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Career Guide to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

If you’d like to help people get back to life after surgery, an injury, or a medical event, consider becoming a physical therapy assistant.

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Home » Specialties » Physical Therapy Assistant

The Basics

  • What you’ll do: PTAs help physical therapists in their daily activities. This includes helping patients perform therapeutic exercises and evaluating and recording their progress.
  • Where you’ll work: Health practitioner offices, hospitals, nursing care facilities, home healthcare agencies
  • Degree you’ll need: Associate degree
  • Median annual salary: $59,770

Physical therapy assistants (PTAs) work under the supervision of a physical therapist to help people regain or maintain body motion, ease pain, and lead life to the fullest. The profession is growing fast, and a variety of healthcare facilities need PTAs to help treat patients.

In addition to jobs being in high demand, being a PTA can be a rewarding career.

“What is notable about being a PTA is the impact you can have on people’s lives,” says Marie Scalogna-Watkinson, PTA, LMT, and owner of Spa Chicks on the Go in New York. “It is such an incredible feeling when you can reduce or eliminate another person’s pain and lead them to optimum health. We as PTAs have a unique hand in the rehab process.”


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Steps to Become a PTA

Use these steps as a guide to pursue a career as a physical therapy assistant.

  1. Earn your high school diploma or GED

    You’ll need a high school diploma or GED to apply to a PTA program.

  2. Find a PTA program

    You’ll need to earn an associate degree to be a PTA. There are multiple programs available, so research which ones prepare students best for licensing exams. No matter what you choose, make sure the program is accredited.

  3. Earn your degree

    An associate degree generally takes about two years to complete.

  4. Gain practical experience

    PTA programs include a clinical internship as part of their curriculum, and this experience will prepare you for your first job.

  5. Pass the licensing exam

    You’ll need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination to work as a PTA.

  6. Consider certifications

    Deepen your expertise and stand out to employers by earning a PTA certification.

What PTAs Do and Where They Work

A typical day for a physical therapy assistant will depend on where they work. Hospitals, rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, and even in-home care agencies employee PTAs.

Despite the various work settings, PTAs usually have the same responsibilities to their patients, including helping them through therapeutic exercises to build strength and endurance, regain motion, and ease pain. PTAs also use massage and help patients fit and adjust medical gear such as braces.

Some patients might be recovering from surgery, an accident, or a sports injury. Others may have suffered a stroke or are trying to compensate for the symptoms of a chronic disease.

Physical therapy assistants help patients through therapeutic exercises to build strength and endurance, regain motion, and ease pain.

Typical responsibilities for PTAs include:

  • Guiding patients through exercises
  • Observing and recording patient progress
  • Preparing medical reports
  • Educating patients about their treatment

Important Skills and Traits

Do you like interacting with people in a fast-paced environment? Are you a collaborator willing to pitch in? Here are some skills and traits that can play a role in the success of a physical therapy assistant.

Be a team player:

A PTA will work with multiple medical professionals as a team. “You need to be able to carry out the treatment plan and direction of your supervising PT, yet also be able to give directions to aides,” says Scalogna-Watkinson.

Time management skills:

It’s key that a PTA has excellent time management skills. For example, says Scalogna-Watkinson, being late to work can have a snowball effect on your entire day and cause delays in patient appointments.

Ability to multitask:

You’ll often treat multiple patients at the same time. Being able to juggle time and tasks is paramount to success as a PTA.

Empathy:

PTAs should be compassionate and caring because their patients many times are in pain or experiencing physical difficulty. “You should be able to be present and truly listen to them,” says Scalogna-Watkinson.

Good communication skills:

“The success of any team depends on everyone listening to each other, having mutual respect, and being able to pitch in to help another staff member,” she says.

Physical Therapist Assistant vs. Physical Therapist

The roles may sound similar, but they are separated by education, responsibilities, and salary, as this chart shows.

Physical Therapist AssistantPhysical Therapist
Education Required:Associate Degree (2-3 years)Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree (4 years for bachelor’s degree, plus 3 years for DPT degree)
Responsibilities:Assisting PT in executing treatment plan; also, possible clerical dutiesEvaluating and diagnosing patients and developing individual treatment plans
Median Nationwide Salary:$59,770$91,010

Salary source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020

Education

Many community colleges and universities have associate degree programs for physical therapy assistants. While location and tuition costs may be primary reasons for choosing a school, here are some other factors to consider.

