How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant (Movement is Our Motto)

how to become a physical therapist assistant

If you’ve ever envisioned yourself aiding the rehabilitation process of patients or pondered about what it takes to become a Physical Therapist Assistant, you’ve arrived at the right destination.

In this guide, we’ll delve into the SPECIFIC steps required to kickstart your career as a Physical Therapist Assistant. We will cover:

  • The necessary skills and qualities.
  • The educational pathway to becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant.
  • How to secure a job in this field.

So, whether you’re a novice in the healthcare field or a seasoned professional seeking to expand your abilities, stay tuned.

We’re about to unfold the blueprint to become a Physical Therapist Assistant.

Let’s begin!

Contents show

Steps to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant


Step 1: Research the Role of a Physical Therapist Assistant

Before you embark on the journey to become a Physical Therapist Assistant, it’s essential to understand the role and responsibilities associated with the job.

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) work under the supervision of a Physical Therapist (PT) to help patients recover from illnesses and injuries.

They assist in implementing treatment plans, teaching patients exercises and therapeutic procedures, and reporting patients’ responses and progress to the supervising therapist.

Take the time to learn about the various settings in which PTAs work, which include hospitals, outpatient clinics, residential care facilities, and private practices.

Research the physical demands of the job, as it often requires significant amounts of standing and moving, as well as lifting and supporting patients.

It’s also important to comprehend the emotional demands, as you’ll be working closely with individuals who are in pain or experiencing physical difficulties.

Moreover, explore the educational and licensing requirements for the role.

Generally, you will need to earn an associate degree from an accredited program and pass a national licensing exam.

Understanding these requirements upfront can help you map your educational path and set realistic expectations for your career journey.

It may also be beneficial to contact practicing PTAs or reach out to professional organizations for more information.

Their first-hand experiences can provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role and can guide you as you make decisions about your career path.


Step 2: Complete High School Education or Equivalent

Completing your high school education or its equivalent is a necessary step in becoming a physical therapist assistant.

High school courses in science, such as biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as mathematics, are particularly useful as they lay the groundwork for the more specialized training you will receive later.

During your high school years, consider volunteering or shadowing at physical therapy clinics or rehabilitation centers.

This provides invaluable exposure to the field and can help you decide if this is indeed the career path you wish to pursue.

After completing high school, you will need to earn an associate’s degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

This degree is necessary to take the national licensure exam to become a licensed physical therapist assistant.

Apart from academics, it is also beneficial to be physically fit as the job of a physical therapist assistant is physically demanding.

You will be assisting patients with their exercises and sometimes you may need to lift or move them.

Regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle can help prepare you for these physical demands.


Step 3: Obtain an Associate’s Degree from an Accredited PTA Program

To become a Physical Therapist Assistant, you must complete an accredited Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program, which typically results in an Associate’s Degree.

This program will provide you with a foundation of knowledge and skills necessary for your career in physical therapy.

The curriculum will include both classroom instruction and practical clinical training.

The classroom instruction covers subjects such as anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and psychology.

Clinical training will allow you to apply what you’ve learned in the classroom by working directly with patients under the supervision of licensed physical therapists.

Typically, a PTA program takes about two years to complete, but this can vary depending on the program and your pace of study.

Admission into these programs can be competitive, so it’s important to maintain a strong academic record in your prerequisite courses.

Upon completion of your degree, you will be prepared to take the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is required to become a licensed PTA.

Be sure to choose a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) to ensure your eligibility for licensure.

Remember that becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant is not only about obtaining a degree.

It’s about understanding the human body, its movements, and how to alleviate pain and improve mobility.

The hands-on experience you’ll gain in your PTA program is invaluable for your future career.


Step 4: Complete Clinical Internships During Your Study

As part of your physical therapist assistant education, it’s crucial to complete clinical internships to gain hands-on experience in the field.

Often, these internships are integrated into your academic program and offer you a chance to apply the theories you learn in class to real-world scenarios.

During these clinical internships, you’ll work under the supervision of experienced physical therapists and physical therapist assistants, providing care to patients in a range of settings such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, private practices, or nursing homes.

Here, you will interact with patients, observe treatment plans in action, and learn about the administrative duties involved in physical therapy.

Internships are invaluable for developing practical skills, understanding patient care, and becoming comfortable in a clinical environment.

They also provide a network of professional contacts, which can be beneficial when you are ready to enter the job market.

