What Classes to Take to Become a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists work with people of all ages.
i Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images
Physical therapists work with people of all ages.

Physical therapy is a hands-on career that requires an extended amount of education. You may not realize that the person who seems to be torturing you with exercise after you break your ankle is actually a doctor – a Doctor of Physical Therapy, or DPT. Preparation for a career in physical therapy can begin as early as high school, and physical therapists never really stop learning, because they strive to keep up with the constant flow of new research and therapy techniques.

High School

Physical therapy is grounded in science and mathematics. Starting early can help you in your chosen career. Math classes such as algebra and geometry can give you the basics, even if you need to repeat them at the college level. Whether or not you’re a math whiz, sign up for calculus and trigonometry. Science courses such as biology, chemistry and physics are also valuable, and some physical therapy programs also recommend you take advanced placement courses, where possible.

Bachelor's Degree

You will need a bachelor’s degree before you can begin your actual physical therapy program. Same song, second verse -– you need more science and math. Check into the prerequisites for your physical therapy program, as you may be required to have college-level courses in anatomy, physiology, biology, statistics, physics, sociology or chemistry. Your bachelor’s degree may be in a related science such as exercise physiology, or you may choose a different major, but you must meet the prerequisite requirements.

Physical Therapy Classes

By the time you actually get into a physical therapy program, it may feel as though you’ve been going to school forever, but now the real work begins. Physical therapists must know the human body inside and out, although there is a heavy focus on the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. You will study the anatomy and physiology of nerves and learn how bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles work together to produce movement in a course called kinesiology. You will study normal anatomy, learn how different diseases or injuries affect the body and how to assess a patient to determine what problems he has.

Specialized Information

Physical therapists also must learn about issues such as the aging process. For example, an elderly patient with heart disease is quite likely to need a different therapy regimen than a 4-year-old who is bouncing up and down even with a broken leg. Research affects medical care and a physical therapist must learn how to evaluate clinical research to provide care based on the best science. Classroom training is supplemented with the practical aspects of physical therapy. Students learn how to perform exercises, teach patients to use crutches or walkers and apply a variety of braces, splints and other devices.

Doctorate Programs, Residency and Licensing

Expect to spend at least seven years going to school after you graduate from high school. Most DPT programs take three years, and some programs offer extra clinical training similar to residency programs for physicians. A residency can last anywhere from nine months to three years. You will need to pass one last exam – the National Physical Therapy Licensing Exam, or its state equivalent -- as all states require physical therapists be licensed. Now you can look forward to earning some money; physical therapists earned a mean annual salary of $79,830 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

2016 Salary Information for Physical Therapists

Physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $85,400 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, physical therapists earned a 25th percentile salary of $70,680, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $100,880, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 239,800 people were employed in the U.S. as physical therapists.

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