What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Do? A Career Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Considering a career in physical therapy? Learn more about this important role and how to get started today.

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

A physical therapy assistant (PTA) works with a physical therapist (PT) in clinics or other medical settings to implement plans of care decided by the physical therapist. PTAs are responsible for patient care under the supervision of a PT. They may help PTs carry out rehabilitation plans to help patients regain strength, recover from surgery, improve athletic performance, or heal from an injury or disease. 

What is a physical therapist assistant (PTA)?

A physical therapist assistant, or PTA, works in collaboration with or under the supervision of a physical therapist (PT), providing rehabilitative care to patients who need help regaining movement and mobility due to illness, injury, aging, or other disorder. A PTA may also help patients manage pain, meet fitness goals, or prevent injury. Patient care may include heat/ice therapy, stretching and massaging, coaching patient’s through exercises, educating patients on rehabilitation plans, and monitoring and noting patient progress. 

It’s important to note that a physical therapy assistant (PTA) is not the same as a physical therapist (PT). A PT has a doctoral degree in physical therapy, whereas a PTA has an associate degree from a PTA program or a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology or a related field. A PTA carries out therapies and implements plans devised by a physical therapist. In short, the PT is the decision maker, whereas the PTA carries out the key steps of those decisions. 

What are a physical therapist assistant's job duties?

The job duties of a PTA will vary based on the clinic in which they work, the type of injury or mdeical concern, and the physical therapist with whom they work. The primary duties of a PTA are to carry out the plan of care laid out by the PT that they work with. This means they are responsible for preparing the clinic for patients, noting patient progress, making suggestions when needed, and ensuring that the PT's plans are carried out correctly and effectively. 

A few common duties of a PTA: 

  • 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

It’s important to note that physical therapist assistant roles may look a little different based on the population with whom they work. 

What skills should a physical therapist assistant have?

PTAs should have excellent human skills since the core of their job is working with patients and other PTs. They are constantly in communication with others, so communication skills and the ability to work well with others are an absolute must for this profession. Equally important are listening skills. PTs will give you detailed instructions and patients will provide feedback on how they feel. PTAs are also on their feet most of the day, so you will require physical stamina for this job. 

Aside from interpersonal and human skills, a PTA needs to know their way around a physical therapy clinic. 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. Technical knowledge like a deep understanding of human anatomy is also necessary. 

How to become a physical therapy assistant

To become a PTA, you will need to earn an associate degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), earn licensure in your state, and obtain optional certification. After satisfying these requirements, you’re ready to compile your resume and apply for PTA jobs.  

Physical therapist assistant education and licensure

Prospective PTAs must earn an associate degree from an accredited PTA program. Some PTAs pursue bachelor’s degrees in kinesiology, exercise science, or related fields, but this is not a requirement. If you need guidance finding an accredited program, CAPTE provides a directory of schools accredited by the organization.. 

No standard prerequisites exist for admittance into a PTA program, but most require a high school diploma or GED. PTA programs are typically less competitive than doctorate of physical therapy (DPT) programs. Still, if you’d like to improve your chances of admittance into a good school, consider volunteering at a PT clinic prior to earning a degree. 

Most PTA programs take two years to complete and include hands-on clinical experience, clinical observation, and lab work in addition to coursework. This is where you will receive your formal PTA training and most likely obtain cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and basic life support (BLS) certifications, which will be a requirement to work as a PTA. 

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.

Getting relevant experience after graduation

After graduation and passing the NPTE, reach out to PT clinics or other organizations that hire PTAs to gain relevant experience. This is a key step in honing your skills as a PTA and finding a physical therapist assistant job. Professional experience has many benefits, from networking to resume building. When choosing a clinic or organization, consider what type of rehabilitation work interests you. For example, do you want 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. 

Is this career right for me?

Working as a PTA can be a rewarding career choice with an optimistic future. It’s a career that was ranked in the top 10 of all health care support jobs in the Best Jobs report by US News, noted for moderately low stress, good work/life balance, and average upward mobility. It’s also an easily accessible career, usually requiring just two years of formal education and training with many online and remote options. You'll find PTAs all across the US and in many health care fields. The need for PTAs is supported by an impressive job outlook. 

Health care is all about helping people. For people who want to help others, the health care industry is a great place to be. PTAs get the opportunity to help people firsthand heal, recover, thrive, and improve. This job can be gratifying as PTAs can tangibly see their work's effects on a daily basis. 

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 look for bridge programs that 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. Some employers may ask for a bachelor’s degree in a related field, but the majority 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.  

How much is a physical therapy assistant's salary?

On average, a physical therapy assistant’s salary is $61,180. [1]. The highest 10 percent of all earners brought in an average of $80,170  a year, while the lowest 10 percent earned an average of $37,280  yearly [2]

Factors like location, employer, and years of experience may affect income as a PTA. For example, the highest-paying states for PTAs are currently California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Texas, and Connecticut. The highest-paying industries for PTAs are home health care, nursing care facilities, and assisted living facilities. 

Job outlook

The job outlook for physical therapist assistants is promising, with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting an average growth rate of 24 percent within the next decade and 25,600 PTA job openings [3]. This growth is largely due to an aging population, advances in medical technologies, and chronic illnesses or disabilities that require rehabilitation.

Get started towards a PTA career

Working as a PTA can be a rewarding career in health care support. Learning more about the overall field of physical therapy can help you know the best way to launch your career. You can also volunteer at a PT clinic or health care practice to get some experience and understanding of your career options. When ready, apply for a physical therapist assistant accredited program and plan your next steps.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a PTA and want to learn more, consider enrolling in a free course like Managing Your Health: The Role of Physical Therapy and Exercise offered on Coursera. 


Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm.” Accessed September 14, 2022. 

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Written by Coursera • Updated on

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