How Long Do I Have to Attend College to Become a Physical Therapist?

by Stephanie Dube Dwilson

    If you enjoy helping people recover from injuries and regain control of their life again, you'll enjoy being a physical therapist. The path to becoming a physical therapist isn't easy, though. You'll have to go through seven or even 10 years of schooling before you can start practicing. So be prepared in advance to persevere through long nights of studying and intensive exams.

    You'll need a bachelor's degree in a subject relevant to physical therapy before you can be accepted into one of the professional programs. First, find out what prerequisite classes are required by the professional program you're interested in. Typically, you'll need to take classes that include anatomy, chemistry, biology, physics, psychology and physiology as an undergrad in order to qualify for a professional-level PT program. Because entry into physical therapy programs is highly competitive, you'll want to get the best grades possible. Schools typically require at least a 3.0 GPA and some schools also require physical therapy knowledge, such as volunteering or observing professional PT work while you're in college.

    Professional schools offer a Doctor of Physical Therapy course, which takes three years to earn. Some schools also offer a Master of Physical Therapy, which takes two to three years. If you're choosing between the two, go for the higher-level DPT so you'll be more competitive when applying for jobs after you graduate. The education includes classes like pharmacology, neuroscience and anatomy. You'll also do clinical rotations, typically for about 35 weeks, where you work under supervision in a specific area of physical therapy, like orthopedic care.

    After you get your degree, your work to become a physical therapist isn't done; you'll need to get licensed in the state where you're going to practice. This will involve passing the National Physical Therapy Examination or, in some states, a state-administered PT exam. The NPTE has 250 multiple-choice questions, divided into five sections. The systems of the body that the exam covers include gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and pulmonary, musculoskeletal, nervous, metabolic, urinary and interactions. The test also covers equipment use and safety. Some states may also require that you pass a state jurisprudence exam before you can take the NPTE, which tests your knowledge of relevant state law.

    Before you can practice as a physical therapist, you'll also need to complete a residency. The length of a residency depends on your specialty, and can last anywhere from less than a year to three years. Residencies have different requirements, so research exactly what's required by the ones you're interested in. Most require that you have a physical therapy license in your state. Other possible requirements include a CPR license, a current EMT license or Emergency Responder certification for a sports therapy residency, and membership in the American Physical Therapy Association.

    Even after you're licensed, your education to be a physical therapist never really ends. Each state has a specific number of continuing education classes that it requires physical therapists to take each year in order to maintain their license. You might also be interested in getting board certified in your specialty, which will require taking additional classes and an exam. Board certification options for physical therapy include neurology, cardiovascular, geriatrics, orthopedics, pediatrics, women's health and sports.

    Physical therapists are in high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010, the demand for these jobs will grow by 39 percent between 2010 and 2020. This is due to an aging population, greater survival rates from traumatic injuries and chronic illnesses and improving medical technology. In May 2010, the average yearly pay for a physical therapist was $76,310. The lowest 10 percent were paid $53,620.

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