To make the most of your internship, ensure you actively engage, ask questions, and seek feedback from your supervisors.

Completing clinical internships not only enhances your resume but also prepares you for the National Physical Therapy Exam and your future career as a Physical Therapist Assistant.

It’s important to approach these internships seriously and with a willingness to learn.


Step 5: Develop Interpersonal Skills

Working as a Physical Therapist Assistant requires a great deal of interaction with patients, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals.

Therefore, developing strong interpersonal skills is a critical step in pursuing this career.

Empathy is one of the most important traits you can develop, as you will be working with patients who may be in pain, frustrated, or worried about their physical issues.

Being understanding and patient can make a significant difference in their treatment experience and outcomes.

Communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal, are also vital.

You need to be able to clearly explain treatment plans, exercises, and procedures to patients, as well as listen effectively to their concerns and questions.

You will also need to develop strong teamwork skills, as you will be working closely with physical therapists and other healthcare professionals to provide coordinated care.

This involves understanding your role within the team, respecting the roles of others, and effectively collaborating to ensure the best patient outcomes.

Finally, develop your problem-solving skills.

Not every treatment will work for every patient, and you will need to be able to adapt and find new solutions when necessary.

This may involve researching new treatment techniques, discussing alternatives with the physical therapist, or brainstorming solutions with the patient themselves.

These interpersonal skills can be developed through practice, role-playing, and seeking feedback from others.

Consider taking courses or workshops in communication, teamwork, problem-solving, or customer service to further develop these skills.


Step 6: Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for PTAs

After completing your associate degree program and gaining practical experience in the field, the next important step is to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for PTAs. This is a standardized exam administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).

The NPTE for PTAs is designed to evaluate your competency and readiness to practice as an entry-level physical therapist assistant.

It covers a wide range of topics such as diseases and conditions that impact physical therapy, interventions and therapeutic modalities, data collection and documentation, safety and protection, and professional responsibilities.

In order to pass this exam, you must be familiar with these topics and be able to demonstrate critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

It’s recommended to review study guides and take practice exams to prepare.

Passing the NPTE is a requirement in most states to become a licensed PTA.

Remember, the NPTE is not just about theoretical knowledge, it’s also about applying the skills and understanding you gained during your education and practical experience.

It is a crucial step in demonstrating your ability to provide safe and effective patient care as a physical therapist assistant.


Step 7: Obtain State Licensure

After completing your educational requirements and successfully passing the National Physical Therapy Exam, the next step to becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant is to obtain licensure from your state.

This is a crucial step as it is illegal to practice as a Physical Therapist Assistant without a valid license in most states.

Each state has its own requirements for licensure, and these can include background checks, jurisprudence exams, and continuing education.

You should research the specific requirements for your state and ensure you meet them all.

The jurisprudence exam typically involves answering questions about the laws and regulations governing the practice of physical therapy in your state.

It’s also important to keep in mind that once you earn your license, you’ll need to maintain it.

This often involves completing a certain number of continuing education hours each year or every few years.

Finally, remember that your state licensure is only valid in the state where it was issued.

If you decide to move or work in a different state, you’ll need to meet the licensure requirements in that state as well.


Step 8: Maintain and Update Certification and Licensure

As a Physical Therapist Assistant, it’s essential to keep your certification and licensure current.

This may involve periodically taking continuing education courses or attending workshops, seminars, or other professional development opportunities to stay updated on new techniques, tools, and best practices in the field of physical therapy.

The exact requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check with your local licensing board to understand what you need to do to maintain your license.

Renewing your licensure typically involves submitting an application, paying a fee, and providing proof of any required continuing education credits.

In addition to state licensure, many Physical Therapist Assistants also maintain voluntary certification through the American Physical Therapy Association or another professional organization.

These certifications demonstrate your commitment to your profession and can make you more attractive to potential employers.

Remember, maintaining your licensure and certification is not just a requirement – it’s also an opportunity for continual learning and professional growth.

By staying up-to-date with the latest developments in your field, you can provide the best possible care for your patients.


Step 9: Gain Work Experience

After you have completed your degree and have passed the licensing exam, it’s time to gain practical experience as a Physical Therapist Assistant.

This experience will allow you to utilize and expand the knowledge and skills you’ve learned during your educational journey.

There are many settings where Physical Therapist Assistants work, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centers, schools, sports and fitness facilities, and home health services.

As you start your career, you may want to work in several different settings to determine which you prefer.

