If you're exploring different healthcare and medical careers, you may have wondered how to become a physical therapist. Becoming a physical therapist can take anywhere from seven to nine years depending on the degree you pursue, and whether you decide to become a physical therapy assistant before completing a master's degree in the field. You will need to seek out an accredited master's degree program in order to fulfill state licensing requirements, and also pass a national exam to demonstrate competency in theory, practice and the consultation process.

Becoming a Physical Therapist

The basic steps are as follows:

  1. Complete an undergraduate degree program in a related field. Students interested in becoming a physical therapist do not have to have a bachelor's degree in physical therapy in order to enter a master's degree program, but having this degree can be beneficial to the student's educational career. Students can complete a bachelor's degree in natural science, math, biology, physics or other science fields to fulfill their core educational requirements. Completing volunteer work at a physical therapy unit or clinic can also help to improve career prospects after all required training is complete.
  2. Apply for a Master's degree program. Master's degree programs in physical therapy must be approved by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). These programs typically take between two and two-and-a-half years to complete, and at least one year of training is hands-on instruction. Students obtain clinical experience at this level of training, and take advanced science courses in subjects such as biology, medical screening, behavioral science and diagnostics.
  3. Complete a physical therapy residency program. After completing all requirements for a master's degree, graduates will need to complete at least 1500 clinical hours at a physical therapy practice. This can take anywhere from 9 to 36 months and allows the student to work with patients under the supervision of a licensed physical therapists. Residency programs may also include a research component where the student contributes to medical research studies and works with other health care professionals in the field.
  4. Apply for licensure. All states in the United States require students to have at least a master's degree before they can apply for a license. You will need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam that is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, and agree to take continuing education credits to keep your license current.

How to Be a Physical Therapy Assistant

Some individuals prefer to enter the workforce as an assistant before they pursue a master's degree program or doctoral degree from an accredited physical therapy program. If you are interested in becoming a physical therapy assistant, you will need to complete a two-year associate's degree. The two-year training program will give you a chance to work under the direction and supervision of a licensed physical therapist and other medical professionals, and you will serve as an aide during your career.

Most assistants learn how to use basic equipment and instruments during their training, and also track results of progress with each patient during therapy sessions. However, an assistant will never work with patients one-on-one, and will always work under the supervision of a physical therapist.