Provide hands-on care as a physical therapist

If you're looking for a career that allows you to make a positive difference in the lives of your patients, becoming a physical therapist might help you achieve that goal.

Physical therapists teach clients how to perform exercises and to do their "homework," but they also serve as a source of motivation and courage. Many people who undergo physical therapy experience significant pain during their recovery periods, so they need support and encouragement to achieve their goals.

For more info on a physical therapist career, check out these insights.

Make a positive difference in the lives of your patients as a physical therapist.Therapists must also evaluate patients during their first visits. The evaluation session involves asking the client questions about his or her medical history and assessing his or her physical condition. This session could last as long as a regular therapy session and might include stretching, strength testing, and other physical activity.

Most physical therapists work full-time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with only about 20 percent maintaining part-time schedules. They typically work normal business hours, though therapists who work in hospitals and other 24-hour facilities might have to work later hours than others.

What qualifications are required to be a physical therapist?

Education

You must have a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree to become a physical therapist. Most programs only accept applicants with bachelor's degrees, and you might want to focus your undergraduate work on a related field, such as kinesiology. After you're accepted into a DPT program, you'll spend approximately three years learning how to be an effective physical therapist. Course work might include anatomy, pharmacology, chemistry, biology, and similar subjects.

Experience

After you receive your DPT degree, you must get licensed in the state in which you live. Without this license, employers can't hire you as a physical therapist. Typically, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination as well as a background check to receive your license. Study for the examination so you don't have to take it a second time.

As long as you have an appropriate degree and license, you don't need specific experience to work as a physical therapist. You might have to start with an entry-level position, but your earning potential is fairly flat throughout your career unless you take a supervisory or managerial role later on.

Skills

To become an effective physical therapist, you'll need a diverse array of skills, including:

  • Physical abilities: You must stay strong to serve as a therapist. The ability to lift heavy objects, bend your body, and move quickly will prove essential.
  • Observation: Much of your job will center around evaluating and observing patients as they perform movements. You have to form conclusions based on your observations of a patient's physical abilities, flexibility, strength, range of motion, and comfort.
  • Communication: Physical therapists have to describe and demonstrate exercises and movements. They must also listen to patient feedback and take it into consideration when recommending therapies.
  • Time management: Multitasking and scheduling become important for physical therapists as they design and execute treatment plans, especially when working with multiple patients at a time.
  • Medical jargon: All physical therapists have to understand medical jargon to read patient charts, record data, and communicate with other health care professionals.

Salary expectations

What does a physical therapist make? It depends on where they live and their experience. Physical therapists earn an average annual salary of $87,500. However, you might find that you have higher earning potential in cities like Las Vegas, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona, where the averages hover around $100,000 per year. Other cities with high salary potential for physical therapists include Chicago, Illinois, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

When you first start working in this industry, you might command wages of around $61,000 because you don't have a proven track record of experience.

Job outlook for physical therapists

Projected growth

The BLS projects a 34 percent rate of growth for the physical therapy industry between 2014 and 2024, which is far faster than the average growth rates across all career tracks. An aging population will contribute significantly to the job growth; as baby boomers get older, they will experience increased health issues that will necessitate physical therapy.

Additionally, more people have health insurance than before President Barack Obama's health care law, which means they can take advantage of medical services like physical therapy. This could increase patient growth and provide therapists with more job opportunities.

About 10 percent of currently practicing physical therapists have worked in this industry for 21 or more years. These professionals might retire in the near future, which will increase job availability even further.

Career trajectory

Many physical therapists hold the exact same position their entire careers. They enjoy working one-on-one with patients, so they don't pursue other career opportunities. However, if you're hoping to move up from a physical therapy job, you might pursue a managerial or supervisory position. A department head in a hospital or rehabilitation center, for instance, might manage the entire physical therapy department. He or she hires and trains new therapists, provides patient oversight, and ensures the department runs smoothly for both employees and clients.

If you're looking for a rewarding career that allows you to stay active all day and to participate in clients' lives, you might enjoy working as a physical therapist. After you obtain the necessary credentials, start your job search and take advantage of the rapid growth in this industry.