Careers in Physical Therapy

Physical therapist working with patient at clinic.
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The field of physical therapy involves treating individuals who have problems with movement or pain caused by injuries or illnesses. The people who work in this area—physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and physical therapy aides—have one goal in common.

They all want to help their patients feel and move better. Their roles in this endeavor differ greatly from one another's however, as do their educational and licensing requirements, and salaries.

If the idea of improving patients' quality of life by contributing to their physical therapy treatment appeals to you, there may be a place for you in this field. You can take a quiz to find out if this career field is a good match for you. You should also take the time to decide which of the three occupations is a better fit for you.

Physical Therapist

Of the three people on the PT team, the physical therapist is the one who has the greatest responsibilities. He or she develops treatment plans for patients and oversees them until the desired outcomes are achieved. PTs, as they are commonly called, provide services that restore patients' function, improve their mobility, relieve their pain, and limit permanent physical disabilities.

These extensive responsibilities demand the highest level of education of all three occupations in this field. If you think you are well suited for this role, you must decide whether you are willing and able to spend the next six or seven years of your life in school earning first a bachelor's degree and then a

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Degree. After you complete your education, which includes clinical field training, you will have to get a license from the state in which you want to work. To do this, you must take and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapists, a five-hour test. Your state may also require you to take other exams.

You will be well compensated for your efforts. Physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $84,020 in 2015. This was almost $29,000 more than physical therapist assistants earned and over three times physical therapy aides' earnings.

Physical Therapist Assistant

One level down in terms of responsibilities is the physical therapist assistant. He or she delivers treatment to patients but must do so under a physical therapist's supervision. The PT Assistant helps implement the PT's treatment plan.

Because this role comes with fewer responsibilities, it doesn't require as much education. The requirements, in fact, are significantly less. If you want to become a physical therapist assistant, you need an associate degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. It will typically take you two years to complete your schooling which includes classroom training and clinical fieldwork. 

To work as a physical therapist assistant, you must get a license from the state in which you want to work. You will have to take and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapist assistants. It is a four-hour test. There may be additional requirements in your state.

Physical therapist assistants are compensated quite well, considering that it only takes two years of school to prepare for this career. Its median salary of $55,170 (2015) puts it into the top 20 highest paying occupations that require only an associate degree (CareerOneStop. Highest Paying Occupations By Median Hourly Wages).

Physical Therapy Aide

Physical therapy aides work under the direction of physical therapists and physical therapist assistants. They have the least involvement with direct patient care. Instead, they help make physical therapy sessions productive by preparing treatment areas for therapy sessions. They keep them clean and organized. PT aides transport patients to and from these treatment areas.

These tasks don't require a lot of training. If you want to want to become a physical therapy aide, you just need a high school or equivalency diploma. Once you get a job, your employer will provide on-the-job training. Due to the limited requirements, earnings are relatively low. Physical therapy aides earned a median annual salary of $25,120 in 2015.

Comparing Careers in Physical Therapy
Education License Median Salary
Physical Therapist Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Degree Required in all states $84,020
Physical Therapist Assistant Associate Degree From an Accredited Physical Therapist Assistant Program Required in all states $55,170
Physical Therapy Aide HS Diploma and On-the-Job Training None


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, on the Internet at and
Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online, on the Internet at (visited May 3, 2016).