How to Become a Physical Therapist
What Is a Physical Therapist?
What Does a Physical Therapist Do?
5 Common Steps to Become a Physical Therapist
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.
- 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?”
Look no further than your traditional bachelor’s degree. Few colleges offer a physical therapist bachelor’s degree, but earning a bachelor’s degree is one of the prerequisites for acceptance into a DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) program. Your bachelor’s doesn’t have to specifically be pre-physical therapy, but it should be in an applicable, health-related field. This will allow you to pick up foundational knowledge and skills required for the field, such as knowledge in:
• Cardiovascular and pulmonary sciences
• Endocrine sciences
• Metabolic sciences
• Musculoskeletal sciences
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:
• Exercise Science
- 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, requirements will vary by school.
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:
• Acute care
• Cardiovascular and pulmonary
• Home health
• Women’s health
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.
- 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:
• Cellular histology
• Exercise physiology
• Behavioral sciences
• Management sciences
• Clinical reasoning
• Evidence-based practice
• Cardiovascular and pulmonary
• Endocrine and metabolic
• Musculoskeletal system
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).