Physical Therapy Careers and Salaries

Careers in Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is the practice of helping people improve their quality of life by optimizing their ability to move. While there are actually several types of physical therapy jobs — including physical therapist assistant and physical therapy aide — a physical therapist is someone who has earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. The majority of physical therapists do not practice in hospitals but instead work in outpatient clinics and offices, schools, rehabilitation facilities, nursing facilities and a variety of other settings.

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Physical Therapist Jobs

Physical therapists examine patients and develop a plan of treatment techniques intended to improve movement, reduce or eliminate pain, restore function and prevent disability. Though often associated with the treatment and recovery phase of patient care, physical therapists are trained to diagnose as well as treat movement difficulties.

Primary physical therapist responsibilities include:

  • Examining patients to establish diagnoses, prognoses and plans of care.
  • Providing interventions needed for patient care.
  • Re-examining patients and modifying care plans as needed.
  • Developing and implementing discharge plans.

Physical therapists work closely with their patients and provide treatment through exercise, traction, patient and family education and other modalities. Of the previously mentioned physical therapy careers, a physical therapist requires the highest level of education, typically three years of postgraduate study.

Physical Therapist Assistant Jobs

A physical therapist assistant works under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist. They implement certain aspects of patient treatment, obtain data related to treatments and modify treatment as directed by the supervising physical therapist. Physical therapy assistants may perform the following duties:

  • Teaching and assisting patients in exercises that improve mobility, strength and coordination.
  • Training patients in using crutches, canes or walkers properly.
  • Administering massage or electrotherapy.

While a physical therapist assistant maintains their own license, they must practice under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist (DPT). The physical therapy assistant reports to their supervising DPT and helps implement patient treatment plans but does not diagnose or create plans on their own; they also have fewer responsibilities than a physical therapist. To become a physical therapist assistant, you need to obtain an associate degree from a two-year program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) and successfully complete a national licensing exam.

Physical Therapy Aide Jobs

Physical therapy aides report to the supervising physical therapist as well as any collaborating physical therapy assistants. Of these physical therapy careers, physical therapy aides have the least amount of responsibility. Physical therapy aides typically perform tasks that are indirectly related to patient care, such as:

  • Cleaning treatment areas and linens.
  • Setting up therapy equipment.
  • Helping patients move to or from a therapy area.
  • Preparing patient transport.
  • Answering phones, scheduling patients and other clerical tasks.
  • Assisting with gait training.

Though a high school diploma or GED is preferred for physical therapy aides, no particular education or licensure is required. There is a physical therapy technician/aide certification available through the American Medical Certification Association, but this is not mandatory for most physical therapy aide positions.

Three Top Requirements to Be a Physical Therapist, PTA or PT Aide

While physical therapist (PT), physical therapist assistants (PTA) and physical therapist aides vary in their responsibilities, salary and required education, they do have some overlapping requirements in common.

1. Basic and Transferable Workplace Skills

Basic skills for physical therapists and related careers include:

  • Active listening: Physical therapists, assistants and aides need to gather information from patients while allowing them to feel seen and heard.
  • Critical thinking: Patients may present complex symptoms or unpredictable responses to treatment, and physical therapists must look for patterns and processes in order to diagnose and treat effectively.
  • Empathy and compassion: Positive “bedside manner” is essential as physical therapists guide patients through recovery.
  • Physical fitness: Physical therapy is an active career where you may be on your feet most of the day. You may need to help support patients as they move or lift and manipulate medical equipment. 

Some physical therapy skills can transfer to other job environments:

  • Giving health care instruction.
  • Planning and implementing treatment plans.
  • Operating medical equipment.
  • Using tablets, laptops and other devices.
  • Complying with HIPAA and other health care privacy regulations.

2. A Degree From a CAPTE-Accredited Program

The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) ensures the quality of physical therapy education programs throughout the country. But how much education does a physical therapist need? There is some variation between programs, but most CAPTE-accredited Doctor of Physical Therapy graduate programs are three years long and require a bachelor’s degree for admission. DPT degree holders may complete optional residencies and fellowships to further their education. Physical therapists can also pursue specialty certification in fields like geriatrics, orthopedics, pediatrics and others through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Physical therapy assistants must obtain a two-year associate degree from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapy education program. Physical therapy aides do not need any particular level of education or licensure but should possess the basic and transferable skills listed above.

