How to Become a Physical Therapist

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This guide describes the steps to becoming a physical therapist, including the educational requirements and credentials necessary to work in the field of physical therapy.

[Featured Image] Seated physical therapist discussing treatment with a patient

As a physical therapist, you’ll help others improve their quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Physical therapists examine patients and help get them started on a treatment plan. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that physical therapist jobs will grow 21 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations [1]. This guide covers how to become a physical therapist, including the educational requirements and various career paths. 

Earn your bachelor’s degree.

To become a physical therapist, you must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, so the first step to becoming a licensed physical therapist is to earn your bachelor’s degree. Most accredited programs to receive a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree require a bachelor’s degree to be accepted. Your bachelor's degree does not need to be in physical therapy; it can be in any subject. However, many students choose a health field related to physical therapy, like biology, chemistry, or physiology. 

Alternatively, you could also enter a 3+3 program, which allows you to take three years of undergraduate work and then enter your three-year DPT program. This option reduces the time spent in school to six years instead of the seven it takes to complete a bachelor's and DPT program. If you are sure you want to be a physical therapist, this may be the most efficient option. 

If accepted as a freshman into a 3+3 program, you complete specific physical therapy-related undergraduate classes and other state requirements, including maintaining a minimum GPA before beginning the Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

Read more: A Guide to the Bachelor of Health Science Degree

Choose a DPT program.   

After you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree or met the other requirements, you can apply for a Doctor of Physical Therapy program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). These programs typically last three years and cover topics including biology, anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, and pharmacology. 

To find the right program for you, visit the American Physical Therapy Association’s website for a list of CAPTE-accredited programs. You can filter your DPT program search by start date, GRE requirements, deadline date, location, and accreditation status, among other filters. 

When choosing a DPT program, consider factors like the campus setting, the program’s post-graduate employment rates, the size and demographics of the student population, student-teacher ratios, the cost of the program, and the teaching methods. An out-of-state program will cost significantly more than a program in your state. Tour the campus and meet faculty, if possible. An academic adviser can also help you make the decision about which program is right for you.

Admission requirements  

When applying to a DPT program with a bachelor's degree, most will require that you have taken specific prerequisite courses as part of your undergraduate coursework. The particular courses will depend on the DPT program, but common prerequisites include courses in anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and statistics. You will also likely have to meet a minimum GPA requirement and Graduate Record Examination score. In addition, you will typically need some experience in a physical therapy setting, either as a volunteer or paid position. 

Accreditation 

Choose a DPT program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) to ensure it is a qualified entry-level education program. The CAPTE is recognized by the US Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The CAPTE awards its specialized accreditation status to qualified educational programs for physical therapists and physical therapist assistants. Having accreditation helps assure the quality of the education that you receive. 

Cost 

The cost of a DPT program will vary depending on factors like the location of the school or program and whether it is a private or public institution. It also varies depending on the length of the program and the certificate or degree awarded. 

According to the CAPTE, the median total cost of a program is $66,714 for public in-state programs, $115,858 for out-of-state programs, and $114,128 for private programs [2]. 

Besides tuition, DPT programs also often have annual fees and other program expenses associated with them. Such costs include background check fees for clinical education, activity fees, identification card fees, textbooks, and professional liability insurance. You also need to account for housing and transportation costs during the program.

Program structure 

According to the CAPTE, the average number of weeks spent completing a program in 2020-2021 was 123.67 weeks, or 2.4 years [2]. Programs are structured in two phases: classroom education (didactic) and lab study and clinical education. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, physical therapy students spend about 80 percent of the program length on didactic curriculum and lab study and then an average of 27.5 weeks in their clinical experience [3]. Besides the classes listed above, courses include behavioral sciences, communication, ethics and values, management sciences, finance, sociology, and clinical reasoning. 

Graduate from your DPT program and pass the NPTE.

The purpose of the DPT program is to prepare PT students for the NPTE, or National Physical Therapy Examination. This test is a necessary step to obtaining your physical therapy license. According to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, the test measures basic entry-level competence after graduation from an accredited or equivalent non-accredited program. 

Pass your state's licensure exam.

To practice in a state, you must pass a state licensure exam to receive your physical therapist license. You need to pass both the NPTE and a state exam to practice legally in many states. All states require a license to practice physical therapy.

Complete a residency or earn board certification (optional). 

Many physical therapists also choose to complete a residency training or earn board certification. These optional steps can enhance a physical therapist’s training and credibility with patients. According to APTA, a clinical residency can advance a physical therapist's preparation as a provider of patient care services in a defined area of clinical practice. Physical therapists can get board certified through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties

Apply for PT jobs.

With the degree and license, you can now apply for physical therapy jobs or choose to open your own practice. Physical therapists work in various settings, including hospitals, clinics, athletic training centers, and schools. 

Physical therapist salary and job outlook 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a physical therapist’s median annual salary is $95,620 as of May 2021 [1]. Salaries vary based on position, experience, degree, location, and practice setting. The demand for physical therapists varies from state to state, with growth expected to continue as the population ages. The APTA says unemployment rates for physical therapists are typically low. 

The BLS also projects an average of about 15,600 openings for physical therapists each year from 2020 to 2030 [4]. Many openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers changing occupations or leaving the labor force, according to the BLS.

Get started 

One way to learn more about physical therapy and gauge interest in pursuing a career in the field is to take a physical therapy course on Coursera. For example, the University of Toronto offers a course, Managing Your Health: The Role of Physical Therapy and Exercise or Preventing Chronic Pain: A Human Systems Approach offered by the University of Minnesota. 

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Article sources

  1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Physical Therapists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm." Accessed May 13, 2022.

  2. Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. "Aggregate Program Data: 2020 Physical Therapist Education Programs Fact Sheet, https://www.capteonline.org/globalassets/capte-docs/aggregate-data/2020-2021-aggregate-pt-program-and-salary-data.pdf." Accessed May 13, 2022.

  3. APTA. “Becoming a Physical Therapist, https://www.apta.org/your-career/careers-in-physical-therapy/becoming-a-pt." Accessed June 13, 2022.

  4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Physical Therapist: Job Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-6.”Accessed May 13, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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