Becoming a Physical Therapist: Education & Licensure Requirements

Oct 20, 2021

Becoming a physical therapist requires significant formal education. Learn about the education, job duties, and licensure requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

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Physical Therapy Degree and Overview

Degree Level Doctoral degree
Degree Field(s) Physical therapy
License/Certification All states require licensure; specialty certification available; voluntary professional certification also available
Experience Volunteer or observation experience required for program admission
Key Skills Science aptitude; ability to work and communicate with patients
Job Outlook (2019-2029) 18% growth
Mean Annual Salary (2019) $89,440

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

A physical therapist (PT) evaluates, diagnoses, and treats patients with disorders that limit their abilities to move or function normally in daily life. This career might be a good fit for people who have good interpersonal skills and a desire to help others with their physical limitations. Physical therapists could see employment opportunities increase by 18% from 2019-2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is much faster than average job growth, which is due in large part to an aging population's need for rehabilitative services to manage illness or injury and recuperate from surgery. Job prospects should be best in settings that provide care to elderly patients. Rural locations are also expected to offer favorable employment opportunities. The mean annual salary for physical therapists was $89,440 as of May 2019.

Physical Therapist Education Requirements

Just how long does it take to become a physical therapist? And what degree do you need to be a physical therapist? There are several education and licensing requirements that you will have to complete before you can start your career in physical therapy. Before they are allowed to practice, physical therapists must have earned a graduate degree from an accredited physical therapist education program. These programs typically culminate in a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree and take at least three years to complete. To gain admission to a physical therapy program, students typically need to earn a bachelor's degree, complete science prerequisite courses, gain volunteer or observation experience in physical therapy, submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, and maintain an acceptable grade-point average.

Students in physical therapy programs typically study topics like human anatomy, biomechanics, musculoskeletal system, pathology, and neurological dysfunction management. They may also participate in clinical internships and take hands-on clinical courses, which provide training in patient care, screening, assessment, treatment, and intervention.

Physical therapist requirements include advanced education and licensure

DPT Programs

In order to become a physical therapist, many years of school are required. If you are wondering how much schooling to be a physical therapist, the answer is around seven years. A bachelor's degree typically takes four years and a DPT program three. However, there is a way for physical therapists to speed up their education slightly: they can choose to take a 3+3 program. These programs allow students to begin work on their DPT in the final year of their undergraduate degree for a total of six years instead of seven.

DPT Courses

Courses that you might take in a DPT program include:

  • Human Anatomy
  • Psychology
  • Cellular Biology
  • The Cardiovascular System
  • Physical Disability Studies
  • Communications


Some aspiring physical therapists may find that they benefit from a clinical residency or fellowship either during or after their university education. This can help students get a more focused idea of how to work as a physical therapist and gain a better understanding of potential specializations in the field.

How to Choose a Program

Choosing the right DPT program for you is an important part of the path to becoming a physical therapist. When looking into a DPT program, an undergraduate program, or a 3+3, there are several important things to consider.

First, make sure that you are getting your degree from an accredited university or program. Try to find something that has been certified by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Be certain that the program is for physical therapists and not for a similar position like physical therapy assistants. Consider the program's prerequisites and be sure that you already have them when you go to apply. Think about whether you would like to enroll as a full-time or part-time student. Some programs may be available partially online, which may be useful for some people; be sure to check any on-campus or in-person requirements, especially when taking online or hybrid courses.

Finally, it is important to consider your financial situation. Six or seven years of university education can be costly, especially if you attend an out-of-state or international institution. Consider your options and your budget carefully and look into any scholarships or financial aid that you might qualify for in order to help you attend university.

Licensure Requirements

All PTs must be licensed by their states. While each state has its own physical therapist requirements, most require that candidates have graduate degrees in physical therapy from an accredited program and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. Some states have additional requirements, such as jurisprudence exams. Also, some states require continuing education to maintain licensure. After obtaining licensure, a new physical therapist can opt to complete a residency. In this setting, the novice physical therapist can work under the supervision of a more experienced licensed physical therapist.

Certification Information

Although board certification is voluntary for physical therapists, earning certification in a clinical specialty could open up opportunities for career advancement. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers certification in nine specialty areas, including cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, and geriatrics. To be eligible for certification, candidates must be licensed and have completed at least 2,000 clinical practice hours in their specialty area. Eligible candidates who pass an exam are awarded specialty certification. Certified specialists must be recertified after ten years.

Advancement Information

In addition to earning specialty certification as a way to advance their careers, PTs can participate in continuing education to stay current on the latest advancements in physical therapy. Professional organizations, such as the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), sponsor national conferences, live classes, and online lessons for practicing PTs. Some PTs go on to open their own private practices, while others opt to perform research or teach.

In summary, a physical therapist needs to earn a graduate degree, typically a doctorate, and state licensure. Voluntary certification and continuing education could lead to advanced opportunities in the field.

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