What to Look for in a School

Accreditation:

You’ll need to attend a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Accreditation ensures that a PTA program provides quality education to its students. If your program isn’t accredited, you won’t be able to take the national exam required for state licensure, which means won’t be able to work as a PTA.

Flexibility:

Most PTA programs are full time, but you may find a few that offer some classes online, if you need that flexibility due to other responsibilities. However, you’ll still be required to attend clinics, internships, and labs in person.

Connections with local medical institutions:

Take the time to look at a school’s relationship with local hospitals, nursing care homes, outpatient clinics and other settings. This can be an indicator of where you might end up doing clinical internships.

Prerequisites

In addition to a high school diploma or GED, some colleges and universities also require prerequisite classes like anatomy, introduction to physical therapy, and medical terminology. This can vary by school, so you should do your research to determine requirements.

PTA programs can also require immunizations, CPR certification, and drug screenings upon enrollment.

Curriculum

PTA programs focus on coursework related to the human body. Some of the courses you can expect include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Exercise science
  • Patient care skills

Time to Complete

An associate degree usually takes two years to complete. This includes an average of 16 weeks of full-time clinical experience. Because of this, PTA programs usually are not offered part time.

Clinical Requirements

PTA students usually spend 75% of their time in the classroom and lab. The remaining 25% is dedicated to clinical internships and gaining hands-on experience.

Most programs include about 16 weeks of clinical experience, and students are expected to work full time during these internships.

Clinical experience usually begins in the second year of school, when students work with a clinical instructor to apply what they’ve learned in a physical therapy setting.

While some programs will let you get all your clinical experience in one type of workplace, others will place you in several healthcare settings—such as a hospital, nursing home, or rehab clinic—for a wider variety of work experience.

Most programs include about 16 weeks of clinical work, and students are expected to work full time during their internship.

Online PTA Programs

A PTA program may have some coursework online, but internships and lab classes are in person. You may be able to find institutions that are willing to let students take prerequisites and a limited amount of coursework online.

PTA Certifications and Licenses

Physical therapy assistants must be licensed to work. To qualify, they must graduate from an accredited PTA program and take a version of the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).

Passing the exam demonstrates that a person has the knowledge to do their job safely.

Certification

Professional PTA certifications are optional, but they’re worth serious consideration because they can demonstrate a PTA’s knowledge or skills.

“I highly suggest taking continuing ed and certification courses that apply to your specialty,” says Scalogna-Watkinson. “For instance, if you work in a hospital or nursing home setting, you may want to take a vestibular certification. If you work in a sports orthopedic office, you may want to take an orthopedic taping course.”

Taking courses or earning certifications will not increase your salary as much as they would for a physical therapist, Scalogna-Watkinson says, “but they will make you stand out in a crowd.”

Depending on your specialty, some possible certifications or courses include:

Certified Kinesio Taping Practitioner (CKTP):

Kinesio taping lifts the skin to ease pain and encourage lymphatic drainage, which can reduce swelling.

Myofascial Release:

This technique helps relax contracted muscles to improve blood flow and lymphatic circulation.

Vestibular Rehabilitation Certification (VRC):

This therapy helps improve balance and reduce dizziness.

You can also choose the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)-sponsored PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways program. A physical therapy assistant can specialize in one of these areas:

  • Wound management
  • Pediatrics
  • Orthopedics
  • Oncology
  • Geriatrics
  • Acute care
  • Cardiovascular/pulmonary

There are a few prerequisites for this certification program. A person must be a licensed PTA and a member of the APTA. They will also need to complete a few courses covering topics such as ethics and professionalism.

Is PTA a Stepping Stone to Physical Therapy?

Many physical therapy programs require applicants to have previous healthcare experience. Working as a PTA can help cover the mandated 1,500-5,000 hours that PA programs look for in an applicant. You will also need to earn a bachelor’s degree and cover the prerequisite coursework to be considered for acceptance into a doctoral program.

But if your career goal is to become a physical therapist, it may not be best to start as an assistant.

“If you want to be in the PT field, I would urge students to go straight into a PT program,” says Scalogna-Watkinson. “If you become a PTA first, it will take about three years of your time, plus a tuition bill at the end.”

Some PTA and general education credits may fulfill prerequisites for PT programs, but the coursework is significantly different for these fields. That means that a physical therapy assistant looking to become a physical therapist might have to start from scratch with an undergraduate degree if their previous credits are more than seven to 10 years old.

However, there are limited PTA-to-PT bridge programs designed to help physical therapy assistants interested in becoming physical therapists. This may be an option if you live near the campuses that offer these programs.