3. A Physical Therapy License in Your State

Every physical therapy graduate must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) in order to obtain the appropriate state license or certification. Physical therapists and physical therapy assistants are licensed in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. State regulatory boards manage licensure for each individual state, so you must obtain a state license in order to practice physical therapy in that state. Specific licensure requirements vary according to each state’s physical therapy practice act, but all require a minimum score of 600 on the NPTE. Physical therapy aides do not require any special certification.

Physical Therapist Salary

Physical therapist salaries vary depending on education level, years of experience, work environment and location, among other factors. The median annual wage for physical therapists was $87,930, or $42.47 per hour, in May 2018.

Entry-Level PT Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a typical salary for a physical therapist in the lower 10th percentile starts around $60,390 annually while a salary for a physical therapist assistant in the lower 10th percentile may earn around $33,780 annually, according to 2018 BLS data.

Physical Therapy Job Market Outlook

Physical therapy is a rapidly growing field, particularly as the U.S. population ages and requires more health care. There were about 247,700 practicing physical therapists in 2018, and the BLS projects a 22% increase in physical therapist employment from 2018-2028, compared to an average growth rate of 5% across all professions. The BLS projects a 26% increase in employment for physical therapy assistants and aides through 2028, up from 148,200 jobs in 2018.     

U.S. News & World Report ranks physical therapist as #16 in health care jobs and #20 in its 100 best jobs overall, based on the career’s projected salary, growth rate, employment rate, stress level and work-life balance.

Below are the highest-paying U.S. states for physical therapists and the varied salary of physical therapists per state.

Five Highest-Paying States for Physical Therapists

#1 Nevada - $107,920     

#2 Alaska - $99,180      

#3 New Jersey - $97,770   

#4 New Mexico - $97,210       

#5 California - $97,110

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Physical Therapist Salary by State

Caption: The “Physical Therapist Salary by State” table features state-by-state annual mean salary data for physical therapists in the United States as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
State Physical Therapist Physical Therapist Assistant Physical Therapy Aide
Alabama $90,620 $57,410 $26,190
Alaska $99,180 $58,950 $46,230
Arizona $88,800 $47,050 $28,360
Arkansas $81,430 $56,940 $25,650
California $97,110 $64,210 $31,090
Colorado $82,560 $55,370 $32,240
Connecticut $96,010 $65,810 $30,980
Delaware $93,880 $56,890 $26,050
District of Columbia $89,750 $40,920 $30,520
Florida $87,410 $61,650 $27,160
Georgia $86,320 $53,840 $27,270
Guam $61,870 Not available Not available
Hawaii $90,540 $58,750 $30,050
Idaho $77,700 $49,410 $39,120
Illinois $90,690 $58,060 $31,100
Indiana $83,680 $55,730 $29,450
Iowa $82,960 $50,420 $27,580
Kansas $85,250 $55,190 $27,490
Kentucky $84,630 $54,060 $26,320
Louisiana $89,860 $48,300 $27,620
Maine $76,910 $52,370 $30,690
Maryland $85,170 $54,150 $25,980
Massachusetts $91,750 $64,180 $33,740
Michigan $91,160 $54,010 $54,010
Minnesota $83,750 $53,830 $37,230
Mississippi $89,720 $48,130 $22,870
Missouri $81,330 $53,150 $28,940
Montana $79,050 $46,130 $28,320
Nebraska $80,130 $47,240 $28,000
Nevada $107,920 $61,000 $26,000
New Hampshire $82,880 $58,970 $32,820
New Jersey $97,770 $68,000 $27,480
New Mexico $97,210 $46,650 $28,210
New York $87,470 $52,720 $30,230
North Carolina $87,560 $60,190 $27,780
North Dakota $78,120 $49,880 $33,350
Ohio $86,690 $58,740 $28,210
Oklahoma $84,860 $59,950 $21,610
Oregon $85,890 $61,990 $30,200
Pennsylvania $87,050 $54,100 $29,450
Puerto Rico $48,260 $22,850 $24,820
Rhode Island $83,850 $63,630 $33,960
South Carolina $85,450 $56,880 $30,440
South Dakota $76,200 $42,910 $28,810
Tennessee $82,920 $56,830 $25,740
Texas $92,940 $69,890 $26,810
Utah $85,940 $52,830 $22,860
Vermont $75,010 $54,610 $33,900
Virgin Islands $54,850 Not available Not available
Virginia $91,700 $60,110 $28,110
Washington $85,930 $58,210 $29,870
West Virginia $89,420 $49,830 $25,620
Wisconsin $85,200 $52,310 $30,460
Wyoming $87,510 $56,520 $26,080

Disclosure: Annual mean wage, May 2018. Physical therapist salary data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.