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How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)

From education and hands-on training to state licensing, learn what it takes to become a PTA and get other key info on this in-demand healthcare career.

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Two middle-aged women smiling while exercising together indoors, one helping the other lift a green dumbbell.

Are you a compassionate, dedicated, and empathetic person? Imagine using your natural traits to support people on their road to physical recovery. Combined with a rigorous education and solid training from an accredited degree program, your communication skills and dedication to continuous learning and adaptability could make you an excellent physical therapist assistant (PTA).

PTAs work directly with patients to help them recover from injury, illness, and medical procedures. Unlike physical therapists, working as a PTA doesn’t require a graduate degree, yet it still offers lucrative compensation, high employment demand, and the opportunity to work directly with patients.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates the U.S. adding about two million new healthcare jobs by 2031, with physical therapy as one of the biggest areas of demand. And U.S. News and World Report ranks PTA as the third best healthcare support job.

If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a PTA, this guide has you covered. Keep reading to discover more about what a PTA does, what the profession offers, and step-by-step instructions on how to get into the field.

STEP 1

Make Sure You’re a Good Match for a Career as a PTA

Working as a PTA is extremely rewarding, from both a financial and personal fulfillment perspective. But like any other occupation, it’s not for everyone. Being a PTA takes a particular combination of skills and temperament to reach your professional potential. Before setting out on a path to become a PTA, ask yourself the following questions to make sure this is a good career match for you.

  • Do you enjoy helping people, especially those who are sick or injured?
  • Are you detail oriented?
  • Do you enjoy hands-on work?
  • Can you communicate effectively and patiently with individuals, especially those who may have difficulty putting into words what they are feeling?
  • Are you comfortable with a job that requires a fair amount of physical dexterity and endurance?

If you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, a career as a PTA is likely to be a good choice for you.

STEP 2

Earn Your PTA Associate Degree from an CAPTE-Accredited Program

At a minimum, you’ll need an associate degree from a program that’s accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) to become a PTA. Accreditation is vital because it not only ensures you receive training that meets basic quality standards, but it’s also required in practically all states for licensing or certification.

While attending a CAPTE-accredited program, you’ll receive instruction on fundamental principles of medicine, such as human anatomy, kinesiology, therapeutic techniques, and orthopedic exercise. In addition to this classroom instruction, you’ll also have hands-on learning opportunities through clinical practice courses. Visit CAPTE’s online directory to find a CAPTE-accredited program near you.

Like other healthcare degrees, many PTA programs are shifting to online instruction. However, given the hands-on nature of the profession, any online PTA program will be offered in a hybrid format. Students will complete some of their classroom instruction online but still attend onsite clinicals for hands-on training.

STEP 3

Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam and Meet Other State Licensing Requirements

Exact PTA licensing requirements vary by state. At a minimum, you must graduate from a CAPTE-accredited program and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). The NPTE is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) and covers various subjects to confirm an individual possesses a basic level of competence in physical therapy knowledge. The NPTE for PTAs consists of 200 multiple choice questions covering various topics, such as:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary systems
  • Musculoskeletal systems
  • Lymphatic systems
  • Equipment, devices, and technologies
  • Therapeutic modalities
  • Safety and protection

In addition to passing the NPTE and graduating from an accredited program, many states have other requirements for PTA licensing eligibility, including:

  • Passing a criminal background check
  • Passing a jurisprudence assessment

A complete state-by-state list of initial licensure requirements for PTAs can be found on FSBPT’s website. This provides a good overview of what to expect. To confirm exactly what your state requires, visit your state’s physical therapy licensing authority.

STEP 4

Optimize Your Resume and Prepare for Your Job Interviews

There’s strong demand for PTAs all over the country, but if you want to get the best job offer possible, take some time to brush up on your resume-writing and interview skills. Here are some tips and tricks to give you a leg up on your competition.

Resume Tips

  1. Highlight relevant experience outside the classroom. Having PTA experience in addition to your academic training is a unique combination of skills that many of your peers don’t have.
  2. Quantify your achievements. If possible, use numbers and statistics that objectively demonstrate your accomplishments. For example, “Graduated in the top five percent of my class,” “Volunteered 200 hours at a local nursing home,” or “Attended 100% of all practicums.”
  3. Eliminate silly mistakes and errors on your resume. PTAs must be detail-oriented, given the importance of noticing nuanced issues with patients and carefully following a patient’s therapy regimen.
  4. List the skills most applicable to the job you’re applying for. If you find yourself running out of room on your resume (try to keep it to just one page), list the skills that match the physical therapy setting you are applying to.
  5. Mention applicable certifications. Employers like knowing there’s one less thing they need to worry about before you’ll be ready to start treating patients, so list the certifications you’ve already obtained.

Interview Advice

  1. Prepare for questions that ask you about your approach to patient assessment. One of the most important skills for PTAs is knowing how to spot areas of concern with a patient.
  2. Have one or two stories ready to show how you were able to overcome a conflict or challenge involving a patient and/or a doctor or physical therapist.
  3. Be ready to explain some of your tips and tricks for motivating difficult patients. This is a good way to demonstrate your problem-solving, communication, and interpersonal skills.
  4. Research the facility: Demonstrate your genuine interest in the job by understanding the clinic’s values, patient demographics, and treatment specialties. Think about how you fit into the team and emphasize this to your interviewer.

For more insider tips and advice for landing a great job in healthcare, read our guide to getting hired and guide to navigating job offers.

