Careers in Physical Therapy

Physical therapist working with patient at clinic.

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The field of physical therapy (PT) 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 significantly from one another, though, as do their educational and licensing requirements and salaries.

If working closely with patients to improve their quality of life appeals to you, a physical therapy career may be an excellent fit. Here's an overview of three occupations in the physical therapy field.

Physical Therapist

Physical therapists develop treatment plans for patients and oversee the implementation of those plans until the desired outcomes are achieved. PTs, as they are commonly called, provide services that restore patients' function, improve their mobility, and relieve their pain.

Educational Requirements

First, you'll need a bachelor's degree. While programs don't require a specific degree, doctor of physical therapy programs may require undergraduate coursework in biology, anatomy, chemistry, physics, statistics, psychology, and exercise physiology. A bachelor's degree in the sciences is a good choice, and many schools offer pre-physical therapy programs.

Next, you'll need to apply for admission to a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program. You may need to take the GRE to be admitted to a DPT program. These programs typically take three years, and part of your time is spent doing a clinical residency. 


After you complete your education, you will have to get a license from the state in which you want to work. To do so, 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.

Salary Expectations

Physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $89,440 in 2019. This is $30,000 more than physical therapist assistants earned and over three times more than physical therapy aides earned. 

Physical Therapist Assistant

A physical therapist assistant delivers treatment to patients, but does so under a physical therapist's supervision. A PT Assistant helps implement a physical therapist's treatment plan.

Educational Requirements

Because this role comes with fewer responsibilities, it doesn't require as much education. If you want to become a physical therapist assistant, you need an associate degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. If you go to school full-time, it will take you about two years to complete your degree program, 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, a four-hour test. There may be additional requirements in your state.

Salary Expectations

Physical therapist assistants are compensated well, considering that it can take as few as two years of school to prepare for this career. Its median salary of $59,790 as of 2019 puts it into the top 20 highest paying occupations that require an associate degree. 

You can gain valuable work experience by working as a physical therapy aide while you pursue your physical therapy assistant degree.

Physical Therapy Aide

Physical therapy aides work under the direction of physical therapists and physical therapist assistants. They typically have the least involvement with direct patient care, but their exact duties vary depending on where they work.

They typically help make physical therapy sessions productive by preparing treatment areas for therapy sessions. They may also update treatment notes. PT aides often transport patients to and from treatment areas.

Educational Requirements, Licensing, and Salary Expectations

If you want to become a physical therapy aide, you need a high school or equivalency diploma. Once you're hired, your employer will provide on-the-job training, so no state licensing is required. Physical therapy aides had a median salary of $27,000 as of 2019.

Comparing Careers in Physical Therapy
  Education License Median Salary
Physical Therapist Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Degree Required in all states $89,440
Physical Therapist Assistant Associate Degree From an Accredited Physical Therapist Assistant Program Required in all states $58,790
Physical Therapy Aide HS Diploma and On-the-Job Training None