Physical Therapist Assistant: Duties, Pay + How to Become One

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Considering a career in physical therapy? Learn more about how to become a physical therapy assistant.

[Featured Image] A phsyical therapy assistant ewaring scrubs works with a patient.

A physical therapist assistant (PTA) works with a physical therapist (PT) in clinics or other medical settings to implement treatment plans and provide patient care to those suffering from conditions affecting their mobility. During their work, PTAs help PTs carry out rehabilitation plans so patients regain strength, recover from surgery, improve athletic performance, or heal from an injury or disease. 

In this article, you'll learn more about what physical therapist assistants are, their duties, and how much they earn. You'll also find what you'll need to do to become one. We'll suggest some cost-effective courses that can help you gain job-relevant skills today.

What is a physical therapist assistant?

A physical therapist assistant works in collaboration with a physical therapist to provide patients with rehabilitative care as they work to regain movement and mobility due to illness, injury, aging, or other disorders. PTAs may also help patients manage pain, meet fitness goals, or prevent injury through such methods as heat or ice therapy, stretching, and massages.

Physical therapist assistant vs. physical therapist

A PT must possess a doctoral degree in physical therapy, while a PTA is only required to have an associate degree from a PTA program or a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as kinesiology. A PTA carries out therapies and implements plans devised by a physical therapist.


What does a physical therapist assistant do?

The exact duties a PTA performs will vary based on the clinic, the type of injury or medical concern, and the physical therapist they work with. Nonetheless, some common duties a PTA may perform include:

  • Sanitizing work areas 

  • Preparing therapy equipment 

  • Observing patients and patient progress

  • Assisting patients through exercises

  • Working directly with patients on therapy

  • Treating patients with therapeutic interventions

  • Teaching patients how to use equipment

  • Educating patients and their loved ones

  • Preparing medical reports

  • Prevention and education

  • Community involvement

What can and can't PTAs do?

PTAs can treat patients with exercises, therapeutic interventions, stretching and massage, and medical equipment designed to assist in the manipulation and movement of the muscles, such as electronic stimulation or ultrasound. PTAs do not create rehabilitation care plans but carry out plans devised by the PT with which they work. They are not allowed to evaluate or assess a patient. They may also not be permitted to carry out certain more complicated procedures or therapies. 


Physical therapist assistant salary and job outlook

Physical therapist assistants earn a slightly higher than average salary and have a very positive job outlook over the coming years.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapist assistants earn a median annual salary $57,240 per year [1]. The highest 10 percent of all earners brought in an annual average pay of $80,170 a year, while the lowest 10 percent earned an average of $37,280 annually [2]

The job outlook for physical therapist assistants is very positive. The number of job openings for physical therapist assistants and aides is projected to grow by 19 percent in the next decade, resulting in approximately 27,600 job openings each year throughout the decade [3].

How to become a physical therapy assistant

To become a PTA, you must obtain the proper degree, become licensed, and hone the right skills through work experience and training. Here's a step-by-step guide to get started.

1. Obtain your degree.

To qualify for the licensing exam required to become a PTA, you must have either an associate degree from an accredited PTA program or possess a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, exercise science, or a related field.

While bachelor's degree programs usually take about four years to complete, most PTA programs take two years to finish and include hands-on clinical experience, clinical observation, and lab work in addition to coursework.

During your formal PTA training, you'll most likely obtain cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and basic life support (BLS) certifications, which will be a requirement to work as a PTA. 

How much does a PTA associate degree cost?

An associate degree in PTA costs an average of $2,500 a year at a community college and an average of $10,000 annually at a private community college. The cost for the required National Exam (NPTE) is $350, which is not included in the tuition cost. Many schools offer federal financial aid options for applicable students. Cost may vary based on program structure (online options, for example) and school. 


2. Pass the exam and get licensed.

After graduating from your program, you’re ready to take the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE), offered through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. This is a national requirement for all states, except Colorado and Hawaii, if you want to become a licensed PTA.

Once you pass this exam, you will be a licensed PTA, but keep in mind every state will have additional requirements for licensure. Requirements may include a criminal background check, proof of liability insurance, jurisprudence assessment, a copy of transcripts from your PTA program, or state-specific exams. Most states also require license renewal every two years.

3. Gain relevant work experience.

After graduation and passing the NPTE, reach out to PT clinics or other organizations that hire PTAs to gain relevant work experience. This is a key step in honing your skills as a PTA and finding a physical therapist assistant job.

When choosing a clinic or organization, consider what type of rehabilitation work interests you. For example, you might decide that you'd like to focus on sports-related injuries or surgery rehabilitation. Find a focus and look for an employer who offers work in the environment that suits you best. 

4. Develop your skills.

PTAs must possess a mix of human and technical skills to ensure they do the best possible job. Here are some of the skills you should consider honing if you're looking to join the field:

  • Communication: PTAs must possess effective communication skills since the core of their job requires them to work directly with both patients and their physical therapists.

  • Active listening: PTAs must be equally adept at active listening to PTs as they provide detailed instructions and patients as they provide feedback on how they feel.

  • Equipment knowledge: A PTA will use a wide variety of equipment when working with patients, from exercise equipment like therabands and medicine balls to therapeutic devices like electric stimulation and ultrasound. As a result, it's important to understand the use of each tool.

  • Anatomical and physiological knowledge: PTAs must have a strong grasp of human anatomy and physiology to provide the best possible care to their patients.

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Potential future roles and career development

If you are currently working as a PTA or considering the next steps to begin your physical therapy assistant career, consider these potential future roles: 

  • Earn your doctorate in physical therapy to become a physical therapist. This pathway may take a while but bridge programs may help to accelerate the path for PTAs transitioning to PTs. 

  • Earn a post-professional degree or certification like APTA’s PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways to become a specialized PTA. You can earn this certification in one of eight areas: pediatrics, oncology, wound management, orthopedics, acute care, geriatrics, cardiovascular/pulmonary, and neurology. 

  • Gain professional experience as a PTA to apply as a rehab director. Employers like to see experience in the health care industry in a position like a PTA.

  • Enroll in APTA’s Credentialed Clinical Instructor Program (CCIP) to become a clinical instructor, site coordinator of clinical education, or director of clinical education. These roles require varying levels of professional experience and completion of level 1 of the CCIP. 

Jobs related to physical therapist assistant

Several jobs are related to a physical therapist assistant. Most of these related careers are also health care support jobs. 

A physical therapist aide is someone who supports a PT and PTA by helping them prep patients and patient areas. They do not perform any medical tasks and do not work hands-on with patients as a PTA or PT would. 

An occupational therapy aide is also similar to a PTA in that they work in similar settings and prepare patients for treatments, but they do not have licensure or the same training. Like a physical therapist aide, an occupational therapy aide is more of a support staff member who works on the clerical side rather than the medical.  

Get started toward a PTA career

In the University of Toronto's Managing Your Health: The Role of Physical Therapy and Exercise, you'll gain job-relevant knowledge of exercise and cardiovascular disease and the importance of physical activity.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides,” Accessed September 7, 2023.

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