FAQ: How Long Does It Take To Become a Physical Therapist?
Updated July 31, 2023
Physical therapists help patients improve their range of movement and ease their pain. If you're interested in pursuing physical therapy, it's important to know what this career path entails. Knowing how long it takes to become a physical therapist can help you make a well-informed decision regarding your education and future career.
In this article, we discuss how long it takes to become a physical therapist, list the job's duties, requirements and skills and review the different degree paths you can pursue.
How long does it take to become a physical therapist?
It takes approximately six to seven years to become a physical therapist. While your undergraduate studies typically take four years, physical therapy graduate school takes three years. You can also graduate in as little as six years if you opt for an accelerated physical therapy program.
What does a physical therapist do?
Physical therapists provide a variety of services to patients, such as preventative care and treatment for injuries or chronic conditions. Here are some of a physical therapist's common duties:
Review each patient's medical history
Consult with patients to understand their condition and symptoms
Observe a patient's movements to make a diagnosis
Create individualized patient treatment plans
Set goals for patients to achieve
Educate patients on proper therapeutic exercise techniques
Use massage to promote healing
What are the different degree paths for physical therapists?
If you want to pursue a career in physical therapy, there are a variety of degree paths to consider. Knowing what these paths entail can help you make the right choice for your future. Here's a look at the various degree paths you can pursue as a prospective or even current physical therapist:
Traditional Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program
A traditional DPT program often takes three years to complete and involves a wide-ranging curriculum. Many physical therapy programs may also require you to complete a certain number of science and health courses and observation hours. Some programs even set their own GPA requirements. Here's what you may learn during your three years in a traditional DPT program:
Year one: During your first year, you can expect to learn the scientific basics of physical therapy. This period also serves as an introduction and overview to physical therapy.
Year two: During this time, your coursework focuses on the body's musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems. It also involves lab work, which gives you hands-on experience.
Year three: In your final year of a traditional DPT program, you learn about business management and ethics. You also complete a clinical internship and capstone project.
Accelerated Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Physical Therapy (BS/DPT) program
If you don't already have a bachelor's degree, consider an accelerated BS/DPT program. With this program, you start as a freshman and graduate six years later. You can pursue a variety of majors, including :
To move to the graduate portion of this degree, you're required to earn a C grade or higher in each of your classes. Once you're at the graduate level, your studies focus more on the classes you typically find in a traditional DPT program.
Also known as the direct freshman entry program, the freshman-to-doctorate path caters to high school students. This type of program lasts six years, giving you the chance to enter the workforce sooner than with a traditional program. With the freshman-to-doctorate track, you choose a major—typically a Bachelor of Science in a subject area like biology or physiological sciences. Make sure to opt for a major that aligns with your career goals. For example, if you want to learn how to oversee a practice, consider a health services major.
Related: FAQ: Physical Therapy Doctorate
Transitional DPT (t-DPT)
This program suits practicing physical therapists with master's degrees. While recent physical therapists hold doctorates, there are still some physical therapists with master's degrees from now-obsolete programs. A t-DPT program helps physical therapists increase their knowledge and learn about advanced and the latest treatments. This transitional degree also helps you stay competitive in this field.
Related: How To Become a Physical Therapist
What are the educational requirements for becoming a physical therapist?
To become a physical therapist, you're required to earn a bachelor's and a doctoral degree from an accredited physical therapy program. Some primary courses you may encounter during your studies include biology, exercise physiology and pathology. In addition to degree work, much of your learning experience for this profession comes from clinical experience. When deciding on a program, consider the clinical experience requirements. While some programs require you to complete 38 weeks, other DPT programs may require more.
What are the additional requirements for becoming a physical therapist?
To become a physical therapist, you're required to pass national and state licensure exams. Both provide you with your certification, with the latter giving you the ability to practice physical therapy in your state. As a physical therapist, you can choose to earn your certification in a particular clinical specialty. Some physical therapy schools have programs that focus on a particular certification. Research each school you're interested in to ensure you're preparing yourself for the right certification.
What are the skills needed to become a physical therapist?
As a physical therapist, it's important to have both hard and soft skills to ensure you're performing your job to the best of your ability. Here are some common skills for physical therapists:
Communication: Physical therapists use this skill to speak with patients, their family members and their medical team. As a physical therapist, it's important to have oral and written communication skills, along with strong active listening skills.
Detail orientation: Physical therapists use this skill to keep track of their patients' status. For example, they perform many detail-oriented tasks, such as keeping notes on a patient's progress or monitoring their vital signs.
Treatment planning: As a physical therapist, it's important to know how to devise treatment plans based on a patient's needs. Physical therapists use their treatment planning skills to conduct patient evaluations, perform physical therapy examinations and to create customized treatment plans.
Frequently asked questions
Can I become a physical therapist if I have a nonscience undergraduate degree?
You can pursue a career in physical therapy even if you have a nonscience undergraduate degree. Many physical therapy programs accept students from various academic backgrounds. It's often still a requirement to complete the required prerequisite courses, which may include basic sciences like anatomy, physiology and biology.
Can I specialize in a particular area of physical therapy?
After completing your degree program and gaining some experience, you can choose to specialize in a particular area of physical therapy. Some common specializations include orthopedics, neurology, sports, pediatrics, geriatrics, cardiovascular and pulmonary and women's health.
Can I become a physical therapist if English is not my first language?
It's possible to become a physical therapist if English isn't your first language. Although proficiency in English is important to communicate with patients and colleagues and for understanding academic coursework and licensing exams, some physical therapy programs may offer language support services or English as a second language (ESL) programs to assist you.
Additionally, taking language proficiency tests, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), may be a requirement as part of the admission process for international applicants.
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