Becoming a Physical Therapist
July 6, 2015 10:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm exploring the idea of becoming a physical therapist. What is it like? What are some of the possible career paths out there?

I'm really drawn to learning about anatomy, fixing dysfunctional/painful movement patterns, and generally helping people feel better and be stronger. A number of people have suggested that I consider becoming a physical therapist, so I'm exploring what that might look like (in addition to other possibilities like personal trainer or massage therapist).

If I do become a physical therapist, I'm particularly interested in sports-related physical therapy, helping athletes/acrobats/gymnasts who are working towards using their body at a relatively high level. I also want to incorporate a variety of techniques, like massage, trigger point therapy, active release therapy, somatics, posture alignment, etc.

Something that's very important to me is ultimately helping people take care of their own body ("teaching a person to fish" vs. "giving them a fish"), so that next time they are able to solve/prevent their own injuries because they understand how their body works.

Lots of questions here...

Where can I learn physical therapy? Are there well-known schools or associations? How long does it take? Cost? I would very much prefer an short intense bootcamp-style experience to a longer drawn-out program. I have a bachelor's degree in chemistry but no other formal training.

What kind of jobs are out there? What's working in a hospital like? What about working for a gym or athletic school of some kind? Can I do just word-of-mouth clients? If so, do I need an office or can I work out of my home like several massage therapists I know?

What are the hours like? What is the pay like? I imagine it varies a lot based on where you work, but it'd be great to have a sense of what it's like in each type of place. I would strongly prefer to set my own hours, but a reasonable 9-5 type of schedule would be fine too. I'd also like to travel several weeks a year, if that's possible.

What about specific certifications? I had a really good experience with the Egoscue method, which worked wonders on my own posture - would working in an Egoscue clinic (or similar) be enough of an income on its own? Which certifications should I consider?

Thanks for any and all advice!
posted by danceswithlight to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You need a DPT to practice PT. A doctorate is not given in a boot camp setting. Maybe you should look into PTA, or athletic training courses instead.
posted by asockpuppet at 10:57 AM on July 6, 2015

As one reference point, I have a friend who's a PT and she spends much of her time driving around to patient's houses to do their therapy at home. Her main hassle is occasionally covering for other PTs who have to be out, which means extra driving, etc. We're in the US Sunbelt; most of her travel is out to small communities in rural areas. YMMV for PT work in a large urban center.
posted by jquinby at 11:00 AM on July 6, 2015

You will need a DPT to be a physical therapist. And to gain admittance you will need to take some pre-reqs. Since you already have the chemistry major, you're probably fine on math, chemistry, and physics, but you will probably need intro biology and psychology, a 2 semester A&P sequence, and maybe cell biology. Here is BU's list just as an example.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:22 AM on July 6, 2015

Physical Therapy is very different in terms of schooling compared to massage therapy and personal trainers. Not to say it's not for you, but as noted above, it is a doctorate (so, its bootcamp, but for a few years).

This means there is formal licensing (it will vary slightly by state) and, I suspect, working more with reimbursement through insurance as opposed to self-pay (someone in the profession could correct me). The PTs I know primarily work for clincs and hospitals, I don't know if that's because private practice is hard to open or if that's just been their preference.

The recent graduates I know (within the past 2-3 years) worked very hard to get into PT school, as it is very competitive (at least until recently).

I think some programs will have an open house style informational meeting that you could go to and likely get a better grasp on the profession as a whole and admission requirements if it still interests you.
posted by ghost phoneme at 11:59 AM on July 6, 2015

To fill in some of the details on that "extended boot camp" idea, here is my university's DPT. A BS in 3 years to enter the program, followed by 3 years to get the DPT. The whole 6 years is spent in accelerated studies.
posted by Wilbefort at 12:35 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

My boyfriend is a physical therapy assistant (PTA) and I was planning on going into physical therapy before I got distracted by my current research area, so I have a bit of info on this.

First: the process of becoming a physical therapist is more akin to becoming a nurse or doctor than a massage therapist or athletic trainer. It requires a professional degree from an accredited school and you'll need to be licensed by the state you're practicing in.

Becoming a PTA generally requires going through a two-year program. The upside is there is no bachelor's degree requirement and many of these programs can be found at community colleges, so the cost is not as much. The downside is you do not get to design treatment plans and are pretty much subject to whichever DPT is supervising you (you cannot treat without a supervising DPT). So if you have a PT that swears by ultrasound despite the fact it's a load of bullcrap, you'll have to perform ultrasound.

