Physical Therapist Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

About this article
A physical therapist's median annual salary is around $82,000, but is it worth the educational and licensure requirements? See real job duties and get the truth about career prospects to see if becoming a physical therapist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Physical Therapy

Physical therapists are health care professionals who help people of all ages limit or prevent disability while diagnosing and treating them to help regain their functional ability after illness or injury. Here are a few pros and cons to help you decide if physical therapy is the right career choice for you.

Pros of a Physical Therapy Career
Many job opportunities available*
Number of jobs expected to increase in coming years (36% expected growth between 2012-2022)*
Can work with all ages from newborns to geriatric patients*
Variety of work environments*
Can earn a living helping people to regain their function*
High job satisfaction (one of the ten happiest jobs according to Forbes Magazine) **

Cons of Being a Physical Therapist
Job is physically demanding (a lot of stooping, bending and lifting)*
Long training period (2-3 years after college, longer for specialty training)*
Must take a challenging science-based curricula*
Need to obtain and maintain a license, which usually requires passing an exam and continuing education*
Extra time training needed for advancement***
Possible exposure to illnesses and injuries ***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,**Forbes magazine 9/12/2011, ***American Physical Therapy Association.

Career Overview

Job Description and Duties

Physical therapists (often called PTs) specialize in diagnosing, and creating and implementing a plan to treat persons who are limited in their movement and/or function. According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), PTs treat problems that range from injuries to neurologic diseases to painful conditions that interfere with a person's ability to move normally and care for him or herself. PTs also work with well people to prevent declines in mobility and function. The tools they use include therapeutic exercise, functional training, manual therapy, ultrasound and the application of heat or ice to painful or stiff joints.

PTs work with people of all ages and in a wide variety of environments. As a PT you might work in a hospital to treat someone who is recovering from surgery, in a nursing home helping an elderly person regain the ability to walk after they've had a stroke, or in a private outpatient physical therapy clinic helping an athlete who has been injured during a game. While most (60%) of PTs work in hospitals or in offices with other health professionals, other possibilities include fitness, home health care, employee health, hospice and research settings.

Career Paths and Specializations

If you are willing to take extra training after completing your PT degree, you have the option of specializing in one of eight specialty areas. PTs interested in a specialty area complete a residency in the area they are interested in, which usually takes an additional nine months to three years. Specialties in PT include geriatrics, clinical electrophysiology, cardiopulmonary, pediatrics, orthopedics, sports, women's health and neurology.

Job Growth and Salary

Some of the brightest news for someone considering a becoming a PT is that the outlook for this career is good. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 36% growth in employment opportunities is expected from 2012-2022, which is much higher than average, and PT median salaries are about $82,000. The APTA lists the median salary as $85,000 depending on education, position, geographical location and experience.

Education and Training Requirements

Getting into a PT program usually requires a baccalaureate degree; however, some programs offer a combination baccalaureate/PT program where persons who pass three years of pre-PT studies can go on to the graduate program. You don't have to major in a specific subject to apply for a PT program, and program requirements vary, but your undergraduate studies should be strong in the sciences. Possible majors include biology, psychology and exercise science. You'll also need to do well: according to the APTA, the average GPA for someone admitted to a physical therapy program was 3.47. Other application requirements for PT programs include taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and submitting one to four letters of recommendation. Paid or volunteer experience working with physical therapy patients is also required by some programs.

You'll need to attend an accredited program in order to be licensed to practice. Accredited physical therapist programs offer both master's and doctorate degrees. Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) or Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT) degrees take two to two and a half years to complete. The Doctor of Physical Therapy degree (DPS), which usually takes three years, is offered by most of the programs. Clinical internships, where PT students learn by working with patients, and the national licensing exam are also required.

What Employers Are Looking for

There are many physical therapy jobs available in a wide variety of locations and specialties. Many are in hospitals, private offices and for staffing companies. Specific qualifications may include years of experience or expertise in a specific area. Here are a few of the job postings found in March 2012:

  • A non-profit hospital in Massachusetts is looking for physical therapists to work with spine and joint patients in the hospital musculoskeletal center. Applicants should have applicable experience or fieldwork, and new graduates are welcome.
  • A school system in Virginia is looking for a PT with a master's or doctorate degree to work with special-needs kids. School-based experience and travel between schools is required.
  • A therapist-owned rehabilitation company is looking for physical therapists to work with geriatric patients in skilled nursing facilities. Applicants don't have to have experience, but must have graduated from an accredited program.

How to Maximize Your Skills

Taking advantage of opportunities to advance your career is the way to stand out as a PT. According to the ATPA there are several paths to further your training and leadership skills.

Specialize

Residency training after graduation is how PTs specialize in a specialty area or in patient education or research. Residencies can provide training and mentoring in a specific area and help candidates prepare for board certification. Fellowships provide instruction and exposure to patients in their area of specialization, allowing candidates to develop more in-depth knowledge. Finishing a residency and earning board certification and a license is generally required to go on to fellowship.

Get Certified

According to the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists, there were 11,527 certified PT specialists out of a total of 185,000 licensed PTs in the U.S. Board certification allows PTs to stand out for having expertise in their specialty. In order to sit for the PT boards, you'll need to already have a license, and have completed 2,000 hours of clinical experience in your specialty.

Develop Leadership Skills

Opening a practice is another way to advance and stand out as a PT. You can learn to run a PT business by attending conferences and seminars and taking continuing education courses. Other leadership paths recommended by the APTA include becoming an educator, developing administrator skills, and becoming a leader at the local or national level of the APTA or other PT organizations.

Other Careers to Consider

Physical Therapy Assistant

If you are interested in helping people recover their movement and function, but don't want to spend as much time in education and training as PTs do, you might consider becoming a physical therapy assistant (PTA). PTAs work in the same types of practices and with the same types of patients, but under the direction of a physical therapist. PTAs may help patients with exercise therapy, administer ultrasound treatments and monitor patient's progress. Required education is a 2-year associate's degree, and all states except Hawaii and Colorado require passing the PTA licensing exam in order to practice. According to the BLS, the mean salary for a PTA was about $50,000 in 2010.

Occupational Therapist

If you are interested in helping people learn more specific skills, you might like a career as an occupational therapist (OT). OTs help people keep, recover or learn the skills they need to work and do everyday activities. OTs may help someone who is disabled from a neurologic problem learn to eat, get dressed or improve their memory and problem-solving skills. OT jobs can also be strenuous, and practitioners can spend long periods on their feet. If you are interested in becoming an OT, you'll also need a post-baccalaureate degree and to a license from your state. According to the BLS, employment for OTs is expected to increase by 26% between 2008 and 2018. Median salaries for OTs were about $72,000 in 2010.

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