One of the best ways to gain experience is to start with an entry-level job.

This will allow you to learn from seasoned professionals who can guide and mentor you.

As you progress in your career, you can take on more challenging responsibilities and possibly specialize in a specific area of physical therapy.

Moreover, continuously updating your skills through continuing education and advanced training courses will keep you up-to-date with the latest trends and techniques in the field and enhance your marketability.

Remember, gaining work experience is not just about enhancing your resume but also about developing professionalism, improving interpersonal skills, and understanding the real-world dynamics of being a Physical Therapist Assistant.


Step 10: Engage in Continued Education and Professional Development

As a Physical Therapist Assistant, it’s crucial to continuously develop your skills and stay up-to-date with the latest practices in the field.

Many states require Physical Therapist Assistants to complete a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain licensure.

This typically involves attending workshops, seminars or courses that provide training on new methodologies, equipment, or practices in the field of physical therapy.

Even if your state doesn’t require continuing education, it’s still beneficial to engage in professional development.

This could be in the form of attending conferences, staying updated with scholarly articles, or participating in webinars.

These avenues provide an opportunity to learn about the latest research and developments in the field.

Additionally, you may also consider gaining further specialization in a particular area of physical therapy.

These could include orthopedic, geriatric, or pediatric physical therapy, among others.

Gaining additional certifications not only enhances your expertise but could also lead to career advancement opportunities.

Finally, you can engage with professional organizations such as the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), which often offer resources and opportunities for continued learning and networking with other professionals in the field.



Physical Therapist Assistant Roles and Responsibilities

Physical Therapist Assistants work under the direction of Physical Therapists to help patients recover from illnesses and injuries.

They play a crucial role in assisting patients improve their mobility, relieve pain and prevent or limit physical disabilities.

They have the following roles and responsibilities:


Patient Care

  • Assist physical therapists in providing therapy sessions.
  • Help patients with specific exercises as part of the plan of care.
  • Administer modalities like ultrasound, electrical stimulation, etc.


Monitoring and Reporting

  • Monitor patient’s progress and response to therapy.
  • Report patient’s progress to the supervising Physical Therapist.
  • Document patient care services by charting in patient and department records.


Patient Education

  • Educate patients and their families about what to expect from the recovery process and how best to cope with challenges throughout the process.
  • Teach patients how to use therapeutic equipment.


Equipment Maintenance

  • Use and maintain therapeutic equipment, ensuring it is in good condition.
  • Perform routine checks and maintenance of equipment.


Clinical Duties

  • Prepare patients for physical therapy treatment by welcoming, comforting, providing and/or assisting patient into physical therapy apparel or apertures.
  • Contribute to physical therapist’s effectiveness by identifying patient care issues.


Health and Safety

  • Maintain safe and clean working environment by complying with procedures, rules, and regulations.
  • Protect patients and employees by adhering to infection-control policies and protocols.


Team Collaboration

  • Work closely with physical therapists and other healthcare professionals to ensure comprehensive care.
  • Communicate effectively with the healthcare team for coordinated care.


Professional Development

  • Keep abreast with the latest techniques and procedures in physical therapy.
  • Participate in educational opportunities and professional organizations to maintain professional competence.


Administrative Duties

  • Perform clerical duties, such as taking inventory, ordering supplies, answering telephone, taking messages, and filling out forms.


What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) often work in hospitals, physical therapy practices, or other healthcare facilities under the supervision of licensed Physical Therapists (PTs).

They are responsible for implementing treatment plans designed by PTs. This includes helping patients perform a variety of exercises and activities that help improve their movement, strength, and mobility.

PTAs use techniques such as massage, stretching, and other physical maneuvers to help patients recover from injuries, surgeries, or manage chronic conditions.

They may also use specialized equipment to facilitate these exercises.

In addition to hands-on therapy, PTAs often are tasked with observing and recording a patient’s progress.

They report this information back to the PT so that any necessary adjustments can be made to the treatment plan.

PTAs also provide education to patients and their families about what to do at home to contribute to the healing process.

This includes teaching them specific exercises and how to use assistive devices.

They are crucial in helping patients recover and regain their quality of life, working closely with PTs to provide comprehensive care.


