Many people who want to be in a helping profession are drawn to a career in physical therapy. Although the job outlook for physical therapists is good, with a projected growth of 22% between 2018 and 2028, the barrier to entry for this profession is quite high because the typical entry-level education required is a doctoral or professional degree.
If you want to know how to become a physical therapist, learn about the options available to you and how to minimize your student debt or repay your student loans.
Average physical therapist salary
Not all careers in physical therapy are created equal. Your average salary could vary depending on your specialization and your industry. The median pay for all physical therapists in May 2018 was $87,930. The chart below shows the median annual wages physical therapists earn depending on their place of work:
Place of Work
Median Annual Wage
Nursing and residential care facilities
Home healthcare services
State, local and private hospitals
Physical therapist offices, occupational and speech
Though these examples represent the median wages, that doesn’t mean every physical therapist is guaranteed to earn that amount. Among physical therapists, the lowest 10% make $60,390 annually and the highest 10% of PTs take home more than $123,350 a year.
PT degree and certification requirements
So, how do you become a PT? Well, physical therapist education requirements are somewhat stringent. If you want to get started in physical therapy, you’ll need to earn a doctor of physical therapy degree (DPT). You’ll also need a license in the state you choose to work.
Here are the steps to complete your PT education requirements:
Step 1: Get a bachelor’s degree
Getting a bachelor’s degree in a related health field can certainly help your chances of gaining admission into a DPT degree program upon graduation. Consider majors in science, kinesiology or psychology, as these are the most common for DPT applicants.
Be sure to check with DPT degree programs you are considering to understand their prerequisites in case there are specific courses you need to take as an undergrad. You can also reference a list of most American DPT programs and their prerequisites compiled by the Physical Therapy Central Application Services (PTCAS).
The most common prerequisites for physical therapist education requirements are:
- Anatomy / A&P 1 with lab
- Physiology / A&P 2 with lab
- Biology 1 (not botany or zoology)
- Biology 2 (not botany or zoology)
- General Chemistry 1 with lab
- General Chemistry 2 with lab
- General Physics 1 with lab
- General Physics 2 with lab
Be sure to visit the directory of schools and their prerequisites to cross-reference this list and check that your intended PT program accepts combined anatomy and physiology courses. Some physical therapy programs require you to take anatomy or physiology courses for prerequisite requirements, which must be completed in a biology, neuroscience, anatomy or integrated physiology department.
Note that not all DPT programs require you to obtain a bachelor’s degree first. There are a minority of programs that will accept you as a freshman. You can find these programs by searching the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) database and using the code “A2” to filter your results.
Additionally, some schools offer six-year curriculums for which the first three years are undergraduate classes and the last three years are PT study. You can find these programs in the above database by searching “A4” to filter results. This database gives you a list of all the DPT programs that require bachelor degrees that you must then sort through.
Step 2: Earn a DPT degree and specializations
The next step in how to become a physical therapist is to get your doctor of physical therapy degree. Learning how to be a physical therapist takes commitment. A DPT program is typically three years.
During this time, approximately 80% of your instruction will be in class while 20% will be dedicated to clinical study. You can expect your final clinical experience while learning how to become a PT to be 27.5 weeks long.
Following your DPT degree, you could opt for additional training by taking a fellowship or residency. Physical therapists looking to specialize in a certain field often go this route for additional training.
Though not required for practice, you could choose to become a board-certified specialist through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Specialties offered by the board include:
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary
- Clinical electrophysiology
- Sports physical therapy
- Women’s health
You can choose to specialize at any point in your career and don’t have to pursue a specialty immediately following your DPT degree. Doing so right after getting your DPT degree, however, might be the simplest and best opportunity to do so.
Step 3: Pass the licensing exam
All states require that physical therapists pass a licensing exam to practice. This test, the National Physical Therapy Examination, is standardized nationwide.
The exam consists of five sections with 50 questions each. Scores range from 200-800, and the minimum passing score is 600. The test can be taken at Prometric Testing Centers nationwide, but there are fixed test dates so you must plan and pre-register. The costs are updated regularly so be sure to check the current exam fees before you budget for the test.
PT schooling options
You have many choices when pursuing a physical therapist education, but make sure that you enroll in a DPT program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).
A CAPTE-accredited program is required for licensure. The PTCAS has a list of accredited programs, but because not every DPT program uses the PTCAS, you can also check a list of accredited programs through the APTA’s accredited schools directory.
There is no aggregated data about the cost of physical therapy school, so to find the cheapest physical therapy school, try researching accredited programs at public universities in your state, as those are likely to be the most affordable.
Disadvantages of a physical therapist career
Even though a physical therapist career might seem like an attractive option because you’re helping people and the median salary is reasonable, there are some disadvantages to consider before jumping in, such as:
- Expensive schooling: Unless you enroll in one of the few programs that allow freshmen to begin physical therapist education, you’ll likely spend between six to seven years in school before you’re able to practice — and that’s without pursuing a specialty. Those years of schooling can be costly, and your student loans could take years to repay, especially if you’re in the bottom group of earners making $60,390 a year.
- Saturation: In 2019 CAPTE reported 34,195 students in physical therapy programs, with 10,545 graduates. At the same time, the employment change between 2018 and 2028 is expected to be 54,200. There’s a chance physical therapists are being overproduced and the number of graduates will soon outpace the number of available jobs, despite job growth in this field.
How to repay physical therapist student loans
If you’ve already chosen the path of becoming a physical therapist and you’re wondering what the best strategy is to deal with your student loans there are several options you can pursue.
The best student loan repayment plan for you depends on whether you work in a private or public setting and how much you earn. Working in the public sector could qualify you for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. To find the most strategic approach to tackling your student debt, get a pre-debt consultation from a student loan expert on our team.