A PT has more control over treatment plans, but the academic requirements are more difficult. It's like Med School Lite in terms of competitiveness, cost, and length. Applicants are generally expected to have gotten a bachelor's and completed a list of pre-reqs. As a chem student you'll probably be good with most of the STEM pre-reqs but may need to take biology, psychology, and anatomy & physiology courses (exact courses will depend on school). Schools will expect you to have good grades (most entering PT students will have a GPA of ~3.5) and extracurriculars that reflect your interest in PT--for example internships or volunteering. You'll need to take the GREs. Most applications are done through the execrable PTCAS system. One you get in, programs are generally three years with some people taking an extra year or two to do research or internships, depending on their interests. Cost averages ~$20-$30K/year. You can get good information from the forums and APTA, the American Physical Therapy Association

There is a lot of flexibility in both jobs, in as much as demand for PTs and PTAs is pretty high so you can count on there being openings in most areas of the country. You can make $40K coming straight out of PTA school, and $60K+ coming out of PT school. Even more if you join a traveling PT company. They send you off to places of your choosing for 13 weeks, pay for housing and moving costs, work you like a dog but pay significantly more than stationary PT positions. I would not count on being able to work with star athletes and the like though. A great deal of PT/PTA clients are coming from hospitals or retirement communities. Unless you get good connections you're more likely to be helping an older person get strong enough to move from a wheelchair to walker after a medical event than recuperating an NBA star's busted knee.

From talking with my boyfriend, the biggest downside seems like the same thing it is in all medical professions: dealing with insurance companies. Unless you are a superstar PT who can afford to charge cash-only you're going to have to deal with insurance companies. If you work as an independent, you get more control over hours and treatment and amount of time spent on each patient, but you have to deal with all that administrative bullshit. And there's a lot. Even if you work for a larger rehab company, you'll still be seeing reams of paperwork, just less than if you're independent and have nobody to do that for you.

Anyway it is a much bigger undertaking than you seem to be assuming.
posted by schroedinger at 1:44 PM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for these answers. Are there any alternatives to the DPT?

Also, what happens after you get a DPT? I'd still love to hear about hours, salary, types of patients, etc.
posted by danceswithlight at 1:46 PM on July 6, 2015

I'm not a PT but have worked with several and know a couple as a student in a related field.

Salary is about $70-80k here in the midwest. Hospitals tend to be more lucrative than private practice, and you'll make considerably less in a school setting. Jobs are generally plentiful - I don't know anyone who didn't get a job within 6 months.

Work can be adult or pediatrics. There is a higher demand for adult populations. Sports injuries are a popular subfield but really competetive.

Private practice is nice because you can see more variety (for ex. You might see mostly adults but have a few peds cases). You'll often see PTs working at rehab centers with OTs and SLPs. These settings can vary a lot from generalist to specialized. You could work by yourself or as part of a large network at an agency, or something in between.

Hospitals are exciting. It's go, go, go all the time. It's the only setting where you'll see inpatients. So say someone has had a stroke you may evaluate them for fall risk, do preliminary diagnostics, and give reccomendations for home, rehab, skilled nursing facility (SNF). You also get outpatients at hospitals. Not uncommon to be working in different locations on different days.

Educational settings are hard to get into because there's not a ton of demand. Most of your caseload would be younger kids with neurological deficits. A major reason is therapy shouldn't be forever and as they age, the focus shifts from correcting to compensatory measures. Not a ton of full-time jobs - most work a patchwork of contract positions.

No alternatives to the DPT. As far as I know it's a 3 year, grueling program. You'll intern at a variety of settings and also have academic courses. It's a very different experience from massage school. A lot more focus on understanding the scientific principles that clinical practice is built on. School isn't about learning 1 approach, it's about learning the basics of clinical practice so when you graduate, you have the tools to work in a variety of settings. Different internship sites will want emphasize different things.

As stated above, PTAs can't write treatment plans and have to work under a PTs supervision, and there's almost no upward mobility. That's fine for some people, but when you think a different approach would help, you can't enforce it.

Most jobs are 9-5 and you learn with experience how to not take work home (paperwork is nonstop in any health related field really) or contract positions where you work maybe 2 days a week.

Conditions a PT may see: sports injuries (torn acl), strokes, parkinson's, cerebral palsy, hip and knee replacements, back pain, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury, and more!

And honestly, if you don't love PT, graduate school will be even more of a hell than it is when you love it. You'll be so burned out by the time you graduate, you'll want to leave the profession all together. Go and shadow some PTs - in different settings - and see if you like the reality.
posted by Aranquis at 2:34 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

The fastest way for you to do something related to what you want would be to become a massage therapist at somewhere like where after a year or so you can try your hand at securing a job in the vicinity of 27-28k... anything under the seven or eight month intensive programs simply isn't enough time to learn what you need, for any related area.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 4:52 PM on July 6, 2015

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