How Long it Takes to Become a Physical Therapist?
With the increased demand for medical professionals and a rising outlook for physical therapists, many students wonder how long it takes to become a physical therapist, as this is a serious option for many.
The answer is dependent on a number of criteria, but is typically determined by how quickly a student can finish the prerequisites for physical therapy programs, how quickly they are accepted, and how soon they can find work once graduating.
All Physical Therapy programs in the U.S. require prerequisite education prior to application. Because PT programs in the U.S. are doctorate programs, this means that most programs require a bachelor’s degree prior to acceptance. Most bachelor’s degrees are outlined to be completed in four years, but can take more if students are unable to attend college full time or have to take time off for any reason.
Many top physical therapy schools have pre-PT tracts for bachelor’s degrees including classes such as chemistry, biology and physics and are comprised of courses that may be accepted by multiple DPT programs across the U.S.
Other top physical therapy schools offer a “3+3 program” for freshmen or graduating high school students with proficiency in math and science. These students can complete a rigorous curriculum for 3 years of undergrad that is focused on prerequisite math and science courses, and continue onto a DPT program for another three years through the same school.
This program can reduce how long it takes to become a physical therapist by at least a year.
Actual DPT programs can vary between colleges, and lengths may differ based on coursework and clinical rotations. Typically coursework comprises about 80% of a DPT program and the remaining 20% is devoted to hands-on learning in a clinical setting. School officials and clinical instructors alike can affect how long it takes to become a physical therapist.
DPT programs are estimated to take three years to complete, with a range of topics in the curriculum. This includes courses focusing on:
Depending on the program outline, PT schools may go through the summer or begin in a later semester and the student must wait to resume education until the official program start date.
Additionally, students who are not accepted into PT school immediately may have to wait until future application cycles to be admitted. Prerequisite grades are a huge factor in determining how long it takes to become a physical therapist for an individual.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), an average of 27.5 weeks are spent in a clinical setting. This can be outpatient (e.g. sports therapy, work conditioning clinics, etc) or inpatient (hospitals, nursing/rehab centers, etc).
Depending on the availability of clinical instructors, course outline of the school, and the needs of the student, it may take longer or shorter than the average time to finish clinical rotations.
Following graduation from an accredited DPT program, therapists are required to take the National Physical Therapy Examination before beginning work. These test dates are provided quarterly, so students who graduate after the registration deadline must wait until the test is given again prior to becoming a full-fledged PT.
Having registration issues or failing the test can prolong how long it takes to become a physical therapist. However, top physical therapy schools are aware of testing dates and overall content for the examination, and outline their curriculum to give students the highest chances of passing.
Additional certifications and residency programs are available for students who wish to further their education and focus on a specialty. Some options for specialties include:
Specialty certifications require at least 2,000 hours of clinical time spent in the field of specialty in addition to a certification examination. Additional training may be required for differing certifications as outlined by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.
Because there are so many factors and options for becoming a physical therapist, completion of prerequisite courses and a DPT program can take 6-7 years to complete. Additional training and certifications can take even longer. So, how long does it take to become a physical therapist? The answer: it depends.