Overview of Degrees and Jobs in Physical Therapy

physical therapy degrees

Physical Therapy: Overview of Degrees and Jobs

Education and training in the field of physical therapy can open doors to an exciting career with excellent pay. Physical therapy jobs span a variety of opportunities from public service to private sector jobs. There are also non-traditional opportunities such as non-profits and self-employment. Embarking on a career as a licensed physical therapist can be the culmination of a fantastic education, rewarding the student with a wonderful job and a fantastic salary!

Physical Therapy

There are a variety of jobs and education levels in the field of physical therapy. Qualifications and terminology may vary by state.

Physical Therapy Aides

Typically have job duties that are indirectly related to patient care such as cleaning, setting up treatment areas, helping patients, and doing clerical duties. A high school diploma and on-the-job training can be sufficient to secure a job as a physical therapy aide. Median annual salary for physical therapy aides is approximately $27,000.

Physical Therapy Assistants (PTAs)

Work under the supervision and instruction of a licensed physical therapist. They require an associate degree level education and state licensure. PTAs have job responsibilities such as treating patients using a variety of techniques such as massage and stretching, teaching patients how to properly use assistive devices, and educating patients and families about treatments and expectations. PTAs treat patients as established in the plan of care created and overseen by the physical therapist. Median annual salary for physical therapy aides is approximately $59,000.

Physical Therapists (PTs)

PT’s need a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. All states require physical therapists to be licensed. It is not necessary to become a PTA prior to seeking education and licensure as a physical therapist. Becoming a physical therapist requires a fair amount of education and training. However, there are a variety of educational options (explained below) that can help fast track one’s career so that they may enter the field directly as a physical therapist.

Physical therapists help injured or ill people improve movement and manage pain. PTs are an essential component of the healthcare team. PTs participate in all stages of care including preventive care, rehabilitation, and treatment for patients with a variety of needs including chronic conditions, illnesses, or injuries.

Physical therapists typically do the following:

  • Diagnose patient functions and movements by observation and patient self-reporting
  • Develop individualized plan of care including goals and expectations
  • Develop plan of care to ease patient pain, help increase mobility, prevent further complications, and facilitate health and wellness
  • Use exercise, stretching, various therapies, and equipment to help achieve plan of care goals
  • Educate patient and family about goals, overcoming challenges, etc.

Physical therapists care for people of all ages who have functional problems. These functional problems can arise from a variety of sources such as

  • injuries related to work, sports, or recreation
    • including sprains, strains, and fractures
  • chronic conditions
    • such as diabetes, obesity, and arthritis
  • neurological disorders
    • such as stroke or cerebral palsy

Jobs and Education

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates employment physical therapists is expected to grow by almost 20%. This growth rate is above average for all occupations. The aging of the Baby Boomer population is a considerable contributing factor to the growing need for physical therapists. These seniors tend to stay active later in life yet are also susceptible to health conditions (such as strokes and heart attacks), that may require physical therapy.

The work of physical therapists varies by type of patient. The vast majority of physical therapy focuses on pain reduction and management, and improved mobility. PTs also often develop fitness and wellness programs to encourage healthy, active lifestyles. Some physical therapists specialize in areas such as sports medicine or geriatrics.

Physical therapists need a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Physical therapists also need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. Other requirements vary by state.


Bachelor’s Degree Programs for Physical Therapists

Physical therapists need a graduate degree from an accredited Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. There are a select number of schools that have all-encompassing Bachelor-DPT programs. These opportunities are typically 6-7 year programs that begin freshman year and allow students to graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a DPT (either at the same university or a partner college).

More common are schools that offer a Bachelor’s Degree in Pre-Physical Therapy. These programs include a set of prerequisite courses that prepares students for admission to a graduate-level DPT program. Oftentimes schools that offer Pre-Physical Therapy Bachelor Degrees have matriculation agreements with partner schools offering a DPT program.

Colleges and universities that do not offer bachelor degree programs for Pre-Physical Therapy can still provide excellent preparation for a graduate DPT program. Bachelor degrees in Biology, Bio-Chemistry, Exercise Sciences, and even Neuroscience are excellent degrees in their own right and also great preparation for a DPT program. Keep in mind that many DPT graduate programs have GPA thresholds, typically 3.0 and higher.

Doctor of Physical Therapy

DPT programs typically last 3 years. Many programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission as well as prerequisite courses such as anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and physiology. Additional certifications in specialty areas of physical therapy such as orthopedics, sports, and geriatrics are also available after earning a DPT degree and completing additional clinical trainings.

The median annual wage for physical therapists is approximately $89,000. The highest 10 percent of the profession earned more than $125,000.

The median annual wages for physical therapists in the top industries in which they worked are:

Nursing and residential care facilities$96,000
Home healthcare services94,000
Offices of physical, occupational, and speech therapists; and audiologists85,000


Ready to Embark on a Career in the Field of Physical Therapy?

Check out these great programs available at our partner schools:

Dallas Baptist University offers a Pre-Physical Therapy Program via a specialized B.S. in Biology or a B.S. in Kinesiology. Dallas Baptist University participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program.

Le Moyne College offers a unique 3+3 Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. This program provides students guaranteed admission to the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University following completion of a bachelor’s degree in Biology at Le Moyne. Students who complete the program will earn a B.S. in Biology from Le Moyne, and a Doctor of Physical Therapy from SUNY Upstate Medical University. Le Moyne College participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program.

*All statistics and calculations from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For more information click here.





About the author

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Born in SoCal yet raised Tampa, Florida - Leah earned her undergraduate BA in Liberal Studies from the University of Central Florida. Leah earned her MA in the MALAS at San Diego State University, while also completing a graduate teaching certificate in English for Secondary Education. An avid traveler, she has visited more than 60 countries. With the birth of her son Spencer in 2012, Leah embarked on her biggest adventure (yet) as parent and Coast Guard wife.