Physical Therapy Majors Guide

Table of Contents

What Does it Mean to Study Physical Therapy?

The educational and career opportunities for students interested in physical therapy have grown and expanded in the past few decades. Originally developed as a treatment for wounded soldiers in World War I, physical therapy is now one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States. Physical therapists team up with doctors and counselors in order to rehabilitate patients with physical injuries, diseases, limitations, and impairments. They develop exercise schedules and frequently use heat, cold, electricity, sound, and water technologies to relieve pain and stimulate muscles. Most commonly, physical therapists focus on rehabilitation stemming from injuries, but they may also specialize in sports therapy, orthopedics, or pediatrics.

Physical therapy originated in the early 20th century. In 1921, Mary McMillan and several other women dedicated to improving rehabilitation initiatives founded the first physical therapy professional association, dubbed the American Women's Physical Therapeutic Association. Men were not admitted as members of the association until the 1930s, when the name of the organization was changed to the American Physiotherapy Association. World War II, the Korean War and the polio epidemic resulted in an increase in the need for properly trained physical therapists.

Government projections indicate that career opportunities in physical therapy are tremendous. As the baby boom generation ages, there will be an increase in the need for rehabilitative treatment. More young people already require physical therapy, as advances in medical technology make it possible to save the lives of infants with birth defects. In addition, technological advancements have also increased the survival rate of trauma victims and war veterans, which creates demand for qualified physical therapists.

With this in mind, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that job opportunities for physical therapy professionals will increase much faster than average in the years to come. This prediction also applies to physical therapist assistants, whose roles have become more important as therapists deal with a huge influx of patients. As such, the BLS also predicts that employment opportunities for physical therapist assistants will also grow faster than average.

Types of Physical Therapy Degrees

An advanced healthcare degree from an accredited institution is required to become a practicing physical therapist. Professionals in this field rely heavily upon biological, anatomical, and procedural knowledge of rehabilitation and exercise science. A good degree program, whether online or on-campus, will combine theoretical knowledge with hands-on experience (often arranged locally for distance learning students). A top-notch degree program also provides a student with the ability to learn and apply the latest procedures, treatments, and therapies. Physical therapy degree programs are extremely challenging. It is therefore important for prospective students to be fully prepared for the admissions process and initial coursework.

In most cases, physical therapy programs are offered at the graduate level, meaning that students generally cannot enroll without a bachelor's degree. However, students can obtain positions as physical therapist assistants with an associate degree. This can be a way to test whether a career is a good fit.

A career in physical therapy is very physically demanding and active. It's worthwhile to discuss this career field with a current healthcare professional to gain insight into the professional aspects of this career path. Another way to prepare for a physical therapy degree program is to seek out internship opportunities. Consider volunteering at local physical therapy clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and anywhere else that will provide an opportunity to gain first-hand experience. Not only will completing an internship increase your understanding of your chosen career path, but it will also greatly improve your chances of being admitted to the degree program of your choice.

If the opportunity to participate in an internship is not available, you may find shadowing a physical therapist to be very useful. Don't hesitate to ask questions about training, opportunities for career advancement, and education requirements for a particular job. The information you obtain by asking questions may be more helpful than you could imagine.

When a future physical therapy student makes the decision to pursue this career path, the last step of preparation involves comparing and contrasting different degree programs to find the best fit. This type of research is a valuable way to determine what you are looking for in a physical therapy degree program. Additionally, by using this research as a catalyst, you'll also be able to generate a list of questions to ask admissions counselors. These questions will assist in your final program selection. The more information you can gather about physical therapy degree program options, the better informed your decision will be.

Online Degrees

Online degree programs in physical therapy offer many opportunities to engage in intensive academic study. By taking courses online, partaking in virtual training, and engaging with professors and classmates all over the world, physical therapy students obtain a thorough, technologically advanced education. Additionally, online students are able to pursue an education without relocating in order to be closer to a physical campus. Online physical therapy degree programs enable students to fuse advanced anatomical and medical knowledge with the practical, intense training that is necessary for achieving success in this field. Whether you're new to the field and seeking physical therapy assistant training, or are an assistant ready to earn a master's degree, online degrees are an increasingly accepted choice.