Essential Physical Therapist Assistant Skills

  • Communication: Physical Therapist Assistants need to effectively convey instructions and information to patients, and collaborate with other healthcare professionals. They must also have the ability to listen attentively to the concerns and feedback of patients.
  • Physical Stamina and Strength: The role often involves physical tasks such as helping patients with movements and exercises. This requires good physical fitness and the ability to lift or move patients when necessary.
  • Compassion: Dealing with patients who are in pain or facing physical difficulties requires a high degree of empathy and understanding. A comforting and patient demeanor can help in providing the best care.
  • Observational Skills: It is crucial to monitor and assess the progress of patients accurately. This means noticing small improvements or issues, and adapting treatment plans accordingly.
  • Medical Knowledge: Understanding of anatomy, physiology, and the basics of physical therapy is fundamental. This includes familiarity with exercises, therapies, and equipment used in physical rehabilitation.
  • Time Management: Balancing multiple patients, appointments, and therapy sessions requires efficient time management and organizational skills.
  • Dexterity: Physical Therapist Assistants must possess the ability to use their hands to provide manual therapy and therapeutic exercises.
  • Detail-oriented: Attention to detail is vital when recording a patient’s progress, noting the specific exercises performed, and the patient’s response to treatment.
  • Resilience: The role can be physically and emotionally challenging. Resilience and stress management are important for maintaining personal wellbeing and providing the best patient care.
  • Teamwork: Collaboration with physical therapists, doctors, and other healthcare staff is essential for a comprehensive approach to patient treatment.
  • Problem-solving: The ability to adapt and modify treatment plans based on a patient’s progress, feedback, or any complications is essential.
  • Administrative Skills: Familiarity with healthcare documentation and the ability to maintain accurate patient records is crucial. Knowledge of healthcare software programs can also be beneficial.
  • Professionalism: Upholding a high level of professional conduct, including respecting patient privacy and adhering to ethical standards, is mandatory in this role.
  • Patience: Rehabilitation can be a slow process. Having patience and encouraging patients when progress is slow or challenging is important.
  • Adaptability: Every patient is unique, and their needs may change over time or across sessions. The ability to adjust and adapt to these changes is a crucial skill for a Physical Therapist Assistant.


Physical Therapist Assistant Career Path Progression

The Foundation: Physical Therapist Aide

Your journey typically begins as a Physical Therapist Aide.

In this stage, you learn the basics of patient care, assisting with daily tasks and treatments under the supervision of a licensed Physical Therapist.

Here are some tips for success in this role:

  1. Learn Continuously: Build a strong foundation in basic patient care and anatomy.
  2. Seek Mentorship: Don’t hesitate to ask questions and learn from licensed therapists.
  3. Active Participation: Contribute to the care of patients and assist in their recovery process.


The Ascent: Physical Therapist Assistant

After gaining experience and further education, you transition into the role of a Physical Therapist Assistant.

You’ll have more responsibilities, including implementing therapeutic exercises, educating patients, and documenting their progress.

Here’s how to thrive in this stage:

  1. Communication Skills: Develop effective communication skills to interact with patients and healthcare professionals.
  2. Physical Fitness: Maintain good physical health to meet the demands of the job, such as lifting or moving patients.
  3. Evidence-Based Practice: Stay updated with current research and apply evidence-based practice in patient care.


Reaching New Heights: Senior Physical Therapist Assistant

The next rung on the ladder is the Senior Physical Therapist Assistant position.

At this stage, you’re recognized for your expertise and may take on additional administrative tasks or supervise new aides.

To excel as a Senior Physical Therapist Assistant:

  1. Mentorship: Share your knowledge and help new aides and assistants grow.
  2. Quality Care: Constantly strive to provide quality patient care and improve patient outcomes.
  3. Leadership: Take initiative in improving the practice and lead by example.


Beyond the Horizon: Physical Therapist

As your career progresses, you may decide to pursue further education and become a licensed Physical Therapist.

This role involves greater responsibilities, including evaluating patients, designing treatment plans, and even opening your own practice.

Here’s what to focus on:

  1. Technical Knowledge: Deepen your understanding of anatomy, physiology, and therapeutic techniques.
  2. Management Skills: If you open your own practice, develop strong leadership and business skills.
  3. Continuing Education: Stay up-to-date with the latest research and treatment methods in physical therapy.


Pinnacle of Success: Physical Therapy Specialist or Practice Owner

You may reach roles like Physical Therapy Specialist or Practice Owner at the highest echelons of the physical therapy career ladder.

Here, you’ll be responsible for shaping the direction of your practice, making critical decisions, and managing larger teams or even multiple locations.


