Physical Therapist vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Rolling Out the Differences

illustration of a a pt and pta working with a patient representing pt vs pta 

You’re interested in a career directly helping people heal everything from sprains and breaks to arthritis and strokes. You’ve set your sights on the world of physical therapy, but you’re not yet sure precisely where in that world you’re aiming for.

As you’re looking at physical therapy career options, two paths have probably become apparent: becoming a physical therapist (PT) or a physical therapist assistant (PTA). Depending on your goals and circumstances, both options can provide a great way to earn a living while helping others. But before you can do that, you’ll need some help sorting out the distinctions between physical therapists and physical therapist assistants.

Despite a shared focus on patient rehabilitation, these two roles have distinct paths, from job duties to education requirements. To find out which route is for you and learn more about these different jobs, keep reading.

What are some of the key differences between PTs and PTAs?

When you’re examining the PT and PTA jobs, the first aspect to consider is the difference between their day-to-day responsibilities. What does a typical day in each position look like? What can you expect to do in each role?

If you take the PT route, your job will mainly break down into two parts: creating care plans and providing hands-on physical therapy. To create care plans, you’ll need to first diagnose the patient using information like the patient’s medical history and your own observations and assessments. Then, you can structure the plan around the problem and the patient’s goals—like reducing pain or increasing mobility—and structure treatments such as exercises, stretches and other therapies.

The second side of the PT role involves implementing the treatment plan and, throughout the process, evaluating the patient and adjusting the care plan as needed. Other duties of a PT include talking with the patient and their family, so they understand the treatment and recovery process.

Through all this, physical therapists work in teams with PTAs and other healthcare professionals like physicians or surgeons. And a PT’s job changes based on the patient they are working with and that patient’s individual needs. Furthermore, if you’re drawn to a specific area in physical therapy like orthopedics or geriatrics, as a PT, you could choose to be a specialist.

Meanwhile, PTAs assist PTs through many of these duties. While PTAs do not create the care plan, they do help carry out the plan, performing some treatments and assisting patients with exercises.

Along the way, PTAs are responsible for recording how the patient is doing through every stage of care and giving patients and their families any post-treatment instructions. 

PT vs. PTA: Work settings

Now that you know the job duties of PTs and PTAs, the other aspect of the day-to-day is the work environment for each of these professions. Since they work closely together, you’ll find them working in similar settings.

The most common places you could work as a PT is in a physical therapy office or a hospital, but you could also work in nursing homes and assisted living facilities or do home care. PTs can even be self-employed with their own physical therapy office. If you take the PTA path, you will work in those same places.

Continuing the similarities, both PTs and PTAs typically work standard hours, but because of patients’ work hours or schedules, they will also work some evenings and weekends. And for both jobs, you’ll need to move or lift patients and equipment and be on your feet a lot.

PT vs. PTA: Salary and job outlook

Whichever of these roles you pick, there’s plenty to like when it comes to earning potential and projected demand.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2021 median annual salary for physical therapists was $95,620, which is more than double the national average salary of $45,760 for all occupations.1

Additionally, employment of physical therapists is projected by the BLS to grow 21 percent from 2020–2030.1 That amounts to a projected 49,100 additional physical therapists over that period.1

While physical therapists have an understandable earning advantage over PTAs, the earning potential of PTAs is still solid. According to the BLS, the 2021 median annual salary for physical therapist assistants was $61,180—a figure that still sits above the previously mentioned national average.2 Demand for PTAs appears strong, with the BLS projecting employment of physical therapist assistants to grow 35 percent from 2020 to 2030—that projection equates to roughly 33,200 additional PTAs.2

At the root of these roles’ strong growth projections are a large cohort of aging baby boomers. As this generation ages, they become more prone to injuries, heart attacks and strokes, and the need for recovery and rehabilitation specialists will increase.

Additionally, with the advancement of medical technology, more trauma patients and infants with birth defects are able to survive. As a result, more PT and PTA jobs will be necessary for this care.

PT vs. PTA: Education and training requirements

With the higher pay for PTs comes a longer education and training path. PTs are required to have a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Within DPT programs, aspiring physical therapists learn about topics like biomechanics and neuroscience, build clinical experience and gain hands-on practice. These programs require applicants to first earn a bachelor’s degree and complete certain prerequisite courses like anatomy and physiology to gain acceptance.

In addition to the education requirements, PTs need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE®) and meet all other requirements (e.g., passing a background check) to obtain a license, and to maintain this license, PTs will usually need to meet continuing education requirements.

In contrast, physical therapist assistants have a much shorter path to getting started, as they only need to complete an Associate’s degree. Like PTs, part of their education requires PTAs to acquire hands-on clinical experience with real patients. The role of a PTA is also subject to state licensure requirements, which means prospective PTAs will need to meet certain state-specified criteria and pass the physical therapist assistant version of the National Physical Therapy Exam to be eligible for employment.

Ready to put a physical therapy career in motion?

Now that you know the difference between a career as a physical therapist versus a physical therapist assistant, you can take the next step toward starting your dream career. While these two career paths work closely together, you’ll find yourself doing different daily tasks for each, and the journey toward each is unique.

If the PTA path sounds like the route for you, check out the Rasmussen University Physical Therapist Assistant Associate’s degree. Or, if you’re ready to be a full-blown physical therapist, visit the Rasmussen University Doctor of Physical Therapy program page to learn more about program requirements, start dates and much more.

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed June 2022], https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed June 2022], https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.

National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is a registered trademark of Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy Corporation.

About the author

Jordan Jantz

Jordan is a freelance content writer at Collegis Education. She researches and writes articles on behalf of Rasmussen University to help empower students achieve their career dreams through higher education.

Jordan Jantz

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