If you’ve ever fallen and suffered a strain, you may have needed to see a physical therapist during your recovery. Maybe you were in a car accident or had surgery — a physical therapist may have helped you rehabilitate. Physical therapists work in all kinds of capacities and with all types of people, from children, older adults and postpartum women to stroke patients, top-tier athletes and more.
And what about the commitment put into the discipline — how many years does it take to become a physical therapist? It’s more than just an undergraduate degree, volunteer hours, licensure or a fellowship. Some physical therapists will put in that time and then pursue additional continuing education PT credits.
Before diving into the details, here is a look at the broader picture.
Physical therapists help their patients find relief in a number of ways, generally involving the movement of the body in the form of exercises.
What Does a Physical Therapist Do?
A physical therapist’s scope of practice includes rehabilitation and habilitation, performance enhancement and prevention and risk-reduction services. Physical therapist duties generally include examining patients, evaluating their condition, screening for injuries or illness, diagnosing conditions, determining a prognosis, developing plans of care, overseeing documentation and care and discharging patients at the end of treatment.
How long does it take to become a physical therapist? In general, the path to becoming a physical therapist will span anywhere from 6 to 8 years, depending on how long it takes you to move through each step, including your education, clinical hours, shadowing hours and more. The journey to becoming a physical therapist isn’t the same for everyone; however, these are the basic steps to enter the profession.
1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
If you’re looking for pre-physical-therapy programs, you may have all kinds of questions: “Do I need to go to med school to be a physical therapist?” Or, “What kind of education do you need to be a physical therapist?”
Note that a background in softer skills such as behavioral sciences, cultural competence, communication, management sciences, finance, sociology, clinical reasoning, ethics and evidence-based practice will also be beneficial to your success as a physical therapist.
Looking to pursue a career in physical therapy? The question of what to major in for physical therapy is a popular one. Here are some common majors for physical therapy:
2. Gain Hands-on Physical Therapy Experience
Physical therapy shadowing is one of the main requirements for admission into most high-quality Doctorate of Physical Therapy programs. (Not all physical therapy programs require observation hours, and the amount and completion date of hours may vary by program.) For those that do require them, physical therapy volunteer hours can be paid or unpaid and may be completed in a variety of settings throughout a student’s undergraduate career.
Physical therapy volunteer or shadowing hours will help you learn technical skills and soft skills by observing licensed physical therapists interacting with their patients and taking on some of the duties for yourself such as patient preparation and movement (e.g., lowering or raising them). You will also gain exposure to working with patients from different backgrounds and with various conditions.
Physical therapy shadowing opportunities can be found in nearly any of the environments in which a physical therapist practices, from hospitals to research centers to fitness centers. Similarly, you may find yourself working across a variety of physical therapy practice areas, such as:
Cardiovascular and pulmonary
Exposure to a number of different areas may help you with clarity of career choice. Depending on where you choose to shadow, you may find out there are some areas that you prefer more than others.
3. Complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy Program
According to the APTA, the typical doctorate in physical therapy takes three years to complete. A typical physical therapy curriculum is 80% classroom and lab study, and 20% clinical education, so you’ll not only learn about your subject but also gain hands-on experience. Courses in your physical therapy education might include:
Cardiovascular and pulmonary
Endocrine and metabolic
Keep in mind that not all DPT programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). It’s important to choose a program that has CAPTE accreditation, so you can qualify to sit for the physical therapy licensure exam after graduation (and subsequently practice in your field).
Physical Therapy Education Requirements [SH5]
It’s important to do your research to find a program that fits your specific needs and to ensure that you’re on track to meet all admissions requirements for physical therapy school. A Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is required to practice physical therapy on patients. DPT program requirements vary depending on the school but will generally include a Physical Therapy Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) application, including transcripts, GRE scores, references and observation hours.
Some DPT schools may have supplemental requirements such as a fee or the results of a physical examination; it’s up to you to make sure you know and have addressed each requirement for the schools to which you are applying. Each of these physical therapy school prerequisites will require time and attention to complete, so make sure you begin them with enough advance time before your application is due.
Doctor of Physical Therapy Program Options
There are on-campus and online doctor of physical therapy program options available. As mentioned, it is important to ensure that your program of choice meets the requirements of the state you wish to work in — such as having CAPTE accreditation so that you can obtain your physical therapy license after completing your education.
As for attending a DPT program online versus on campus: While many students are used to on-campus settings, online DPT programs may lend more flexibility to students’ schedules as they continue to gain real-world experience outside the classroom or have personal obligations. Online physical therapy programs also allow you to study at the school of your choice without having to uproot your family or move across the country.
After becoming licensed, some physical therapists wish to continue learning and expanding their knowledge. Two ways this can be done via PT continuing education: through clinical physical therapy residency programs and clinical physical therapy fellowship programs.
5. Attend a Physical Therapy Residency or Fellowship
Physical Therapy Residency vs. Fellowship Programs
How should you choose between a physical therapy residency vs. fellowship? What’s the difference between the two? When it comes to the field of physical therapy, a residency experience prepares an individual to become a board-certified clinical specialist. A fellowship, on the other hand, is designed for the graduate of a residency or board-certified physical therapist to focus on a subspecialty area of clinical practice, education or research.
Careers for Physical Therapists
Where do physical therapists work? Careers and locations that employ physical therapists vary greatly. Physical therapist work environments include:
Outpatient clinics or offices
Inpatient rehabilitation facilities
Skilled nursing, extended care or subacute facilities
Education or research centers
Industrial, workplace or other occupational environments
Fitness centers and sports training facilities
In addition to these and the previously mentioned environments, some physical therapists set up private practices once their training is complete.
As with a PT student’s observation hours, licensed physical therapists may work in practice areas from acute care and home health to pediatrics or geriatrics and specialize in oncology, neurology, sports or even women’s health.
The median annual wages were above the median annual wage of the profession as a whole for those physical therapists working in nursing and residential care facilities ($94,010); home health care services ($92,660); and state, local and private hospitals ($89,950).
Prospects may also be especially favorable in rural settings as a result of an existing shortage of physical therapists, many of whom currently choose to live in highly populated suburban and urban locations.
The Bottom Line
Physical therapists do a vital, demanding job that affects the quality of life of their patients immensely. It requires extensive education and training to qualify as a physical therapist. Fortunately, physical therapists have the opportunity to choose particular ranges of patients, settings and specialties in their career path, while earning a competitive salary and also knowing that what they do makes a difference.