PTA Salary

For many, becoming a physical therapy assistant is appealing because you don’t need to spend many years in school to earn a decent salary.

Physical Therapist Assistants

National data

Median Salary: $59,770

Bottom 10%: $33,840

Top 10%: $82,470

Projected job growth: 32.6%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $59,660 $38,370 $79,520
Alaska $59,180 $35,930 $88,470
Arizona $38,450 $27,450 $75,840
Arkansas $60,610 $34,640 $84,330
California $72,890 $42,740 $94,260
Colorado $58,350 $31,240 $74,180
Connecticut $70,150 $52,460 $89,480
Delaware N/A N/A N/A
District of Columbia $40,030 $34,520 $58,920
Florida $62,640 $36,310 $84,710
Georgia $60,010 $27,410 $80,990
Hawaii $60,170 $31,700 $68,410
Idaho $54,810 $21,530 $77,040
Illinois $61,110 $39,710 $83,090
Indiana $57,390 $43,680 $78,450
Iowa $51,720 $37,800 $73,540
Kansas $59,110 $43,630 $79,510
Kentucky $56,050 $34,480 $76,820
Louisiana $56,720 $24,040 $87,560
Maine $54,840 $43,260 $65,740
Maryland $56,780 $24,230 $82,140
Massachusetts $63,480 $50,000 $80,450
Michigan $53,480 $37,770 $67,650
Minnesota $58,350 $45,480 $67,930
Mississippi $52,910 $22,400 $76,190
Missouri $52,560 $38,510 $66,050
Montana $52,830 $38,510 $77,160
Nebraska $53,600 $42,000 $68,710
Nevada $61,400 $25,150 $85,530
New Hampshire $62,110 $49,240 $78,780
New Jersey $70,140 $54,520 $87,000
New Mexico $50,570 $25,270 $79,770
New York $56,200 $30,420 $78,560
North Carolina $61,090 $44,660 $80,210
North Dakota $49,350 $24,000 $64,960
Ohio $60,720 $44,970 $81,460
Oklahoma $57,980 $23,900 $84,860
Oregon $62,000 $41,840 $82,320
Pennsylvania $57,450 $35,310 $78,810
Rhode Island $66,110 $54,910 $83,060
South Carolina $60,760 $39,300 $79,390
South Dakota $42,400 $34,040 $53,070
Tennessee $59,010 $31,640 $80,460
Texas $67,250 $42,250 $105,080
Utah $55,210 $22,670 $77,850
Vermont $60,700 $46,120 $77,760
Virginia $60,170 $30,980 $83,370
Washington $61,970 $44,320 $81,130
West Virginia $53,760 $41,100 $73,530
Wisconsin $54,250 $33,870 $68,170
Wyoming $56,300 $30,810 $77,980

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2020 median salary; projected job growth through 2029. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

While education and experience may make a difference in your salary, there are other factors that can also play a role.

For many, becoming a physical therapy assistant is appealing because you don’t need to spend many years in school to earn a decent salary.

For instance, where you work can also be a factor. According to the BLS, the highest-paying metropolitan areas are:

Metro AreaMedian Annual Salary
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas$81,510
Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, California$78,370
Visalia-Porterville, California$78,240
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California$76,010
Salinas, California$75,760

The medical setting in which you work also can affect your salary, partly because demand is higher in some types of workplaces. The BLS says the highest-paying facilities are:

WorkplacesMedian Annual Salary
Nursing care facilities$67,210
Home healthcare services$64,700
Hospitals$58,460
Offices of physical therapists$58,050
Offices of physicians$56,730

Job Outlook

PTA employment is projected to grow by a notable 21% from 2019 to 2029, a rate that’s much higher than the average for all occupations. This is partly because the U.S. population is aging and needs more healthcare in general and for chronic conditions.

Take a look at the demand for physical therapy assistants in the highest and lowest ranking states.

States with the Highest Demand

  • Florida
  • Texas
  • Ohio
  • California
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Illinois
  • Arizona
  • Michigan
  • Tennessee

States with the Lowest Demand

  • Vermont
  • Alaska
  • North Dakota
  • Hawaii
  • Wyoming
  • Delaware
  • South Dakota
  • Maine
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
sara nguyen

Written and reported by:
Sara J. Nguyen
Contributing Writer

marie watkinson

With professional insight from:
Marie Scalogna-Watkinson, PTA, LMT
Owner of Spa Chicks on the Go