STEP 5

Consider Specializing Through APTA’s Advanced Pathways Program

Like many other medical professions, the field of physical therapy has various areas of specialization. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offers the PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways Program, which has the following concentrations:

  • Acute care
  • Cardiovascular/pulmonary
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Wound management

Completion of the programs requires PTAs to become members of the APTA and, within five years:

  • Complete 60 hours of continuing education coursework
  • Fulfill the mentored clinical experience requirements
  • Have at least 2,000 documented hours of clinical work experience in your chosen areas of specialization

The APTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways Program is perfect for PTAs looking for extra help to enter a particular area of practice. Completion of the program provides real-world training obtained under the supervision and mentorship of a physical therapist. Even for PTAs not entering a new area of practice, this credential may improve their chances of professional advancement and an increase in compensation.

FAQs About Becoming a PTA

What do physical therapist assistants do?

Physical therapist assistants are primarily responsible for delivering much of the direct care that patients need. Working closely under the guidance of a licensed physical therapist, PTAs play a critical role in assisting patients as they recover from various health issues, such as illnesses, injuries, and surgeries.

They contribute to the patient’s recovery process by performing a range of job duties, including implementing treatment plans, monitoring progress, providing patient education, and offering emotional support. By engaging in these essential tasks, PTAs ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of the overall physical therapy process. In addition, they perform the following tasks on a regular basis:

  • Treat patients by implementing exercises, massages, and other types of physical intervention and rehabilitation.
  • Observe patients during the physical therapy process.
  • Report patient observations to physical therapists.
  • Teach patients how to use equipment and do exercises to improve their health.

A typical day for a PTA might start with a review of patients’ medical records to determine what therapeutic interventions the physical therapist has ordered. Then the PTA will see each patient and help them with the prescribed physical therapy. This might include working with a patient alongside a physical therapist. In other cases, the PTA may provide this care under the physical therapist’s supervision. The PTA will then take careful notes of how the patient handled the therapy and report the observations to the supervising physical therapist.

How much do PTAs make?

Percentile 10% 25% 50% (Median) 75% 90%
Hourly Pay $ 16.27 $ 23.20 $ 28.74 $ 34.04 $ 39.65
Annual Pay $ 33,840 $ 48,260 $ 59,770 $ 70,800 $ 82,470

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2020

PTAs don’t make as much money as physical therapists, but that’s not surprising given the difference in educational and training requirements between the two professions. However, compared to similar allied healthcare professions, PTAs earn considerably higher compensation. For example, the median annual salary for a PTA is $49,770. Compare that to the following occupations:

While most of these fields also require post-high school vocational or college training, completing PTA academic requirements may take an extra year or so. Also, keep in mind that other factors play a role in how much a PTA makes, such as what type of medical facility they work at, where they live, their area of specialization, and their level of experience.

Are PTAs in demand?

PTAs are in high demand for several reasons. The aging population has led to an increased need for physical therapy services to address age-related conditions such as arthritis, joint replacements, and mobility issues. Also, the prevalence of chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease has resulted in a greater demand for rehabilitative care, which PTAs play a vital role in providing.

There is also a growing focus on preventive care and maintaining overall health, leading to increased demand for PTAs who can assist in implementing exercise and wellness programs. PTAs also provide cost-effective support to physical therapists, allowing clinics and hospitals to serve more patients without significantly increasing costs. Advances in physical therapy techniques and technology have expanded the range of conditions that can be treated, leading to more job opportunities for PTAs in various healthcare settings. The table below gives a summary of the rapid growth underway in the profession:

Employment
(2020)
Projected Employment
(2030)
Employment Change
(2020-2030)
Job Growth Rate
(2020-2030)
93,800 126,900 33,200 35%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How long does it take to become a PTA?

After graduating from high school most students can become licensed PTAs in about two years, starting with earning an associate degree from an accredited program. Many students take the NPTE while they’re still in school but close to graduating. This timeline assumes the person is attending school full-time. If you attend a part-time program or take time off from academics after graduating from high school, becoming a licensed PTA will take another year or more.

What’s the difference between a physical therapist assistant and a physical therapist aide?

For starters, PTAs are licensed and physical therapist aides are not. Besides that, the differences can be consolidated into three main areas: education, pay, and job duties. A physical therapist aide only needs a high school diploma; however, due to this lower training requirement, aides normally make less than PTAs. Instead of a PTA annual median salary of $59,770, aides make $28,450. As for job duties, aides do not provide direct care to patients. Instead, they handle administrative tasks relating to physical therapy, like scheduling, prepping equipment, helping patients move to and from treatment areas, and cleaning medical devices and tools.

Helpful Career and College Resources While Becoming a PTA

Besides advocating on behalf of physical therapy professionals, the APTA also oversees the PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways Program.

CAPTE is the primary programmatic accrediting organization for physical therapy programs.

This is a major social media hub for anyone already practicing as a PTA and looking for networking and professional development opportunities. It’s also a great resource for those interested in becoming PTAs who desire more information about the profession.

The FSBPT administers the National Physical Therapy Exams for both physical therapists and PTAs. It also offers a variety of online resources to enhance professional development opportunities.

Comprised of more than 10,000 members, this is the largest PTA professional network group on LinkedIn.

When it comes to finding scholarly research about physical therapy, this is one of the first places to look.

This page offers a plethora of resources to help pay for PTA training and make the most of your education.

This is a great place to find study materials while enrolled in a physical therapy or PTA program. Academic tools include learning modules, practice questions, blog posts, and forums.

This global membership organization is made up of more than 660,000 physical therapy professionals and 125 physical therapy organizations, including the APTA.