Physical Therapy
Schools and Careers Resource Center

Learn everything you need to know about getting an education and working as a physical therapist.


What Can You Do with an Occupational or Physical Therapy Degree?

physical-therapy-icon-hubPart teacher, part coach, and part medical professional, you’ll help patients improve their health in a hands-on environment where the relationship with the patient is often as much a part of the equation as your physical therapy or occupational therapy expertise.

With a degree in either occupational therapy or physical therapy, you’ll be able to form long-term relationships with many of your patients. While these career paths have their challenges, witnessing a patient improve or heal is one of the biggest rewards.

Your education will teach you a wide range of techniques that can be used with different types of patients. If you’re interested in specializing in a certain area of physical or occupational therapy, such as orthopedics or geriatrics, look for a degree program that offers that specialty.

Once you’ve earned your occupational therapy or physical therapy degree, you’ll be prepared to work as part of a healthcare team, overseeing assistants and consulting with doctors and surgeons.


History and Evolution of Occupational and Physical Therapy


Physical therapy and occupational therapy techniques have been used for centuries, but it wasn’t until after World War I when these careers flourished.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), 1917 marks the start of the physical therapy profession. During the First World War, the U.S. Army created “reconstruction aide” training programs in order to find medical workers who could provide rehabilitation services to injured soldiers.

Meanwhile, physical therapy and occupational therapy were both being used to help treat patients with polio. Occupational therapy, which historically focused on the treatment of patients with mental health ailments, was also being used to treat physical injuries.

As demand grew for these types of healthcare professionals, there was a proliferation of education programs. According to APTA, there were 31 accredited physical therapy schools by 1950 that offered either a bachelor’s degree or post-baccalaureate certificate.

Occupational therapy has remained at the forefront of healthcare as well. Many doctorate programs became available starting in the 1990s.

Today, both fields remain focused on improving a patient’s quality of life. The professions are regulated and have state licensing requirements. As the population ages and the number of people living with chronic diseases increases, the need for physical and occupational therapy is expected to grow.


Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Programs

Most physical therapists hold a doctorate, which usually takes three years to complete. Master’s degrees take two years.

  • Direct-entry Master’s (MPT): Prepare students for licensure and provide advanced training and clinical experience.
  • Direct-entry Doctorate (DPT): Designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in another field.
  • Transitional DPT: Designed for practicing physical therapists who want to advance their degree.

Occupational therapists need at least a master’s degree to practice. A doctoral degree takes between two and three years. It’s important to note that there are several options to choose from based on your educational background.

  • Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT): A direct-entry program for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy.
  • Transitional Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT): Designed for licensed occupational therapists who hold a bachelor’s degree.
  • Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD): Typically three years in length, this doctorate program is designed for students who hold a bachelor’s degree in another field.
  • Transitional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD): A program intended for practicing occupational therapists that takes about two years to complete.

Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Courses

Whether you’re earning your bachelor’s degree or doctorate in physical therapy (DPT), you’ll be immersed in plenty of science and math courses. Here’s an example of some of the courses you can expect during your undergraduate program:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Statistics
  • Physics
  • Pre-calculus or calculus

A master’s program will include more advanced coursework as well as a clinical practicum.

A DPT program is designed to give you both hands-on experience with patients as well as the knowledge you’ll need to work as a physical therapist. Some of the coursework you may be required to complete includes:

  • Kinesiology
  • Pathology
  • Disease prevention and health promotion
  • Public policy and physical therapy
  • Gross anatomy

If you’re interested in becoming an occupational therapist, you’ll need to complete basic science and math courses in your undergraduate program. Once you’re enrolled in a master’s program, you can expect to take classes such as functional anatomy, kinesiology, foundations for occupational therapy, therapeutic communication skills and neurobiology. In addition to the time spent in the classroom, you’ll participate in a clinical practicum.


Occupational and Physical Therapy Careers


Physical Therapy Job Growth

Careers in occupational and physical therapy are expected to grow by 34 percent through 2024. One reason for this is medical technology advances that have led to an increase in the amount of patients who receive outpatient surgery.

As you explore the different paths available to occupational therapists and physical therapists, you may also want to consider specializing in a certain type of rehabilitation care. Earning specialized certification can help you take the next step in your career.

As a physical therapist, you can earn professional certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties and specialize in areas such as geriatrics, orthopedics, pediatrics, sports or women’s health.

Or, advance in your occupational therapy career by seeking board certification in gerontology, mental health, pediatrics or physical rehabilitation.

Find Everything You need to Know About:
Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Salaries


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for a physical therapist is $84,020.

This amount can vary depending on the type of facility you work in. For example, physical therapists who work in home healthcare services earn a median annual salary of $91,400. Other workplaces with salaries higher than the median include:

  • Nursing and residential facilities: $91,140
  • Hospitals; state, local and private: $85,360

The highest 10 percent earned more than $119,730.

Meanwhile, occupational therapists earn a median annual salary of $80,150. OTs who work in nursing care facilities tend to earn the most with a median annual wage of $88,780.

  • Home healthcare services: $87,960
  • Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists and audiologists: $82,610

The highest 10 percent of occupational therapists earned more than $116,030.

Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Job Descriptions


Although physical therapy and occupational therapy are both methods of rehabilitation, there are some differences between the occupations. Physical therapists typically work with people healing from injuries or illness. Occupational therapists help patients perform daily tasks that may be difficult due to an injury or disability. Here’s a look at common job tasks for each career.

Physical therapy job duties:

  • Consult with patients to learn about their physical condition and symptoms
  • Develop a treatment plan
  • Teach patients how to properly use exercise techniques
  • Provide stimulation or massage
  • Use equipment and devices to assist patients
  • Maintain patients records, keeping track of goals and progress
  • Advise patient and family about in-home treatment options and exercises

Occupational Therapy Job Duties

  • Consult with patients to learn about their physical condition and symptoms
  • Develop a treatment plan
  • Help patients with daily living skills and self-care tasks (i.e., “occupations”) such as getting dressed
  • Support patients with memory loss or other cognitive issues
  • Recommend adaptive equipment
  • Advise architects and contractors about patients’ accessibility needs

Next Step

How to Get Started

phystherapy-get-startedIf you’re interested in pursuing a career in physical therapy, earning a bachelor’s degree and completing the appropriate prerequisites is your first step. Then, you can enroll in a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree program. Once you’ve completed your education, you’ll need to become licensed by your state. This involves passing the National Physical Therapy Examination.

Planning to become an occupational therapist? Most OTs enter the field with a master’s degree, but first you’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree and prerequisites such as biology and physiology. All 50 states require occupational therapists to be licensed so you’ll need to pass a national exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

With job growth expected to increase through 2024, now is a great time to choose a career in healthcare.


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