Physical Therapist Assistant Salary

Entry-Level Physical Therapist Assistant

  • Median Salary: $39,000 – $47,000 per year
  • Entry-level physical therapist assistants typically have 0-2 years of experience. They may hold an associate’s degree in physical therapy assisting from an accredited program and must have passed a state-administered exam to be licensed or certified.


Mid-Level Physical Therapist Assistant

  • Median Salary: $47,000 – $57,000 per year
  • Mid-level physical therapist assistants usually have 2-5 years of experience. They assist physical therapists in the provision of physical therapy and often have more duties and responsibilities like planning therapy sessions and monitoring progress.


Senior Physical Therapist Assistant

  • Median Salary: $57,000 – $70,000 per year
  • Senior physical therapist assistants possess 5+ years of experience. They often take on leadership roles in the clinical setting, overseeing other physical therapist assistants, and coordinating patient care.


Physical Therapist Assistant Supervisor/Manager

  • Median Salary: $65,000 – $80,000 per year
  • These roles often require significant experience and may involve administrative duties, such as scheduling, training, and oversight of junior physical therapist assistants, as well as direct patient care.


Physical Therapy Director

  • Median Salary: $80,000 – $120,000 per year
  • This is a high-level position that requires extensive experience and advanced knowledge of physical therapy. Duties often include overseeing all aspects of physical therapy provision, ensuring compliance with regulations, and setting strategies for therapy services within a healthcare organization.


Physical Therapist Assistant Work Environment

Physical Therapist Assistants typically work in physical therapy offices, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes.

They may also provide services in patients’ homes or schools.

These professionals often work full-time and may need to work evenings or weekends to accommodate patients’ schedules.

The job can be physically demanding as they are often on their feet most of the day and may need to lift or move patients.

Physical Therapist Assistants may also have the opportunity to specialize in areas such as geriatrics or pediatrics, depending on the type of patients their workplace serves.

With experience, they may advance to administrative roles or decide to pursue additional education to become a physical therapist.


FAQs About Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant

What is needed to become a physical therapist assistant?

To become a physical therapist assistant, you will need to earn an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program, which typically takes about two years to complete.

This program will offer a combination of classroom instruction and clinical experience.

Key subjects include anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and therapeutic techniques.

After graduation, you’ll need to pass a state-administered national exam to become licensed or certified, as required in most states.

Important skills for this field include physical stamina, compassion, detail-orientation, and strong communication skills.


How long does it take to become a physical therapist assistant?

Becoming a physical therapist assistant typically takes about two years.

This includes completing an associate’s degree program and obtaining licensure.

However, this timeline can vary depending on the specific requirements of your state and the pace at which you complete your studies.

Additionally, you may choose to gain additional professional experience or certifications, which would extend this timeline.


Can I be a physical therapist assistant without a degree?

No, a degree is typically required to become a physical therapist assistant.

Most states require physical therapist assistants to have an associate’s degree from an accredited program.

These programs provide the necessary theoretical knowledge and practical skills to perform this job effectively.


Is being a physical therapist assistant a physically demanding job?

Yes, being a physical therapist assistant can be physically demanding.

The job often requires standing for long periods, assisting patients with movements, and sometimes lifting or moving patients.

Therefore, physical fitness and stamina are important.

However, many people in this role find the work to be rewarding and fulfilling, as they are directly involved in helping patients recover and improve their quality of life.


What are the prospects for physical therapist assistants in the next decade?

The job outlook for physical therapist assistants is quite positive for the next decade.

With the aging population and an increase in chronic conditions that require physical therapy, the demand for physical therapy services is expected to grow.

As physical therapists delegate more tasks to assistants, employment opportunities for physical therapist assistants are projected to increase significantly.



And there you have it.

Embarking on a journey to become a Physical Therapist Assistant is no small undertaking, but it’s undeniably fulfilling.

Equipped with the right knowledge, training, and persistence, you’re well on your way to making a significant difference in the field of healthcare.

Remember, the path may be demanding, but the rewards are boundless. Your expertise could lead to a life-altering treatment that changes how patients recover and regain their strength.

So, take that first step. Immerse yourself in learning. Connect with healthcare professionals. And most importantly, keep honing your therapy skills.

Because the world is waiting for the care you can provide.

And if you’re looking for personalized guidance on starting or advancing your career in physical therapy, check out our AI Career Path Advisor.

This free tool is designed to offer customized advice and resources to help you navigate your career path effectively.

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