What Education is Needed to Become a Physical Therapist?

July 2, 2024

Discover the education needed to become a physical therapist! From undergraduate degrees to DPT programs, we've got you covered.

Education Requirements for Physical Therapists

Becoming a physical therapist requires a combination of undergraduate education and a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Let's explore the education requirements for individuals aspiring to enter this rewarding profession.

Continuing Education for License Renewal

After obtaining their license, physical therapists are required to engage in continuing education to maintain their professional competence. For example, in Connecticut, physical therapists must complete a minimum of 20 hours of continuing education during each one-year license renewal period [1]. These continuing education activities should be relevant to the practice of physical therapy and can be completed through various formats, including internet-based and distance learning opportunities.

Undergraduate Degrees for PT Programs

To pursue a career as a physical therapist, individuals typically need to complete an undergraduate degree before entering a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. While most DPT programs do not require a specific undergraduate degree, certain majors can provide a strong foundation for the prerequisite courses required for admission.

Common undergraduate majors for aspiring physical therapists include:

  1. Health Science
  2. Exercise Science
  3. Biology
  4. Kinesiology
  5. Psychology

These majors typically span four years and cover essential subjects such as anatomy, chemistry, and physics. While each university may have different requirements, these majors often align with the prerequisites for physical therapy programs.

It's important to note that some DPT programs follow a 3+3 curricular format. This means that students must complete three years of specific preprofessional courses before advancing into a three-year professional DPT program. There are also programs that offer freshman entry, allowing high school students to enter a guaranteed admissions program pending the completion of specific undergraduate courses and other requirements [3].

By obtaining an appropriate undergraduate degree, aspiring physical therapists can lay the foundation for their future studies in a DPT program. It is essential to research and ensure that the chosen undergraduate program aligns with the prerequisites of the physical therapy program you plan to pursue.

Undergraduate Degrees for Physical Therapy

To embark on the path to becoming a physical therapist, it is essential to complete an undergraduate degree that provides a strong foundation in relevant subjects. Several undergraduate degrees can serve as excellent preparation for future physical therapy programs. Here are five common undergraduate degrees for aspiring physical therapists:

Health Science

Earning an undergraduate degree in Health Science offers a comprehensive foundation for a career in physical therapy. This degree program covers essential topics such as human anatomy, physiology, and healthcare policy. Students gain a deep understanding of the human body and healthcare systems, preparing them for the holistic approach required in physical therapy. Additionally, a Health Science degree instills a strong ethical framework and problem-solving skills essential for patient care.

Exercise Science

Exercise Science is often highlighted as an ideal major for individuals aspiring to pursue top physical therapy programs. This degree program focuses on intentional movement and exercise physiology. Given that activity-related injuries are a common reason for physical therapy visits, knowledge in exercise science is particularly relevant. It is worth noting that Exercise Science is one of the most common undergraduate degrees held by applicants to the best physical therapy programs.


Biology is another undergraduate degree that is highly recommended for those considering physical therapy programs. The study of biology provides insight into the science of life, including the structure, function, growth, and evolution of living organisms. Biology programs typically cover topics such as chemistry and physics, meeting prerequisites for top physical therapy programs. This degree equips students with a solid scientific foundation and a comprehensive understanding of health and wellness.


Kinesiology, the study of human movement, is a top undergraduate degree for aspiring physical therapists. This program focuses on the dynamics of human movement, providing a natural stepping stone into physical therapy programs. Kinesiology coursework often includes biology, chemistry, and physics, offering students valuable skills needed for success in physical therapy programs. By studying kinesiology, individuals gain a deep understanding of the mechanics and intricacies of human movement.


Psychology is a relevant undergraduate degree for individuals interested in pursuing physical therapy. The study of psychology provides insight into human behavior, motivations, and mental processes. Understanding human psychology is beneficial in patient care as it helps physical therapists comprehend human movement, behavior, and responses. This knowledge enhances the ability to connect with patients, tailor treatment plans, and address psychological factors that may impact physical well-being.

