Physical therapist assistants, or PTAs, work directly with patients to help them recover from injury, illness, and medical interventions. 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 2.6 million new healthcare jobs by 2030, with physical therapy as one of the biggest areas of demand. And U.S. News and World Report ranks physical therapy as the top healthcare support job and the 13th best job overall.
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.
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 for you.
If you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, a career as a PTA is likely to be a good choice for you.
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). Accreditation is important 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. To find a CAPTE-accredited program near you, please visit CAPTE’s online directory.
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 on-site clinicals for hands-on training. To find out more about top-rated online options, check out our guide to PTA online programs.
Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam and Meet Other State Licensing Requirements
The exact PTA licensing requirements vary by state. However, at a minimum, individuals 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:
In addition to passing the NPTE and graduating from an accredited program, many states have other requirements for PTA licensing eligibility, including:
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.
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.
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:
Completion of the programs requires PTAs to become members of the APTA and, within five years:
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 handle the bulk of the direct care that physical therapy patients receive. PTAs work under the supervision of a physical therapist to help patients recover from health problems, including illnesses and injuries. They accomplish these goals by engaging in some of the following job duties:
- 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?
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 $59,770. 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?
Most healthcare professions are in demand, but PTAs enjoy some of the most robust growth rates. This is due to a combination of factors, including an increase in the number of patients with health insurance and, therefore, greater affordability of medical care for those patients. There’s also the aging baby-boom population and the decentralization of where patients can get medical care and who they can get it from. In years past, people seeking medical care received many of their services directly from medical doctors, physical therapists, and dentists. Today, patients receive the same care from advanced practice registered nurses, dental hygienists, physician assistants, and physical therapist assistants.
The table below gives a summary of the rapid growth underway in the profession:
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.