How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant (and Why You Should)
If you have a passion for being active and a heart for helping others, then it’s no surprise you’re considering becoming a physical therapist assistant (PTA). Not only do these healthcare pros have the rewarding opportunity to help improve the quality of life of others, but they are also desperately needed in today’s healthcare system.
If you’re at all intrigued by this in-demand career, read on to learn more about why it’s appealing, what it entails and how to become a physical therapist assistant.
Why become a physical therapist assistant?
There’s a lot to like about the role of a physical therapist assistant. According to the U.S. News & World Report job rankings, it is considered a top healthcare support job. This recognition was earned by weighing career factors like salary, unemployment rate and future growth along with job satisfaction elements such as stress level and work-life balance.
Generally speaking, physical therapist assistants tend to enjoy what they do. And that’s not hard to believe, considering their job revolves around helping patients holistically, using exercise, movement and an intricate understanding of the human body to help reduce pain and gain mobility. But beyond the helping nature of the work, there are two significant economic factors that make physical therapist assistant jobs enticing.
What is the job outlook for physical therapist assistants?
When it comes to healthcare workers, most people probably don’t think of physical therapist assistants. But the truth is that they play a critical role in the healthcare system. This is evident in the rapid growth in the field.
In fact, PTAs are among the top 10 fastest growing occupations in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 Physical therapist assistant jobs are projected to increase 27 percent through 2028, which is more than five times faster than the BLS’ reported average for all occupations.1
Like many other healthcare jobs, the aging baby boomer generation is creating a spike in demand as retirements and age-related health issues grow. Physical therapists are also expected to rely more heavily on PTAs in order to reduce the cost of physical therapy services.
How much do physical therapist assistants make?
It’s only natural to be curious about what the typical physical therapist assistant salary is. You’re in for some good news. PTAs have strong earning potential, especially when considering these jobs can be attained with an Associate’s degree.
The BLS reports the 2018 median annual salary for physical therapist assistants was $58,040—a significant step up from the overall $38,640 median salary reported for all workers.1 It’s important to note that the PTA salary will vary based on experience and employer. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,780, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $79,780.1
According to the BLS, the average physical therapist assistant salary was highest for those employed at nursing home facilities and for home healthcare services.1 Now that you’re aware of the growth and earning potential for PTAs, let’s take a closer look at the job duties and path to become one.
What does a physical therapist assistant do?
Physical therapist assistants are part of a team that works with patients who have injuries or medical conditions that limit their mobility or make it difficult to perform everyday tasks and activities, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). PTAs typically observe patients before, during and after therapy. They help them perform exercises, treat them through massage and stretching techniques and educate patients and family members about post-treatment care.
Some common activities that PTAs assist patients with include: stretching, ultrasound therapy, therapeutic massage, balance and coordination training, electrical stimulation or heat and ice treatments.
How do you become a physical therapist assistant?
Now that you know a bit more about the job and its benefits, take a look at your step-by-step guide on how to become a physical therapist assistant.
Step 1: Earn a Physical Therapist Assistant Associate’s degree
All states require PTAs to have an Associate’s degree from an accredited program, according to the BLS. Earning a degree may sound daunting, but some PTA training can be completed in as few as 18 months.2 This formal education consists of courses, lab work and clinical training.
Step 2: Pass the licensing exam
All states except Colorado and Hawaii require PTAs to be licensed in addition to holding an Associate’s degree. Once applicants have graduated from a PTA program, they’re eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapist assistants. Once you pass this exam, you’ll be a licensed PTA.
It’s important to thoroughly prepare for the NPTE before taking it. Though retakes are available, you may only take the exam three times in one year or six times total. More details on the NPTE can be found at The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website. Depending on the state, physical therapist assistants may also need to take continuing education courses to maintain their license.
Step 3: Brush up on these in-demand PTA skills
After earning your Associate’s degree and passing the NPTE, you’re nearly ready to begin your career as a PTA. But before rushing into the career search process, it’s helpful to know what exactly employers are looking for so you can come prepared to put your best foot forward.
We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 30,000 physical therapist jobs posted over the past year.3 The data helped us identify the top skills employers are seeking:
- Treatment planning
- Patient care
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Home health
- Patient and family education
While a great physical therapy assistant program is designed to equip you with the necessary technical skills, a little extra proficiency in these skill areas will help your resume stand out to employers. You might also consider getting involved in extracurricular activities to polish your skills. Coaching youth sports is an excellent option for anyone looking to develop their training and motivational skills, volunteering at nursing homes would be an excellent way to show your interest in working with aging populations, and organizations like Toastmasters can help refine your ability to speak clearly and confidently.
Step 4: Sharpen your resume and interview skills and start applying
No matter the job you’re applying for, taking the time to update and polish your resume will help improve your odds of getting a call back. You’ll also want to work on your interviewing skills while on your search.
As you go into your job search, understand what your preferred practice areas are—do you want to work with athletes? The elderly? People with disabilities? While it might not be practical in all locations, narrowing your search and tailoring your resume and interview answers to your preferred physical therapy specialty area can help you prioritize and focus yourself while searching.
Start your physical therapist assistant career
Does this outline of how to become a physical therapist assistant look like the path to the satisfying career you’ve been searching for? If so, then you’re ready to start researching to find the best training for you.
Learn more about what to look for in a quality program in our article, “Physical Therapy Assistant Programs: Key Factors to Consider.”
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed March 2020]. Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and courses completed each term.
3Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 31,842 physical therapist assistant jobs, Apr. 01, 2019 – Mar. 31, 2020).
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2016. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.
Graduation from a physical therapist assistant education program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), 3030 Potomac Ave., Suite 100, Alexandria, VA 22305-3085; phone; 703-706-3245; email@example.com is necessary for eligibility to sit for the licensure examination, which is required in all states.
The Physical Therapist Assistant Program at Rasmussen University – Brooklyn Park/Maple Grove is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), 3030 Potomac Ave., Suite 100, Alexandria, VA 22305-3085; telephone: 703-706-3245; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: http://www.capteonline.org. If needing to contact the program/institution directly, please call 763-496-6022 or email Matthew.Vraa@rasmussen.edu.
The Physical Therapist Assistant Program at Rasmussen University – Central Pasco is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), 3030 Potomac Ave., Suite 100, Alexandria, VA 22305-3085; telephone: 703-706-3245; email: email@example.com; website: http://www.capteonline.org. If needing to contact the program/institution directly, please call 813-435-3645 or email Tania.Tablinsky@rasmussen.edu.
Effective October 29, 2019, Rasmussen University – Ocala has been granted Candidate for Accreditation status by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), 3030 Potomac Ave., Suite 100 Alexandria, VA 22305-3085; phone: 703-706-3245; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. If needing to contact the program/institution directly, please call (352) 291-8512 or email Jeanne.Smith@rasmussen.edu.
Candidate for Accreditation is a pre-accreditation status of affiliation with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education that indicates the program is progressing toward accreditation and may matriculate students in technical/professional courses. Candidate for Accreditation is not an accreditation status nor does it assure eventual accreditation.