It takes years of training to become a physical therapist. You must complete four years of college and a doctor of physical therapy degree. Many physical therapists also complete a residency program and may also complete a specialty fellowship. A few specialized programs provide an intensive three-year undergraduate and three-year doctorate course. Physical therapists must also be licensed to practice and may even obtain a specialty certification after earning the required credentials.
Begin with a Bachelor's Degree
You generally must have a bachelor’s degree to enter a physical therapy program. Although you don’t need a specific major, you must meet prerequisite requirements for courses such as anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry and physics, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Once you have your degree in hand, you may apply to a physical therapy school through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service. Offered by the American Physical Therapy Association, this service allows you to complete a single application for multiple schools.
Complete Your Doctor of Physical Therapy
The next step is your doctor of physical therapy program. Unlike some other professions, you do not need a master’s degree; in fact, master’s degree programs in physical therapy have been phased out, and only doctoral programs were available at the time of publication. Along with in-depth study of subjects you completed as prerequisites -- such as anatomy and physiology -- you’ll study exercise physiology, biomechanics, neuroscience, sociology, clinical reasoning and evidence-based practice. Expect to spend three years obtaining this degree. You may also complete a residency, in which you gain hands-on skills. Most residencies are a year long, according to the BLS.
Become Licensed and Certified
Once you graduate from your doctor of physical therapy program, you can sit for the licensing examination. All states require licensure, and you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy to become licensed. You may also need to pass an exam on state laws and a criminal background check. At this point, you can go into practice. You also have the option to complete a specialty fellowship, which will extend your education by a year or more. Finally, although it is not required for practice, you may decide to become board certified in a specialty such as orthopedics, neurology or geriatrics.
Job Outlook and Salary
Most occupations are expected to grow about 11 percent from 2012 to 2022, but jobs for physical therapists are expected to grow at more than three times that rate, reports the BLS. The actual projected growth rate for physical therapists is 36 percent. The demand is likely to be driven by the large baby boomer population, federal health insurance reform and medical technology advances. The BLS notes the salary range for physical therapists in 2013 was $56,280 to $113,340, with an average annual salary of $82,180.