How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant (and Why You Shouldn't Hesitate)
It can be hard to find a satisfying job. There are many factors to consider when you think about finding happiness in your career: salary, work environment, schedule—and that’s not even considering your day-to-day responsibilities and whether or not you enjoy them.
If you have a passion for being active and a heart for helping others, then we have an option worth 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 in extremely high demand.
Read on to learn more about what makes this such an appealing career and what you need to do 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. It’s no surprise people enjoy the work—PTAs help 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 a physical therapist assistant career worth pursuing.
Physical therapist assistant job outlook
This somewhat lesser known job is about to gain some serious popularity. The career opportunities in this field are some of the best in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of PTA jobs to grow 27 percent through 2028.1
This is more than five times faster than the national average for all occupations, which sits at five percent. 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 therapist assistant salary
Curious about how much a typical physical therapist assistant salary? You’re in for some good news. PTAs have strong earning potential, especially when considering these jobs typically require just 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 pretty clear the career outlook for PTAs is bright, but what exactly do they do, and what does it take to become one? We broke down everything you need to know about this rewarding healthcare field to answer those very questions.
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; help them perform exercises; treat patients through massage and stretching and educate 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 to become a physical therapist assistant
Now that you know a bit more about the job, take a look at your step-by-step guide to becoming a PTA.
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 schools allow you to finish in as few as 18 months.2 Around 25 percent of that education time is typically devoted to hands-on clinical training, according to APTA.
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 keep 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 you go running into the career field, make sure you’re putting your best foot forward by coming prepared with the top skills you’ll need to perform the job.
PTA job postings in the last year sought applicants with rehabilitation, treatment planning and therapy skills, according to Burning Glass.3 Physical demand also made the top-10 list, as PTAs generally undergo a very physically active workday, going through exercises with their patients, repositioning patients and transporting them as needed.
Patient and family education and instruction is also a skill many employers are seeking. PTAs are often responsible for explaining post-care plans to patients and their families. As a PTA, you’re—in some ways—part cheerleader, part coach and part medical professional, so as you might expect, you’ll need excellent communication, motivation and instructional skills to succeed.
While a great physical therapy assistant program will be sure to equip you with the necessary 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: Hone 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? 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.
Feeling excited about a 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 take the first step. Learn more about how the Rasmussen College Physical Therapist Assistant Program can help equip you for a career as a PTA.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed February, 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 23,375 PTA job postings, Mar. 24, 2017 – Mar. 23, 2018)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2016. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2018.