accredited so you will not have any problems getting certified, which is an essential requirement before being able to start practicing.

What types of classes can you expect to take once enrolled?

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Exercise physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Kinesiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Clinical pathology
  • Behavioral science
  • Communication
  • Ethics

As you can see, you will be required to have an understanding of a number of disciplines beyond science. Being able to effectively communicate with a patient and also know which treatments are the best for the specific condition of the patient go hand in hand. There are not many STEM types of programs that will get you out the door in 2 years and have you prepared to start working shortly after graduation. If you are interested in medical science but don’t have a lot of patience for sitting in a classroom, becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant may be your ticket to career and personal satisfaction.

Of the 60 credit hours required to attain your degree about 45 will be classroom work, while the other 15 will be actual clinical experience. Expect the first two semesters to be largely classroom work. Once you have the groundwork necessary to move into clinical experience you can expect to spend less time sitting in a chair and more time getting hands-on instruction. Depending where you live you may be able to take a hybrid program where part of the instruction can be completed online and the other part in an on-site instructional venue. This may be an excellent way to transition from your current position into the Physical Therapy Assistant profession.

Pause for Personal Evaluation

At this point it is time to pause and evaluate whether or not you have the basic qualifications to move forward. You should have an interest in Physiology and medical science in general. Though these are STEM subjects you are not likely to need to have strong math skills or computer skills to succeed in the field. In fact, it is one of the few STEM-related fields that require a relatively narrow range of scientific knowledge to graduate and begin working. It may also be one of the reasons it seems to be a well-kept secret in the discussion of STEM majors and areas of employment.

Beyond the STEM element, you also need to have the ability to patiently communicate with a patient. Treatment plans for patients with multiple medical issues can be difficult, so being able to be clearly understood is likely to determine your future success. You might consider looking at this quality as the ability to teach others. As a Physical Therapy Assistant you will also be instructing the patient on what exercises or conditioning to do, so the patient needs to know exactly what you are telling them.

Getting Your National Certification

Now that you have determined you have the academic and personal skill sets to complete your course of study, the next step on the road is to pass the certification exam. Each state has its own certification and licensing requirements, so you will have to do your homework and find out your state’s specific legal requirements.

But to make things easier on you, here is a link to where you can actually find out what the pass rates are for the Physical Therapy Assistant exam by state and by school. This is a very useful webpage to help you determine which schools in your area offer the best possibilities to pass the exam so you can get on to the business of finding a job. As a boost to your confidence level, there are a number of states and schools that post passing rates of over 95 percent.

Passing the exam is not the only requirement for being able to begin your working career. Four states (Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Kansas) plus the U. S. territory of the Virgin Islands require you to have Professional Liability Insurance. This can be an additional expense. Your employer may pick up the cost of the insurance, but be prepared to pay out of pocket as it may be a question asked during a job interview. You can also expect a criminal background check of some type to be performed as a part of the complete licensing process.

One question that is often asked in regards to the exam itself is whether retakes are possible. The answer is yes, but there is a limit of 6 times you can retake the exam in a single calendar year. You will want to check on this fact upon graduation to make sure the number hasn’t changed. This is also an important consideration in evaluating the pass rates of the various colleges, as there is no clear indication whether it includes students who have taken the exam multiple times.

When discussing the areas of education and certification, it is also important to recognize other opportunities that are available that will enhance your salary and the number of potential jobs you will be eligible for. As you gain real world experience in your profession, you will discover there are specialized areas that you can obtain additional certifications in, increasing your job satisfaction level.

You can pursue specialties as a functional training specialist, focus on orthopedics, work with patients who have cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions, help oncology patients, or work with children with a pediatric specialty. The general requirement is to have a minimum of 2,000 hours of documented clinical practice before taking the specialty certification exam. That may seem like a lot, but consider there are 2080 working hours in the 40 hour work week over the course of a year and that number doesn’t really seem very demanding. If you are taking an exam administered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists, expect to answer about 200 questions correctly to earn the certification.

Prepping for the Exam

The key word in Physical Therapy Assistant is “Physical.” To be seriously considered as a PTA (Physical Therapy Assistant) you need to be in better than average physical shape. One of the reasons is the position requires you to do much of the physical work in rehabilitating a patient. This includes physically lifting them on to a bed, with help of course. Physical conditioning is one of the more sought after elements of hiring managers.

Communicating with the patient has been previously mentioned as one of the essential requirements, but you should also be able to effectively communicate with the patient’s family members. This may be more difficult than communicating with the patient themselves, as there can be language and literacy barriers that complicate things. It is reasonable to suggest that being able to fluently speak a second language is a huge asset during the interview process. But it is more important to be able to demonstrate during the interview (not so much in writing) that you not only can speak to many different types of people, but that you can do it clearly and be easily understood.

It has been suggested that part of your non-working time is spent volunteering with youth or community groups in your area. Not only will this establish a rapport with the people who are potential patients, but it will give you the opportunity to learn firsthand how some injuries occur – increasing your ability to understand the nature of therapeutic problems.

Finally, as you begin to search for opportunities, take some time to decide on the type of patient you prefer to work with. In general, you will deal with three broad groups of people: athletes, people with disabilities, and the elderly. From these three groups it is not hard to see how you can move up a step and pursue a Bachelor’s or professional degree in Sports Medicine or Gerontology. While some people will want to work in the field for their entire career, others may begin to physically wear out (it happens) and will need to leave the profession. Starting to think about this issue now will help you determine a longer term plan for your career.

Employment Outlook and Salary

Now that you know what you want to do and where you want to go, the final issue to finding out your income potential. This is placed last in the article because being directly involved in the treatment and care of a patient should never be about money first. Yes, it is a consideration, and based on the requirements of the position you should be adequately compensated. But as a professional your first concern when waking up in the morning and getting ready to go to your job should not be your hourly rate.

The research into salaries reveals certain major differences that you should be aware of. First is the average salary will vary from state to state. Part of this reason is the legal requirements you will have to meet (such as liability insurance) that can add to the cost of practicing your profession. Demand is also an issue, though the projected demand for PTAs is expected to increase by 31 percent over the next 5 years. This means that there will be plenty of opportunities once you have attained your certification to find a job where you live, or be able to relocate to most areas of the country and earn a fair wage.

Now for the numbers. You can find a state-by-state listing of the median salaries at Learn to Become. There is also more detailed information by clicking on the webpage’s button for each individual state. Within the salary range of 75 percent of the PTA workforce, there is a median low of $46,780 and a media high of $67,770. This means that the majority of PTA workers will be paid within this range. However, in evaluating this information keep several things in mind:

  1. The numbers reflect most of the PTA salaries, so you may find yourself at the lower end (less than $46,780) depending on where you live.
  2. Years of experience are also included in the numbers, which means that a PTA that has been working for 5 years is part of that high end $67,770 a year salary. There are PTAs who make more, but use moderation and expect to start on the lower end of the curve as a first year professional.
  3. The $57,430 median salary is reflected in a number of studies about what the average PTA can expect to make. You should be within this range within a year or two.

In another survey, Salary.com indicates that the type of degree you possess has a direct impact on how much you will earn as a PTA. This data needs to be carefully considered as it does not clearly indicate the specific discipline for the advanced degrees. For example, the chart shows that you are likely to make more money with a Bachelor’s degree, but it doesn’t say whether that degree is in Business or Biology. As was discussed earlier, there are several ways you can advance your career as a PTA, either through certification or obtaining advanced education in a healthcare related field, such as Sports Medicine.

However, this chart may be useful for people who are transitioning from one field to another. For example, if you have a degree in Business and want to become a PTA, this chart is useful because it indicates your Bachelor’s degree will have a future impact on your starting salary.

Also notice on the same web page that the vast majority of practicing Physical Therapy Assistants have a two year degree. This indicates that not only are most PTAs content with their level of education, but also if they pursue an advanced degree they are likely to move out of the field. This factor is shown when looking at the data for job satisfaction within the profession.

The upward mobility of a PTA is fairly limited. When you stop and consider the nature of your job responsibilities, there isn’t a lot more to know or do. You can choose a specialty, but that is likely to have you doing the same job except you will be focusing on a smaller population of patients. There really isn’t an “up” factor to the position, but to many people that is not a critical factor. In fact, there are people who prefer it that way.

The stress level of a job is often a major factor in job satisfaction, and PTAs fall into the middle range of this measurement. The fact is, once a PTA has some experience under their belt they will become confident and adjust to the job’s requirement to achieve patient satisfaction. It will also depend on their general working environment, as in-office politics and related non-professional stress factors can become an issue.

A third factor is how flexible the position is in terms of the duties you are expected to perform. The duties of a PTA are fairly standard, as there are specific tasks and procedures that need to be performed regardless of the patient. However, a PTA has the advantage of being able to become very proficient at their job and achieve a level of job satisfaction without worrying about having to relearn new skills. There will be exceptions, such as new technology, but the human body appears to remain a constant for most people.


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