Physical therapists use exercise to improve patient quality of life. Their patients have medical conditions or injuries that affect function and movement, who are referred to the physical therapist who helps manage and prevent these conditions through stretch, exercise, hands on therapy, equipment, and more. Physical therapists are trained to observe patients to understand their needs and to evaluate the effectiveness of their treatment plans so that they can help their patients as best they can.
Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist
- Prepare to apply for a doctor of physical therapy program
- Earn your doctor of physical therapy degree
- Get approval to take the National Physical Therapy Examination and pass
- Pass the Exam and Get Licensed
- Specialization (if desired)
Step 1: Prepare to Apply for a Doctor of Physical Therapy Program
Doctor of Physical Therapy Application Requirements
Most schools require you to submit your application through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). Although exact requirements will vary, common application requirements are as follows:
- Application Fee
- Bachelor’s degree unless program is a 3 and 3 format (combines bachelor and doctorate education)
- Transcripts, which are used to calculate a standardized GPA
- PT-supervised observation hours
- References- reference requirements will vary by school
- Supplemental materials
- Check to see if you need to take the GRE
Additionally, many programs require certain prerequisite coursework, which can differ significantly by program but may include courses in the areas of anatomy and physiology, bio, chem, physics, social sciences, stats, math, exercise physiology, medical terminology, and writing. Check to see what each school requires.
You must apply to a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) accredited DPT program (or foreign equivalent) to become certified. Graduates of non-accredited US programs cannot be certified, and master’s degrees are no longer accepted as a means to become a certified physical therapist.
Check out available physical therapy scholarships.
Step 2: Earn Your Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree
Once you are admitted into an accepted doctor of physical therapy program, you can begin completing your degree. According to the American Physical Therapist Association (APTA), a DPT typically takes 3 years to complete and consists of 80% classroom and lab work and 20% clinical education. Although curriculum will vary by program, here is what you can expect:
Coursework is designed to give students a strong science background as well as prepare them for managing their businesses and knowing how to continue to keep their practice up to date with current research. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, the following topics are frequently part of a DPT curriculum:
- Behavioral science
- Cellular history
- Critical reasoning
- Evidence Based Practice
- Exercise physiology
- Management and Finance
On-Campus Lab Work
While completing your DPT program, you will participate in hands on lab work where you gain hands on physical therapy experience.
As you complete your DPT degree, you will complete multiple clinical experiences or internships where you work in a physical therapy setting supervised by a physical therapist. These experiences often take place off campus. Requirements for clinical experience will vary by school, but on average a final clinical experience is 27.5 weeks in length.
Step 3: Get Approval to take the National Physical Therapy Examination and Pass
To become certified as a physical therapist in your state, you are required to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. In order to sit for this exam, a candidate must be approved by both the state and the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). To be approved to sit for the exam, one must meet the following requirements:
- Register online and pay a registration fee (total exam fees amount to $485)
- Have a CAPTE accredited DPT degree or foreign equivalent
- Comply with test security requests
- Be approved by your state (requirements by state will vary). This involves submitting an application to your state’s board of physical therapy (requirements described later).
Those educated in a foreign country will need to meet these additional requirements:
- Proof that degree is deemed equivalent to a CAPTE accredited program. To do this, a regional accrediting agency must perform an evaluation. The student must submit to the FSBPT the agency’s name, the names of the tools used to evaluate the program, and the evaluation outcome
- Proof of completion of the TOEFL exam
- Any additional state requirements needed to gain permission from the state to take the exam
Starting in 2020, the following TOEFL scores will be required to sit for the exam:
- Reading: 22
- Listening: 21
- Writing: 22
- Speaking: 24
Requirements to get approval from your state to take the exam (in addition to mandatory CAPTE accredited degree) can be found below. Note that fees do not include the above exam fee and may be a combination of several fees including application fee, criminal background check, and jurisprudence exam fees, depending on the state. Jurisprudence exams may be part of a state’s application to sit for the exam, or may be completed after gaining approval to take the exam. Always reach out to your state directly to understand the entire application process, as the process varies from state to state.
|State||Fees||Jurisprudence Exam||Background Check||Other|
|Connecticut||$285||No||No||Professional liability insurance|
|Florida||$180||Yes ($65 fee)||No||N/A|
|Indiana||$100||No||Yes||Professional liability insurance|
|Kansas||$83||Yes||No||Peer reference, professional liability insurance|
|Michigan||$117||Yes||Yes||Training to identify victims of human trafficking|
|Minnesota||$243||No||Yes||References from 2 PTs|
|North Carolina||$150||Yes||Yes||Character references|
|North Dakota||$241||Yes||Yes||Background check|
|Oregon||$190||Yes||Yes||Pain management module|
|Pennsylvania||$30||No||No||Professional liability insurance|
Step 4: Pass the Exam and Get Licensed
Once you are approved to take the exam, you can schedule your exam date with prometric. The exam will be 250 questions that you have 5 hours to complete. You must score 600 or higher to pass.
After passing the exam, your state will issue you your license. Typically, because you have already applied to the state for approval to sit for the exam, you do not need to take any more steps after passing. Again, check with your state to make sure they do not need any additional information.
Step 5: Specialization
After you become licensed as a physical therapist, there are steps you can take to become specialized in an area of physical therapy practice.
If you are interested in specialization, you can apply for a clinical residency, where you can improve your knowledge in a specialized area of physical therapy to prepare to provide services in that area. In a clinical residency you are supervised by a PT in the specialty you are interested in who serves as your mentor. This residency helps to develop the scientific inquiry skills needed in advanced practice.
Fellowships are designed for those who already demonstrate expertise in a specific area of the physical therapy profession. Most of the time, those who complete fellowships have already completed a residency. Fellowships provide advanced instruction in a subspecialty of physical therapy practice. Like with residencies, fellowships have a strong mentorship component. Fellowships connect the fellow with a population of people who provide opportunities for advanced experience and learning.
Physical therapists can choose to increase their credentials through certification in one of several physical therapy specialties including cardiovascular, electrophysiology, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, orthopaedics, pediatrics, sports, and women’s health. In order to become board certified, one must either have worked 2,000 hours in a specialty over the 10 preceding years or have had a residency in the specialty. Additionally, a person looking to be board certified must pass an exam.