Physical Therapy

Physical therapists (PTs) are healthcare professionals who treat people with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities to improve their movement, reduce pain, restore lost function, prevent future injury, reach fitness goals, and generally promote an active lifestyle. PTs are experts on the movement of the human body. They educate patients, recommend exercises for their specific situation, and provide hands-on care such as deep-tissue massages. 

PTs are different from occupational therapists (OTs). Whereas OTs help patients improve their ability to carry out the activities of their daily life, PTs help patients improve their ability to move their bodies in a healthy and pain-free way. For example, an OT might help a patient with a severe shoulder injury by teaching them movements they can use to get dressed or reach food on a shelf without causing pain. A PT, however, might give the patient daily exercises to increase the range of motion and reduce pain in their shoulders. These two different approaches can be very successful when used in concert, so OTs and PTs often work together.

Job Settings

PTs can work in a variety of settings and with many different patient populations. Most work in healthcare facilities, such as in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, or outpatient clinics. Others work in schools, workplaces, sports and fitness centers, or even in patients’ homes. Most PTs work full-time Monday through Friday, but some work irregular schedules, nights, and/or weekends to accommodate patients’ needs. About 8 percent of PTs are self-employed and run their own practice1.

Daily Responsibilities

The daily responsibilities of a PT depend on the setting in which they work, but many PTs perform similar tasks on a day-to-day basis, including observing and evaluating patients, collecting patients’ medical histories, diagnosing patients, developing individualized treatment plans, demonstrating therapeutic exercises, recording patients’ progress, and filling out billing paperwork. PTs often work in a team with physicians, nurses, OTs, speech-language pathologists, and other healthcare professionals.

Important Skills

PTs must be caring, empathetic, and passionate about helping people improve their physical fitness. They must have a strong scientific background, be willing to work with a wide variety of patients, and be comfortable touching patients’ bodies. It is crucial that PTs have great verbal and written communication skills in order to effectively treat patients who have difficulty communicating. PTs should also be physically fit, as they are on their feet for much of the day and must be able to demonstrate exercises for their patients.


The mean annual salary of a PT in the United States is $91,680, and half make between $75,360 and $106,060. Salary varies by location, from $86,570 in the Boston area to $105,600 in the Los Angeles area. PTs working in inpatient settings tend to have slightly higher salaries than those working in outpatient clinics2.

Job Outlook

Demand for PTs is growing quickly due to the United States’ aging population, rising rates of chronic health conditions such as obesity, and increasing survival of people with serious illnesses and injuries. Employment of PTs is expected to grow 18 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the average medical profession and far above the average growth rate of all occupations. This will result in a projected 47,000 new PT jobs within 10 years.3

Pros and Cons


  • Rewarding: Many PTs find it rewarding to watch their patients make progress
  • Great job outlook: Demand for PTs is high and expected to increase
  • Work-life balance: Most PTs work 40 hours per week and never have to be on call


  • Stress: High productivity expectations in some job settings may cause stress
  • Emotional difficulty: Working with patients with illnesses, injuries, and disabilities can be emotionally taxing
  • Paperwork: PTs must complete paperwork documenting their patients’ progress and billing insurance companies, which some may find tedious

Career Paths

All aspiring PTs must obtain a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). There are over 250 DPT programs in the US, all of which include academic courses, supervised clinical experience, and clinical internship(s). Many DPT programs last 3 years (including the internships) and require students to attend full-time. Accelerated, part-time, or partially online programs are also available.

After completing their DPT degree, all prospective PTs must become licensed in their state. Licensure requirements vary slightly, but all 50 states require licensure applicants to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). After they have passed the NPTE and gained licensure, a PT can practice independently in their state.

Once they are licensed, many PTs choose to attend a physical therapy residency program for a particular specialty, such as pediatrics, sports, or oncology. PT residencies are often about a  year long (although they can last anywhere between 9 and 36 months) and provide specialized experience and mentorship from experienced clinicians. After gaining at least 2,000 hours of clinical experience in a specialty, some PTs elect to take an exam from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) in order to become board certified in that specialty. After completing residency or becoming board certified, some PTs choose to do a physical therapy fellowship for 6-36 months in order to gain experience in a subspecialty. Subspecializing may offer PTs the opportunity to begin highly specialized practice, work in academia, or perform research.

Preparing for Graduate School

All DPT programs require applicants to have a bachelor's degree and complete specific prerequisite courses. Applicants can major in any subject, although it may be easier to complete the prerequisite classes with a STEM major. Common prerequisites include 2 semesters of human anatomy and physiology with lab, 2 semesters of biology with lab, 2 semesters of chemistry with lab, 2 semesters of physics with lab, 2 semesters of psychology, and statistics.

Most DPT programs require a high undergraduate GPA, strong Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores, 2-3 letters of recommendation (also called evaluations), and a personal statement/essay. Additionally, all programs strongly recommend or require that applicants record hours observing practicing PTs, either through volunteering or paid work, and submit a resume. Admission is competitive, so in order to improve their chances, prospective applicants should strive to spend as much time as possible observing PTs who work in different settings and with diverse populations.

Most DPT programs use the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) to allow applicants to submit all of their application materials in one place. Those interested in applying to DPT programs should carefully research the programs that they are interested in attending and take note of their prerequisites, the GPAs and GRE scores of their accepted students, their application requirements and recommendations, and their application deadlines.

Application Timeline

A general application timeline for a DPT program that uses PTCAS and begins in the fall is shown below. Many programs begin in May or June and have earlier deadlines. This timeline is meant only to give a general idea of the application process. Applicants should carefully check the deadlines for their specific application year and the programs that they wish to apply to. Some programs have early action deadlines in the early fall, and many use rolling admissions, so application materials should be submitted as soon as possible in order to maximize the odds of admission.

Pre-Application Maintain high GPA, complete prerequisite courses, take the GRE, request letters of recommendation, gain PT-related volunteering or work experience, prepare resume, write personal statement
July 1 before year of attendance PTCAS opens and application materials should be submitted as soon as possible
October to April Final deadlines for application materials to be submitted to PTCAS
October through June Programs invite select applicants for interviews
October through June Programs release admission decisions
August to September Programs begin

Financing Your Education

The total cost of DPT programs varies widely, from under $30,000 for in-state students at some public universities to over $180,000 at some private universities. Many universities offer scholarships, financial aid, loans, or other means by which students can reduce the financial burden of getting their degree. State universities often have significantly lower tuition for in-state students. Additionally, part-time programs can increase affordability by allowing students to work while in school. Prospective PTs should carefully consider their financial situation and the level of debt they are willing to accept when deciding which DPT programs to apply to.

Additional Resources