How to Become a Physical Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide

 


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

  1. Prepare to apply for a doctor of physical therapy program
  2. Earn your doctor of physical therapy degree
  3. Get approval to take the National Physical Therapy Examination and pass
  4. Pass the Exam and Get Licensed
  5. 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 here 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:

DPT Coursework

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
  • Biology
  • Biomechanics
  • Cardiovascular
  • Cellular history
  • Communication
  • Critical reasoning
  • Ethics
  • Evidence Based Practice
  • Exercise physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Management and Finance
  • Metabolic
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Neuroscience
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Sociology

 

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.

 

Clinical Experiences

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
Alabama $150 Yes No Reference forms
Alaska $390 Yes No Professional references
Arizona $160 Yes Yes
Arkansas $50 Yes No
California $450 Yes Yes
Colorado $100 No Yes
Connecticut $285 No No Professional liability insurance
Delaware $158 No Yes CPR certification
DC $264 Yes Yes
Florida $180 Yes ($65 fee) No
Georgia $75 Yes Yes
Hawaii $350 No No
Idaho $70 Yes No Character references
Illinois $100 No No
Indiana $100 No Yes Professional liability insurance
Iowa $175 No Yes
Kansas $83 Yes No Peer reference, professional liability insurance
Kentucky $200 Yes Yes
Louisiana $390 Yes Yes
Maine $76 No Yes Reference form
Maryland $150 Yes Yes
Massachusetts $226 No No
Michigan $117 Yes Yes Training to identify victims of human trafficking
Minnesota $243 No Yes References from 2 PTs
Mississippi $375 Yes Yes
Missouri $25 Yes Yes
Montana $100 Yes No
Nebraska $245 Yes Yes
Nevada $325 Yes Yes
New Hampshire Unknown Yes Yes Unknown
New Jersey $125 Yes Yes
New Mexico $300 Yes No
New York $294 No No
North Carolina $150 Yes Yes Character references
North Dakota $241 Yes Yes Background check
Ohio $237 Yes Yes Background check
Oklahoma $150 No Yes Background check
Oregon $190 Yes Yes Pain management module
Pennsylvania $30 No No Professional liability insurance
Rhode Island $155 No Yes
South Carolina $120 No No
South Dakota Unknown No No Unknown
Tennessee $135 No Yes Background check
Texas $190 Yes Yes Background check
Utah $105 No Yes Background check
Vermont $100 No No
Virginia $140 No No
Washington $65 Yes Yes AIDS education
West Virginia $270 No No
Wisconsin $165 Yes No
Wyoming $240 Yes Yes Recommendation letters

 

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.

Clinical Residency

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.

Clinical Fellowship

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.

Board/Specialty Certification

Physical therapists can choose to increase their credentials through certification in one of several 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.