Each of these undergraduate degrees provides a strong foundation for individuals planning to pursue a career in physical therapy. It is important to note that specific prerequisites and requirements may vary across physical therapy programs, so it is advisable to research and confirm the specific requirements of the programs you are interested in. By selecting an undergraduate degree that aligns with your interests and goals, you can set yourself on the path towards a successful career as a physical therapist.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Programs

To become a licensed physical therapist in the United States, individuals must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)-accredited program and pass a state licensure exam. DPT programs typically require a bachelor's degree for admission, although there are different pathways to consider.

Duration and Curriculum

The DPT degree program generally takes about three years to complete. The curriculum consists of a combination of classroom instruction, laboratory study, and clinical education. According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), approximately 77% of the curriculum is dedicated to classroom and lab study, while the remaining 23% focuses on clinical education. It's important to note that these percentages can vary slightly between programs.

Clinical education is a crucial component of DPT programs, providing students with hands-on experience in a variety of healthcare settings. On average, physical therapy students spend around 22 weeks in their final clinical experience, applying their knowledge and skills under the supervision of experienced physical therapists.

Admission Requirements

Most DPT programs require applicants to have a bachelor's degree before admission. Some programs follow a 3+3 curricular format, where students complete three years of specific preprofessional courses before advancing into a three-year professional DPT program. Alternatively, there are programs that offer freshman entry, allowing high school students to enter a guaranteed admissions program, provided they complete specific undergraduate courses and meet other requirements.

When applying to DPT programs, prospective students should carefully review the admission requirements of each program they are interested in. These requirements may include prerequisite coursework, minimum GPA, letters of recommendation, observation hours, and a personal statement. Each program may have its own set of criteria, so it's essential to check the specific requirements for each institution.

National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE)

After completing a DPT program, graduates must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) to obtain licensure as a physical therapist. In 2022, approximately 85% of first-time candidates who graduated from US-accredited physical therapy programs passed the NPTE. The exam, which costs $485, assesses the entry-level competence of physical therapists and consists of multiple-choice questions covering various aspects of physical therapy practice. Candidates have up to three attempts within a 12-month period to pass the exam.

It's important to note that licensing requirements may vary by state, so candidates should consult the licensing authorities in their respective states for specific information regarding licensure procedures and additional requirements.

Obtaining a DPT degree, along with successfully passing the NPTE, is a significant step towards becoming a licensed physical therapist. This educational pathway equips aspiring physical therapists with the necessary knowledge and skills to provide quality care to patients across a wide range of settings.

Post-DPT Opportunities

After obtaining a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and becoming licensed, physical therapists have various opportunities for further professional development and specialization. Two common post-DPT opportunities include residency and fellowship programs, as well as board-certified clinical specialists.

Residency and Fellowship Programs

Physical therapists who wish to enhance their clinical skills and expertise can pursue residency or fellowship programs. These programs provide postgraduate education and training in specific areas of practice, allowing therapists to further refine their clinical skills and knowledge.

A clinical residency program focuses on advancing a physical therapist's patient care services in a specific clinical practice area. It typically involves clinical supervision, mentoring, and advanced practice in a structured and immersive learning environment. Residency programs are designed to provide a deeper understanding of complex patient cases and enhance critical thinking skills.

On the other hand, a clinical fellowship program is aimed at therapists with existing clinical expertise. It offers postprofessional clinical and didactic education, allowing therapists to develop advanced skills and knowledge in a specialized area of practice. Fellowship programs often involve research, teaching, and mentorship opportunities, enabling therapists to contribute to the advancement of the profession.

Board-Certified Clinical Specialists

Physical therapists can also choose to pursue board certification through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). Board certification is an esteemed credential that demonstrates advanced clinical knowledge and expertise in a specific area of practice. It allows physical therapists to become recognized as clinical specialists in their chosen fields.

The ABPTS offers certification in various specialty areas, including cardiovascular and pulmonary, orthopaedics, pediatrics, neurology, sports, and more. To become a board-certified clinical specialist, physical therapists must meet specific eligibility requirements, which usually include a minimum number of clinical hours and passing a rigorous examination.

Obtaining board certification showcases a therapist's commitment to professional development and excellence in practice. It can enhance career opportunities, expand clinical expertise, and provide a competitive edge in the field of physical therapy.

By pursuing residency and fellowship programs, as well as board certification, physical therapists can further advance their careers, expand their knowledge base, and provide specialized care to patients in their chosen areas of expertise. These post-DPT opportunities contribute to ongoing professional growth and the continued development of the physical therapy profession.

