Physical therapy is a rewarding career option for those interested in the health field and in helping others. As a physical therapist, you’ll be responsible for evaluating your patients and designing treatment programs to help them regain mobility, perform regular activities, and improve their quality of life. Whether you are currently in high school, college or thinking about a career transition, there is much you can do to prepare for a career in physical therapy.
First, it is important to understand that your dream of becoming a physical therapist will require a long-term commitment to your education. While a career as a physical therapy assistant requires an associate’s degree, you’ll need at least a master’s degree to be a physical therapist. Many students are actually choosing to complete a doctoral degree.
Begin by doing research and learning more about the profession. The American Physical Therapy Association’s web site (http://www.atpa.org) is a great place to start. The site provides information about the profession and plenty of tips regarding the education you’ll need.
It is also never too early to begin thinking about the niche you’d like to carve out for yourself as a physical therapist. Physical therapists work with people of all ages and circumstances, from newborns to the elderly. Are you most interested in working with accident victims, those with sports injuries, or people with other medical conditions? Would you prefer helping athletes get back in the game or working with stroke victims to help them perform everyday activities?
In terms of education, your first step will be to complete an undergraduate program. Physical therapy programs look for students with high GPAs, so commitment to your undergraduate studies will be critical. Many physical therapy programs require prerequisites in chemistry, anatomy, psychology, statistics and physics, so be sure your undergraduate course of study includes these subjects.
Clinical experience is also very important. Physical therapy programs often look for volunteer experience or work as a physical therapy aide. Your undergraduate advisor may be able to help you find volunteer opportunities. For example, the University of Maryland Baltimore County requires pre-physical therapy students to have 100 hours of volunteer service and helps students find these opportunities. Your volunteer work will also help you get letters of recommendation, which are considered by physical therapy program admissions officers.
Part of choosing the best physical therapy program for you will be determining whether you wish to pursue a master’s degree or a doctorate. Some programs will require that you have earned a bachelor’s degree. Others look for three years of pre-physical therapy coursework. Make sure the program you choose is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.
Also remember to keep building your communications and interpersonal skills as you go through your education. A career in physical therapy requires working with patients in a variety of tough situations. You’ll be able to best serve your patients and build a rewarding career for yourself if you are a strong communicator and relationship-builder.