How to Become a Physical Therapist

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Have you ever considered being a physical therapist?

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who work with patients who are recovering from surgery or injury. Physical therapists create exercise and movement programs to help their patients regain mobility, balance, and flexibility.

These professionals also use ice therapy, heat therapy, massage, and electric stimulation therapy to strengthen patients’ muscle fibers, reduce pain, and increase blood flow to affected areas of the body to speed up healing.

Physical therapists will collaborate with orthopedists to develop the most effective treatment plans for patients. However, some physical therapists also work independently in long-term care facilities, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, or within athletics departments at colleges or high schools. You can even join a private physical therapy practice or start your own practice.

Is Being a Physical Therapist a Good Career?

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Being a physical therapist can be a satisfying career for many reasons.

On average, physical therapists earn $77,750 to $101,920 per year, which is an excellent salary in many parts of the country. In addition, the demand for physical therapists is growing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for physical therapists will grow 15% from now until 2032.

In addition, when you’re a physical therapist, you’re helping people feel better and become healthier. They come to you with pain and physical limitations. When they leave, they’re feeling and moving better. It can be very rewarding to have a job that has such a direct and positive impact on people’s lives.

8 Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist 

If you think that becoming a physical therapist sounds like a career you’d like to pursue, then let’s look at the eight steps you should take to make that happen.

1. Focus on Science and Math in High School 

If you’re in high school and know that you want to pursue a career as a physical therapist, then you can start now to prepare.

The most relevant classes you can take in high school are algebra, geometry, biology, and physics. Your high school may offer classes in physiology, anatomy, or health science as electives. If so, then be sure to take those classes as well.

Whenever possible, take AP level classes because you may be able to earn college credit upon passing the AP exam.

2. Earn a Bachelor of Science Degree

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Before you can pursue a career as a physical therapist, you’ll need to earn a four-year degree from an accredited college or university.

There are currently 274 colleges in the United States offering physical therapy programs, which is certainly a lot. This list of The Best Colleges for Kinesiology and Physical Therapy in America may help you narrow down your choices.

Of course, cost of tuition influences where you attend college as well. The average cost of attending a physical therapy program at an in-state school is $9,653 compared to $31,971 at an out-of-state school. Those numbers come from the website

Regardless of which college you attend, you should major in one of these disciplines:

  • Kinesiology, which is the study of how the human body moves and behaves.
  • Exercise Science, which focuses on the physiology of the body and the impact of exercise on the body.
  • Biology, which will give you a broad background of all life on the planet, from micro-organisms to plants and animals to humans.
  • Health Science, which delves into the health of humans, including the prevention and treatment of disease, health delivery systems, nutrition, and exercise.
  • Athletic Training, which focuses on the prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of sports-related injuries.

Many aspiring physical therapists may choose to take on a double major, or a major with a corresponding minor. Speak to your college advisor to determine if that’s something you should consider.

3. Go for Your DPT Degree

How to Become a Physical Therapist

After you’ve earned your Bachelor of Science degree, you’ll need to pursue a Doctor of Physical Therapy or DPT degree. In most states, you won’t be able to work as a physical therapist without a DPT.

There are 254 physical therapy graduate schools in the United States. The states with the highest number of physical therapy graduate programs include Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and California. Only Wyoming, Alaska, and Hawaii have no physical therapy schools.

When you are ready to apply to DPT programs, be sure to access the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). This will allow you to easily apply to multiple schools by filling out a single application.

As with your undergraduate degree, cost of tuition will likely be a factor in your decision as to where you choose to get your DPT degree. The average tuition for an in-state student is $11,518 and the average tuition for an out-of-state student is $24,451. Again, those numbers are from

It will take three years for you to earn a DPT degree. A typical DPT degree program includes subjects such as:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Behavioral science
  • Pathology
  • Exercise science
  • Medical ethics
  • Applied physical therapy
  • Diagnostic techniques
  • Radiology and imaging
  • Patient care techniques


4. Complete an Internship

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Before you graduate, you’ll be required to complete an internship in a clinical environment. The purpose of the internship is to help you get experience while being supervised by a licensed physical therapist. Your graduate advisor will be able to recommend internship opportunities.

During your internship you’ll most likely be asked to complete low-level tasks such as filing, scheduling appointments, maintaining patient records, and putting equipment away. You’ll also spend time observing physical therapists as they treat patients.

You may get the opportunity to work directly with patients as well. For example, you may demonstrate how to perform certain exercises, apply ice or heat to patients as indicated, or simply talk to them about how they’re feeling.

Sometimes, it may feel like you’re completing tasks that are too simple or unimportant. But remember to complete all tasks with a positive attitude and enthusiasm. And never complain. You want to make the best impression possible.

You’re not only learning the ins and outs of what it takes to be a physical therapist, but you’re also making important professional connections. The people you’re interning for may offer you a job someday. Or you may want to list them as references when applying for jobs.

5. Get Your State License

How to Become a Physical Therapist

When you have your DPT degree in hand, you’ll then be able to get your state license to practice physical therapy. Every state has its own requirements for physical therapy licensure. You may contact your state’s board of physical therapy for more details.

Even though each state’s requirements may differ, all states will certainly require that you pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). The NPTE is a multiple-choice exam that’s offered several times per year. It’s worth taking time to study and prepare before you sit for the exam.

6. Complete a Residency 

After obtaining your DPT, you may choose to complete a one-year residency. During a residency, you’ll work as a physical therapist while receiving advanced training, career guidance, and mentoring from experienced physical therapists.

Completing a residency is entirely optional. You can start working as a physical therapist once you have your state license. However, participating in a residency program may be worthwhile for those who plan to pursue a specialty such as sports medicine, geriatrics, post-surgical rehab, or collegiate athletics. 

7. Obtain Board-Certification 

Obtaining board-certification is optional, however, getting a board-certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties shows that you are a serious professional who is dedicated to providing the best in patient care. In addition, being board-certified enables you to work in management and supervisory roles if you choose.

As a physical therapist, you’ll have a choice of nine specialties in which you can receive board-certification that include:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiologic
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurologic
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health

Learn more about what it takes to become board-certified.

8. Apply for a Job

How to Become a Physical Therapist

After you’ve completed your educational and licensing requirements, you’ll be ready to apply for a physical therapist job. You’ll need a professional resume that will highlight your educational and internship experience along with any previous roles. Then, you’ll be ready to apply to a physical therapist role, and specializes in physical therapist positions throughout the nation. 

Consider a Career as a Physical Therapist 

Physical therapists earn good salaries and are expected to be in high demand for decades to come. Those are just two reasons that U.S. News and World Report recently ranked physical therapist as the third best healthcare job and the sixth best job overall.

Maria Gold is a Content Manager/Writer for Empire Resume. She is dedicated to helping educate and motivate people with the latest career articles and job search advice. Her interests range from writing to programming and design. She is also passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology.

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