Physical Therapy Career Path

After completing the necessary education and licensure requirements, physical therapists can embark on a fulfilling career path. Let's explore the different aspects of the physical therapy career, including work settings, patient population, and median salary.

Work Settings

Physical therapists have the opportunity to work in various settings, tailoring their practice to their interests and the needs of their patients. Some common work settings for physical therapists include:

  • Hospitals: Physical therapists in hospitals work with patients who are recovering from surgery, illness, or injury. They collaborate with healthcare teams to develop comprehensive treatment plans.
  • Outpatient Clinics: In outpatient clinics, physical therapists treat individuals who require ongoing rehabilitation for conditions such as musculoskeletal injuries, chronic pain, or mobility impairments.
  • Schools: Physical therapists in educational settings work with children who have developmental delays, disabilities, or injuries that affect their ability to participate in educational activities.
  • Sports Facilities: Physical therapists in sports settings provide services to athletes, helping them with injury prevention, rehabilitation, and performance enhancement.
  • Nursing Homes: Physical therapists in nursing homes focus on improving the mobility, strength, and quality of life of elderly patients who may have age-related conditions or injuries.

Patient Population

Physical therapists have the opportunity to work with a diverse patient population, catering to the unique needs of individuals of all ages. They help individuals with injuries, disabilities, or health conditions to improve mobility, manage pain, prevent future issues, and enhance physical function and fitness.

Physical therapists work with:

  • Children and Adolescents: Helping young individuals with developmental delays, sports-related injuries, or conditions such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.
  • Adults: Assisting adults recovering from surgeries, accidents, or chronic conditions like arthritis or stroke.
  • Seniors: Supporting elderly individuals in maintaining or regaining mobility, managing age-related conditions, and preventing falls.

Median Salary

The median salary for physical therapists is $97,720. It's important to note that salaries can vary based on factors such as position, years of experience, education level, geographic location, and practice setting. Demand for physical therapists remains strong in the United States due to the aging population and the growing need for physical therapy services.

It's worth mentioning that the salary figures provided are a general indication and can vary depending on individual circumstances and factors specific to the job market.

By pursuing a career in physical therapy, individuals have the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of their patients while enjoying a rewarding and fulfilling profession.

Licensure for Physical Therapists

To practice as a licensed Physical Therapist (PT) in the United States, individuals must meet specific licensure requirements. This section will explore three essential aspects of licensure for physical therapists: the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), accredited physical therapy educational programs, and the licensure process for internationally-educated candidates.

National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE)

The National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is a standardized exam administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). Successful completion of the NPTE is a requirement for individuals seeking licensure as a PT or Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) in the United States. The exam assesses the candidate's entry-level competence in the field of physical therapy.

Accredited Physical Therapy Educational Programs

Graduation from an accredited physical therapy educational program is a crucial requirement for licensure as a PT in the United States. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) sets the quality threshold standards that these programs must meet to be accredited.

Attending an accredited program ensures that students receive a comprehensive education that covers the necessary knowledge and skills required to practice as a PT. Additionally, completion of an accredited program increases the likelihood of eligibility for licensure.

Internationally-Educated Candidates

Internationally-educated candidates who wish to obtain licensure as PTs or PTAs in the U.S. must go through an evaluation process to determine the equivalence of their education. This process is necessary unless the candidate attended a physical therapy program outside the U.S. that was accredited by CAPTE.

The evaluation of educational credentials is typically conducted by a credentialing agency approved by the jurisdiction in which the applicant intends to practice. The licensing authority reviews the evaluation to determine if the applicant's education is equivalent to that provided by an entry-level U.S. PT or PTA program. If any additional courses or professional development activities are required based on the evaluation, applicants should seek guidance from the licensing authority.

It is essential for internationally-educated candidates to understand and fulfill the licensure requirements specific to the state in which they intend to practice. Each state may have additional requirements or variations in the licensure process, so it is crucial to contact the licensing authority for accurate and up-to-date information.

By successfully navigating the licensure process, physical therapists can obtain the necessary credentials to practice professionally in the United States. The licensure requirements aim to ensure that PTs have met the necessary educational standards and possess the competence needed to provide quality care to their patients.