Online college degree programs require students to participate in online tutorials, web seminars, and interactive training laboratory projects. Physical therapy students who participate in online degree programs have the opportunity to tailor their own schedules and courseloads to coexist with existing family and career commitments, and to arrange hands-on training at local facilities.

Browse online degree programs in physical therapy.

Associate Degrees and Physical Therapist Assistant Training

An associate degree (AAS) in physical therapy or a physical therapist assistant training program prepares students to serve as clinical assistants for certified physical therapists. Typically one- or two-year programs, these degrees and diplomas focus on assistant roles and do not count toward advanced degrees. Assistant training programs focus on technical training, anatomy, and physical therapy courses; associate degrees add general education requirements to the mix.

Browse associate degree programs in physical therapy.

Bachelor's Degrees

A master's degree is required to become a physical therapist. It is common for students to complete three years of an undergraduate program in exercise science, physical sciences, or a related field before matriculating to a physical therapy program. Admission to such programs is competitive. A student with an exceptional academic record and strong references will have the best chance for getting into a top-notch physical therapy degree program. You should prepare for intense, thorough, rewarding study.

In many cases it takes a minimum of six years to earn a master's degree in physical therapy, and programs are often divided into two required sections. The first part is essentially a traditional undergraduate program that takes approximately three years to finish. The second part generally focuses on practical experience and training. Students apply the knowledge and skills obtained in the first portion of their studies to developing and implementing treatment plans for patients.

Browse bachelor's degree programs in physical therapy.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Physical Therapy?

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTA)

A physical therapist assistant (PTA) helps the physical therapist provide treatment. S/he also performs intervention procedures as directed by the supervising therapist. S/he works with patients who have arthritis, back and neck injuries, sprains and fractures, burns, amputations, birth defects, injuries related to work and sports, and related problems. Licensure is not required in most states for the physical therapist assistant to practice; the states that do require licensure specify particular academic and examination criteria.

Physical Therapists (PT)

The physical therapist's goal is to repair or prevent physical problems resulting from injury, disease, and other causes. The best treatment plans encourage patients to enhance their own muscle strength and flexibility, in hopes of eventually increasing a patient's ability to function independently. Physical therapists also teach patients how to use medical equipment, such as prosthetic devices and wheelchairs. Licensure is required in all U.S. states to be a practicing physical therapist, and all physical therapists must pass an exam that tests their knowledge and skill.


Chiropractors evaluate and treat patients who have problems with their muscular, nervous, and skeletal systems, particularly the spine. Chiropractors believe that medically interfering with these systems harms the body's ability to function normally, resulting in lower resistance to injury and disease. Chiropractors provide holistic care with natural, non-surgical health treatments that encourage the body's innate ability to heal and recuperate. They also provide patients with recommendations regarding lifestyle, diet, exercise, and sleeping patterns.

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists rely on crafts, sports, games, dance and movement, drama, music, and community outings to enhance the physical and psychological health of their patients. They also work with individuals to reduce depression, stress, and anxiety, and to build personal confidence, so that patients can socialize appropriately and enjoy greater independence. It is also common for recreational therapists to assist patients with disabilities as they integrate into community living.

Physical Therapy Certification, Licensure and Associations

As a student completes a physical therapy degree program, s/he must also prepare for the national certification exam. After graduating from an accredited physical therapy degree program, you must pass the National Physical Therapist Examination (NPTE). Other state-level certifications are often required. Obtaining certification is absolutely necessary if you wish to go into clinical practice as a physical therapist.

Additionally, students should note that the physical therapy exam is only one part of the certification process. Depending on where you intend to work, the NPTE physical therapy examination is coupled with other methods of assessing your ability to properly provide physical therapy. Once these requirements have been satisfied, you must also investigate additional requirements that your state's licensing board may have before you are admitted to work in a particular state.

Physical Therapy Associations and Certification Bodies

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