Physical therapists work at the forefront of the health care rehabilitation field, helping patients recover from disease, injury or corrective surgery. The rewarding nature of the work as well as strong growth projections helped this job land at number four on CNN Money's 2010 list of the 100 Best Jobs in America.
In addition to projected job growth of 30 percent from 2008 to 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the American Physical Therapy Association reports an unemployment rate of just 0.2 percent for these professionals, leading them to declare that "physical therapists are now experiencing the best employment conditions since the enactment of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997."
Pursuing a physical therapy education
Nearly 80 percent of all physical therapists hold at least a master's degree, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and education data indicates a trend toward doctoral degrees in the field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 212 accredited physical therapy degree programs in the U.S. in 2009, 200 awarded doctoral degrees and only 12 offered master's degrees.
A master's degree program generally takes students two years to complete, while doctoral programs average around three years. Coursework includes anatomy, biology, biomechanics, cellular histology, exercise physiology, neuroscience, physiology and radiology. Additionally, all students are required to complete supervised clinical rotations.
Students at the bachelor's degree level intending to pursue graduate work in physical therapy should build a strong foundation in the sciences, including courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and statistics.
Associate degree programs take two years to complete and are the program of choice for physical therapy assistants. Coursework in a two-year program focuses on algebra, anatomy and physiology, psychology, and clinical practice.
Online degrees in physical therapy are available that allow students to complete academic courses online and complete clinical requirements at a nearby facility. Schools offering online degrees in physical therapy can often help students find convenient locations for clinical practice.
Licensing and advancement in physical therapy
Physical therapists are required to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination as well as additional licensing examinations required by each state. Many are required to continue their education to maintain licensure. Each state sets its own licensing or registration requirements for physical therapy assistants and aides. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy offers details on each state at its website.
Physical therapists continue training throughout their careers, often specializing in cardiovascular and pulmonary, geriatrics, orthopedics, pediatrics, sports physical therapy and women's health.
Salaries for physical therapy careers
The American Physical Therapy Association reports that more than 175,000 physical therapists are licensed in the U.S. today. About one-third of those worked in health care offices, according to the BLS, and general medical and surgical hospitals employed another 47,560.
According to the BLS, physical therapists earned a mean annual wage of $77,990 in 2010. Physical therapy assistants took home a mean annual wage of $49,810 that same year.
At a glance:
- Physical therapy ranked fourth among the top-100 careers in America for November 2010 by CNNMoney.
- Jobs for physical therapists are expected to grow by 30 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Physical therapists traditionally need at least a master's degree and national license to practice.