Do I Need a Physical Therapy Degree to Become a Physical Therapist?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover the many physical therapy specialties and places to work as a physical therapist that you can choose from when you earn your physical therapy degree.

[Featured image] A physical therapist with a degree assists an elderly patient with the help of a resistance band.

To become a physical therapist, you'll need a physical therapy degree, which is called a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). Before pursuing your DPT, though, you'll need to earn a bachelor's degree in health care, science, exercise, or other related fields. 

While physical therapy is a career choice that requires extensive education and training, it's also a profession that can be quite rewarding for anyone who is looking for a way to help better the lives of others.  

As a physical therapist, you'll help people who are sick or injured improve the way they move so they can do more for themselves and live happier, more independent lives. You may also help patients lead more pain-free lives. Physical therapists work with people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds, ranging from professional athletes who are recovering from injuries to nursing home patients with mobility issues and everyone in between. 

Upon completing your degree in physical therapy, as well as other training and certifications required, you'll find that you have plenty of options when it comes to places to work. You'll also find many job opportunities exist, as this is a field that is projected to grow at a much faster than average rate compared to other jobs. 

Find out more about what it takes to get a physical therapy degree, certification and licensing requirements, and what the salary and job outlook are for physical therapists.  

Physical therapist degrees and certifications

The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is the body that accredits physical therapy programs in the United States. In January 2016, CAPTE made the DPT the required degree for all of its accredited entry-level physical therapist education programs. Prior to this, PT credentials evolved from a certificate to entry-level degrees to a master's degree to the current clinical doctoral program.

Therefore, to be a physical therapist, you must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from an accredited program. This typically requires first earning a bachelor's degree before applying for your doctorate program. You will also need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) and get licensed in the state you want to work in. If you choose, you can also complete a residency program and earn board certification.  

Let's take a closer look at possible degree paths for physical therapists:

Bachelor's degree in a health field

According to the APTA, the most common bachelor's degrees for entering physical therapy students are biology, kinesiology, exercise science, and psychology. However, you can choose from a variety of undergraduate degree programs. Most DPT programs will require you to have taken certain courses in your undergraduate studies, so getting a degree in a health-related field is most advantageous.

Entry requirements

The entry requirements for a bachelor's degree in health or science vary depending on the institution and the type of degree program you choose. While there are differences, typical requirements include a high school diploma or equivalent, satisfactory grades in high school science courses, and minimum standardized test scores, such as the SAT or ACT. Most colleges will also ask for letters of recommendation in your application. Colleges may also factor in extracurricular activities, community service, or other achievements in their selection process.

If you have a specific college or program in mind, you should identify its specific requirements as early as possible to be sure you can complete the expected coursework.

Typical coursework

To gain admission into a DPT program, you must complete the specified prerequisite coursework for the school you wish to attend. While the school you choose may not have a pre-physical therapy program specifically, you can choose a related health science program. When choosing classes, remember that common coursework requirements for DPT programs are likely to include anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and statistics. Recommended coursework may include exercise science, biomechanics, and pharmacology, among others. Colleges may also require students to complete volunteer or observation hours in a clinical setting with their undergraduate program.

Doctor of physical therapy degree

Once you have your undergraduate degree in hand, your next step is to apply for admission into a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. You must graduate from a Commission on Accreditation Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE )-accredited program before you can sit for the licensure examination of physical therapists (NPTE), which you will need to practice legally. Be sure that the DPT program you choose is accredited before you apply.

Entry requirements

The entry requirements for a doctorate in physical therapy degree differ among schools, but they typically include a bachelor's degree, prerequisite courses in sciences, and some clinical experience. Some programs may also require applicants to meet minimum GRE score requirements, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

Typical coursework

The coursework for a Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree program typically includes foundational courses in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology, as well as clinical courses in areas such as musculoskeletal, neurological, and cardiovascular physical therapy. In addition, students typically complete hands-on clinical internships and may have the opportunity to specialize in areas such as sports physical therapy or pediatrics. You can find specific course requirements for participating schools using the APTA Program Directory.


NPTE stands for the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is a standardized test that assesses the knowledge and skills of individuals seeking licensure as physical therapists in the United States. Passing the NPTE is a requirement for obtaining a license to practice physical therapy in all 50 states, and it is considered a crucial step in building a successful career in the field.

The NPTE is designed to test the breadth and depth of a candidate's knowledge in the areas of patient care, diagnosis, treatment, and professional responsibilities. It is a computer-based exam that consists of 250 multiple-choice questions, and it typically takes about five hours to complete. This is a comprehensive and challenging test, but guidebooks and practice exams are available to help prepare for the NPTE online. 

Certification requirements

The requirements to obtain an NPTE (National Physical Therapy Examination) certification vary by state but generally include graduation from an accredited physical therapy program and passing the NPTE exam. You can find detailed information on the specific requirements for your state on the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website. Additionally, you can find more information about the NPTE exam and registration process.


Licensing requirements for physical therapists vary by state, but each state as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands require physical therapists to be licensed. 

Completing the licensure process includes passing the NPTE, submitting transcripts and other documentation from an accredited DPT program, and paying applicable fees. You must also keep your license current by meeting continuing education requirements.


A physical therapy residency is an optional program that provides advanced training and mentorship to physical therapy graduates, allowing them to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to provide high-quality patient care. Through a residency program, physical therapists can gain expertise in specialized areas of practice, such as pediatric or sports physical therapy.

A residency program for physical therapy typically involves clinical training and mentorship to help develop advanced skills and knowledge in the field. As of January 2023, you can choose from 388 accredited physical therapy residency programs, which are accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association [1]. 

Job prospects

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the physical therapy career field to grow at a rate of 17 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is much faster than the average career [2]. One of the great things about working as a physical therapist is that you can work in a wide variety of settings. Adding a specialty or extra certification to your resume could mean more job opportunities. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you can even open your own private practice. 

Typical places that usually employ physical therapists include:  

  • Hospitals 

  • Clinics

  • Health and wellness practices

  • Community centers 

  • Nursing and assisted living homes 

  • Rehabilitation centers

  • Sports organizations (such as for a professional or college team)

  • Private physicians' offices 

  • Home health care agencies 

  • Long-term care facilities

  • Schools

  • Child development centers

  • Outpatient facilities 


According to the BLS, physical therapists make a median pay of $95,620 annually and $45.97 per hour [2]. Those who work in home health care services tend to earn the most, followed by those who work in nursing and residential care facilities.

Get started 

Start building your skills as a physical therapist from some of the world's top universities. Consider Preventing Chronic Pain: A Human Systems Approach from the University of Minnesota or Managing Your Health: The Role of Physical Therapy and Exercise from the University of Toronto to get started.

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Article sources


ABPTRFE. "American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education," Accessed April 26, 2023. 

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