When it comes to health care, physical therapy is probably the most hands-on career choice. If you want to be as directly involved with patients as possible, strongly consider pursuing a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.
PTs treat a wide range of illnesses and injuries such as back pain, arthritis, fractures, torn ligaments, traumatic brain injury, birth defects and stroke. The practice always involves examining, evaluating and diagnosing the patient. After forming a prognosis, the PT develops a tailor-made treatment plan for the specific patient and specific problem.
The goal is to restore maximum function and movement as well as alleviate pain. PTs build an arsenal of body manipulations, exercises, stretches and massage techniques to combat physical limitations. They are rewarded every day as they watch their patients improve.
PTs are knowledgeable and service-oriented. They closely track each patient’s progress and tweak treatment as necessary. They also educate patients and their families on continuing home care, overall fitness and injury prevention.
How to Become a PT
In the U.S., PTs hold a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree and a state license. A love of learning is essential. Not only is this a tough degree program, but PTs continue to study throughout their careers as treatment methods, technology and equipment become more sophisticated.
Many colleges have prerequisites for a PT major. If you’re in high school and are considering this career, take at least one year of biology, one year of chemistry and one year of physics. Take three years of college-prep math courses.
It’s worth mentioning here that PTs must be physically fit and quite strong. Stay in shape, eat right, and get plenty of sleep and exercise as you prepare for college.
Most DPT programs require a bachelor’s degree, but some offer a three-and-three format. In that plan, candidates study specific pre-PT courses for three years before starting the three-year doctorate program. After completing the six years of study, they graduate with a bachelor’s degree as well as a DPT.
You can expect to study biology, anatomy, physiology, pathology, neuroscience, kinesiology, biomechanics, sociology, ethics, behavioral science and much more. Around 80 percent of the program takes place in classrooms or labs. The remainder is devoted to clinical education. For most PTs, the clinical experience takes approximately 27 weeks.
Your DPT program must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Otherwise, you can’t sit for the state exam and get your license.
The website of the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service offers an extensive program directory. According to CAPTE, there were 250 accredited programs in 2018.
You can search for programs by name or by state. You’ll also find a list of prerequisites.
The state licensing exam consists of 250 multiple-choice questions. Only 200 are scored; the remaining 50 are being evaluated to see if they meet the standards for future testing.
There’s more to consider in DPT programs than just accreditation. Finding a good fit is critical to succeeding in college.
As you browse programs, think about the campus setting, the facilities in which you’ll study, the size of the program, the student demographics, the tuition, the financial aid opportunities, and licensure and employment rates. Read up on the instructors to get a feel for their experience level and how well they work together as a team.
As for tuition, it varies wildly depending on whether you go public or private, in-state or out-of-state. The 2013 figures posted by the American Physical Therapy Association range from around $14,400 to $94,000.
After graduation, you may choose to expand your knowledge and gain more hands-on experience in a clinical residency or fellowship. Professional supervision and mentoring will further prepare you for patient care.
How to Specialize
Many PTs decide to specialize in a particular area or age group. Examples include neurology, sports therapy, geriatrics, pediatrics or women’s health.
The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties has certified more than 24,000 PTs. Certified practitioners demonstrate skill and knowledge that exceed expectations.
The ABPTS requires at least 2,000 hours of clinical experience working with patients in the chosen specialty. That typically takes about a year. A certification exam is given after that. It tests both knowledge of the material and cognitive skills in general. Test-takers have seven hours to complete the multiple-choice exam, but there are generous breaks.
Certification is strictly voluntary, and you can still practice in a specific area without it.
In addition to the personal satisfaction you’ll get from improving people’s lives, you’ll enjoy job security and competitive pay.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, PT jobs are anticipated to grow 28 percent through 2026. That’s much faster than average. The median salary in 2018 was $87,930.
PTs also have numerous choices in where and when they work. You can practice in a hospital, outpatient clinic, sports and fitness facility, school, hospice center or nursing facility. You may be drawn to home health care or clinical research. You could even go into private practice in your own wellness center.
This is a great degree and career choice if you’re compassionate and like working closely with people.