How to Become a Physical Therapist | DPT Program at PCOM Georgia
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How to Become a Physical Therapist

September 29, 2022

If you enjoy helping others and have a strong interest in promoting health, wellness and fitness, a career in physical therapy may be right for you.

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals dedicated to helping individuals move better, feel better, recover from injury and provide wellness and screening services to prevent further harm. Through hands-on treatment, specific exercises and patient education, physical therapists can greatly improve a patient’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Becoming a physical therapist requires advanced academic preparation, extensive professional studies and a commitment to lifelong learning. Planning for a career in physical therapy should begin no later than undergraduate school but may begin even earlier for those who participate in sports as athletes, trainers or those who experienced the benefit of physical therapy as a patient. To become a physical therapist, you must:

Earn a bachelor’s degree that prepares you for PT school

As an aspiring physical therapist, it is important to take classes in undergraduate school that will prepare you for the rigors of a doctoral program. Your degree program should include coursework in anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and statistics. Social or behavioral sciences classes are also recommended. It is important to research any doctoral program you may wish to apply for to ensure you understand what courses you need to take.

According to Ruth Maher, PT, PhD, DPT, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy at PCOM Georgia, the most common undergraduate degrees include exercise science, biology, kinesiology and psychology.

Choose a PT program

There are multiple factors to consider when choosing a physical therapy program including location, reputation, accreditation, cost, faculty, facilities, campus life and more. A program’s website is a good place to begin your research as much of this information will likely be available online.

A physical therapy instructor demonstrates a technique to a group of students.
The Doctor of Physical Therapy program at PCOM Georgia is designed to be completed in three years.

Program length is another important consideration. While the traditional on-campus, three-year program is still the most common choice, accelerated two-year hybrid programs are gaining in popularity. These programs allow students to complete the didactic components online but require campus visits—and associated costs for lodging and travel—for the lab component.

“The type of program that is suitable really depends on the individual's learning style,” Maher explained. “The content that is delivered in a traditional three-year program including clinical experiences is covered in two years. If you don't enjoy learning online and traveling to campus a few times per semester—including weekends—then I highly recommend a traditional on-campus program.”

You can also learn more about a program by attending an open house or information session. These types of events provide prospective students with an opportunity to hear from faculty and meet with admissions representatives to learn about admissions requirements and the application process. Some events may provide an opportunity to speak with current students.

“Applicants should try to visit the campus, attend open houses and ask plenty of questions to see if the program is a good fit for them,” Maher advised. “I also recommend asking what makes a program different from the rest. For example, PCOM Georgia offers several integrated learning experiences with all the other graduate health profession programs in a state-of-the-art simulation center. The Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program also has access to a cadaver lab and offers advanced electives in addition to a variety of clinical experiences around the U.S., including specialist areas in pediatrics, wound care and women's health.”

Apply to physical therapy school

Applying to physical therapy school is a multi-step process. The Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) allows prospective students to begin the process of applying to multiple physical therapy programs with a single application. Once your PTCAS application is completed, you must also complete any additional application requirements unique to your desired program. In addition to prerequisite coursework, most physical therapy programs require applicants to meet specified GPA requirements, complete the GRE, provide letters of recommendation, participate in an interview or meet other criteria.

Be sure to review all admissions material carefully to ensure your application is complete.

Complete your degree in physical therapy

Expect to spend two to three years completing your doctoral program in physical therapy. During the course of the program, you’ll develop a greater understanding of “normal” bodily structure and function and how to identify and manage deviations from “normal.” As you progress through the program, you will have an opportunity to apply your knowledge and practice physical therapy skills in a clinical setting.

Of the skills you will develop, the most important—according to Maher—are clinical reasoning skills. Clinical reasoning is a systematic process of considering all the information provided by a patient, considering their past medical history, family history and current history, including vital signs and results of a systems review. This information is then analyzed to identify relevant information to identify a variety of physical therapy tests and measures to assist in developing a hypothesis or hypotheses related to the patient's condition.

“This aids in determining if the patient is suitable for physical therapy or needs to be referred elsewhere,” Maher explained.

If suitable for physical therapy, the physical therapist will determine a treatment plan, treatment goals and prognosis.

“Clinical reasoning is a cycle and an essential component in problem-solving,” Maher said. “The physical therapist must continually evaluate and adjust the treatment plan accordingly based on the individual patient's response.”

The final phase of clinical reasoning relates to reflection—what was learned, what the physical therapist may do differently to achieve a better or different outcome, and what to avoid in the future, Maher added.

Pass the National Physical Therapy Licensure Examination

Once you have obtained your degree, you must then pass the National Physical Therapy Licensure Examination (NPTE) in order to practice as a physical therapist. This exam is designed to assess the test-taker’s readiness to enter practice. It provides uniform criteria for evaluation and can be used by state licensing authorities to help assess the competence of an applicant for licensure.

Obtain state licensure

Requirements for licensure vary by state. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy provides a listing of licensing authorities with contact information and links to help you understand and navigate the requirements for your state.

Begin work as a physical therapist

Physical therapists work in a variety of settings. You may choose to start your own practice or go to work for a hospital or clinic. Physical therapists also work in rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, schools and more.

Though beginning a career can be a very exciting time, Maher cautions new graduates to carefully weigh employment offers.

“Avoid facilities offering sign-on bonuses,” she said. “Remember much of it will be taxed and you, the PT graduate, need to think why the sign-on bonus is being offered. It’s best to ask questions about support for continuing education which are required to maintain licensure. I also recommend asking about opportunities and support for further professional growth which may include additional specialist certification, residency or fellowship training.”

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Become a physical therapist

The Doctor of Physical Therapy program at PCOM Georgia is designed to be completed in three years. Visit our program pages to learn more about the curriculum, faculty and staff, facilities and admissions requirements. You can also view answers to frequently asked questions about the program or request more information.

Disclaimer: The video featured in this article was produced using an AI-powered tool to transform text into visual content, including AI-generated voiceovers. The audio was produced using AI narration.