What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Physical therapy is a rewarding area of healthcare. Professionals help patients who suffered a disabling injury or illness to get back on their feet – often literally. You don’t need years upon years of training to attain a professional role in physical therapy. With an associate’s degree and personal characteristics like compassion and dexterity, you can become a physical therapist assistant. Physical therapist assistant is among the 10 fastest growing jobs, according to the United States Department of Labor.

A Physical Therapist Assistant Associate’s Degree

For aspiring physical therapist assistants, earning an associate’s degree from a physical therapist assistant program is the first step to the career. Students should make sure that their intended program is one of the nearly 300 accredited by the Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

The United States Bureau of labor Statistics (BLS) says over the course of two years studying full-time, aspiring physical therapist assistants will study:

  • anatomy
  • physiology
  • psychology
  • algebra

While this classroom study is important, it comprises only a part of the overall physical therapist assistant education. Students also gain clinical experience working in treatment centers and learn first aid. 

License and Certification for a Physical Therapist Assistant  

Aspiring physical therapist assistants in almost every state will need to attain a license or certification to work in this role. Earning a degree from an accredited program is typically the first requirement for licensure. Candidates must also score a passing grade on the National Physical Therapy Exam. Other licensure and certification requirements vary by state, but they often include a background check to see if the candidate:

  • has a criminal record
  • needs additional testing
  • meets a minimum age limit
  • needs continuing education courses

Work as a Physical Therapy Assistant vs. Work as a Physical Therapist

As a physical therapist assistant, you will work under the guidance of a licensed physical therapist. You will observe and treat patients. You will help them with specific exercises and with using devices and equipment such as walkers. However, the physical therapist is the one who will be responsible for diagnosing patients and developing treatment plans. Physical therapists also earn substantially more than physical therapist assistants – a median annual salary of $79,860 compared to $52,160.

Though physical therapist assistants have fewer responsibilities and therefore a lower rate of pay, there are several benefits to this role. The degree path for physical therapists includes many years of study at the college level to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.

Unlike physical therapists, assistants won’t face the drawbacks of a lengthy academic path, like the cost of so many years of schooling and a delayed entrance into the working world. Instead, they can quickly become qualified for a career that pays well above the median salary for all occupations and that is experiencing rapid job growth. The BLS predicts a 41 percent rise in job opportunities in this field over just a decade.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris