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Spotlight on a physical therapist career

CareerBuilder | March 14, 2016

Help others get back on track as a physical therapist

A physical therapist helps people recover from illnesses and injuries that impact their ability to move. For instance, broken bones, surgeries, and torn ligaments often necessitate physical therapy so that the patient can use the affected body part normally again. Most physical therapists work in rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and similar facilities, though some see patients in their homes or in less formal venues.

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. You'll not only teach your clients how to perform exercises and to do their "homework," but you'll 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.

What is a physical therapist?

Many physical therapists assume the roles of cheerleader, personal trainer, and therapist all at once, which makes a physical therapist job description highly dynamic. Their work varies significantly from one client to another because each patient has different needs and abilities. Younger patients who lead healthy lives, for instance, might make fast progress in physical therapy. They get stronger faster because their muscles, bones, and joints respond more favorably to exercise. Meanwhile, older patients might take more time to benefit from therapy. Physical therapists work with clients of all ages, from infants to the elderly.

What does a physical therapist do?


  • Meeting with patients to discuss their specific needs, medical histories, concerns, and problem areas.
  • Taking vital signs, such as blood pressure and respiration, to monitor clients' physical condition before, during, and after therapy sessions.
  • Reading physician orders to better understand a patient's specific needs and goals.
  • Preparing a patient plan of care to determine which exercises and movements will prove most beneficial and to decide how quickly to escalate therapy activities.
  • Manually stretching limbs to improve range of motion and flexibility.
  • Administering treatments such as whirlpool baths and ultrasound therapy to help clients recover.
  • Massaging affected body parts to promote circulation and healing.
  • Teaching patients to perform stretches and exercises with tools such as weights and resistance bands.
  • Testing range of motion and strength periodically throughout therapy to assess improvement.
  • Maintaining patient confidentiality.
  • Preventing further damage and injury by monitoring patient progress and form.
  • Creating detailed records of clients' progress and reporting back to the physician when necessary.
  • Advising clients about activities and exercises at home between sessions.
  • Designing exercise and treatment programs that help patients return to their previous levels of fitness.
  • Advising patients about proper treatment of wounds and injuries at home.
  • Evaluating the fit and function of prosthetic devices during movement.
  • Recommending follow-up care for patients in long-term therapy.
  • Communicating with nurses and physicians about progress and potential problems.
  • Discharging patients from therapy based on the achievement of goals or the lack of progress toward fitness.
  • Cleaning and maintaining therapy equipment and tools.
  • Training and managing aids and other support staff.

Work environment

Most physical therapists spend the day on their feet, moving from one client to another and overseeing movements. A physical therapy center might resemble a traditional gym, with sporting and exercise equipment as well as tables and chairs. In smaller centers, therapists must learn to work in tight quarters and with other therapists and clients in close proximity.

Sometimes, the therapist might leave the gym or workout facility with patients to take long walks. Since patients often need help recovering from long-term illnesses, they might need to improve their endurance as well as their strength and flexibility. Therapists must know how to help patients stand up, sit down, lie down, and move from one place to another, sometimes by using belts and other strategic aids.

It's also possible for physical therapists to visit their clients in their homes. Working for a service that schedules in-home visits can give therapists more variety in their work environments and allow them to work with patients where they are most comfortable.


Every day is different when you work as a physical therapist. You'll schedule sessions with patients, which typically last for 30 minutes to one hour. Some therapists work with multiple patients at the same time, allowing aids or helpers to stay with patients as they perform a certain number of repetitions of an exercise. Others focus on one client at a time.

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?


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.


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.


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 $71,000. 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.

Advice for physical therapists:

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