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How to Become a Physical Therapist

Majors Overview January 28, 2013

Rehabilitation and exercise techniques are applied by physical therapists for the treatments of abnormalities or injuries that have an adverse impact on people’s mobility. Physical therapists aim to achieve not just increase in mobility and reduction of pain in patients, but also the prevention of disability through healthy living and fitness. An aspiring physical therapist needs to complete an accredited graduate degree program and satisfy state licensure norms.

Common Requirements

Degree Level

Several earn a master of physical therapy (MPT) degree, but a majority of physical therapists earn a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree. Post-graduate professional degree is important as well.

Area of Concentration

Physical therapy


Every state demand licensure from physical therapists

Key Skills

Interpersonal skills to deal with patients, dexterity to provide hands-on therapy, and paying attention to detail to evaluate treatments and observe ailments.

Computer Skills

Medical software – clinicient insight, Hands-on Technology TheraWriter, Accounting software – MediGraph, and Biometrics video game software.

Technical Skills

Experience with physical therapy tools like muscle testing equipment, physical therapy tables, balance beams, and reflex hammers.

Other Requirements

Stamina and physical strength since you are standing for a long period of time and working with patients

The following is a step-by-step guide that should be followed by students who plans to pursue this career field.

Stage One: Completion of a Bachelor Degree Program

Preparation to enroll into a Master degree program requires prospective physical therapists to earn an undergraduate degree that can occur in any major area. Those seeking to pursue Doctoral programs will need a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0 for admission. Several physical therapy programs need applicants to complete prerequisite courses in psychology, physics, chemistry, physiology and anatomy; accordingly, students should choose courses that will assist them in their future planned study. Seeking out volunteer opportunities at physical therapy units in hospital and clinic settings would benefit a prospective candidate. Such opportunities supervised by licensed professionals would allow observation of the physical therapy process by students. Hands on experience in several physical therapy environments such as rehabilitative, outpatient and inpatient settings are often mandatory requirements for those seeking to pursue a physical therapy master degree program.

Stage Two: Earning a Master Degree

It is mandatory for all physical therapists to earn master degrees in the profession of physical therapy; such programs should carry accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). In June 2012, as many as 203 out of 212 accredited programs awarded doctoral degrees with just nine offering master degrees (source: American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)). While Master degree programs take two to three years to complete, doctoral degree programs usually require three years for completion. Coursework is a combination of class-work and lab instruction and is augmented by supervised hands on work in clinical settings; students receive training in diagnostics, medical screening, prosthetics and orthotics, and patient examination and evaluation. Clinical experience can be used in the development of interpersonal skills that will come handy in the daily interactions with patients that are part of the job. Students can also leverage the experience in gaining exposure to children’s physical therapy, neurorehabilitation or other clinical specialties they may think about specializing in at a later stage of their career.

Stage Three: Obtaining Licensure

State licensure is mandatory for physical therapists. Completion of accredited physical therapy programs must be succeeded by passing the National Physical Therapy Examination that the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy administers. The exam is aimed at assessing a candidate’s competency in physical therapy consultation, practice and theory.

Stage Four: Attending a Residency Program

Graduate school will be followed by residency programs that help physical therapists prepare for their profession. The APTA informs that residency programs typically last for 1,500 hours over nine to thirty-six months during which candidates get specialty training in physical therapy practice, in clinical settings. Through participation in these programs, residents are allowed to make examinations and diagnoses of patients supervised by licensed physical therapists. Residents can make contributions to medical research, education of patients on preventing illnesses and supervision of other health care professionals.

Stage Five: Choosing a Specialization

A physical therapist may choose a physical therapy area of specialization; they can accomplish this by getting certified by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). Eight different designations are offered by the ABPTS covering common specialties such as orthopedics, sports, neurology and geriatrics. To qualify for ABPTS certification, prospective candidates must have earned physical therapist licenses and have a minimum of 2,000 practice hours in the selected specialties. This must be followed with a passing grade to the 200-questions specialist certification examination aimed at measuring the skills and knowledge of physical therapists with respect to their chosen specialties.

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