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Complete your prerequisite courses. In college, you can have any major you like and still be on track to become a physical therapist. That said, much like medical school, graduate programs in physical therapy require a number of prerequisite courses. Be sure you take the following to be eligible for advanced study in physical therapy (these vary by school, but these are courses that are generally required):
Anatomy or Anatomy & Physiology 1 with lab
Physiology or Anatomy & Physiology 2 with lab
General Chemistry 1 with lab
General Chemistry 2 with lab
General Physics 1 with lab
General Physics 2 with lab
Because physical therapy prerequisites are mostly courses in the natural sciences, students interested in becoming physical therapists often major in Biology or another natural science.
Whatever classes you take, be sure to keep your grades up, as they are the single greatest factor considered in graduate school applications.
Shadow or intern with a physical therapist. There are many different ways to practice physical therapy. Even if you have already shadowed or interned with one physical therapist, you should keep gaining exposure. Contact your school’s office of career services to see if they know of any alumni who would be interested in having you shadow them or intern with their practice.
Some graduate programs require that you spend a minimum number of hours with a licensed physical therapist, and these hours must be verified. Log your hours and request a verification letter at the end of your time together so you can keep track of these hours for graduate school purposes. For a competitive graduate school application, aim for 20-40 hours per location, with over 100 hours total.
Join volunteer clubs and service initiatives. There are lots of ways to connect with your local community. Whether it’s playing music at nursing homes, leading after school enrichment programs, or volunteering at your local hospital, service groups allow you to strengthen the interpersonal skills that will be crucial once you start practicing as a physical therapist.
Apply to graduate programs. In the fall of your senior year of college, prepare your applications to graduate school. You should aim to apply to 8-15 programs to ensure that you get into the best fit school for you. For your application, you will need:
Good grades in your prerequisite classes
Experience working with licensed physical therapists
Letters of recommendation from professors and supervisors
Strong standardized test scores on the GRE
Well-written personal statements
Requirements differ by school, so begin creating your school list by spring of your junior year. That way, you still have a few months to gather your required materials. Alternatively, you can take a gap year after college and apply to graduate school the following year. Gaining work experience can be a great way to learn your preferences for a career.
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There are over 300 accredited physical therapy programs where you can earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy. All physical therapists must participate in one of these programs in order to practice. Typically, earning your DPT takes three years.
These programs require a combination of coursework as well as hands-on experience. The education you will receive in graduate school is much more applied than your college coursework, including courses such as Functional Anatomy, Applied Physical Therapy, and Life Span Development.
The goal of your doctorate is to expose you to patients as you learn to apply your scientific knowledge to your practice. While these programs are rigorous and expensive, it can be extremely rewarding to finally work hands-on with patients.
Focus on learning the material, not grades. You will need to know the content you learn in graduate school for the rest of your career. As a result, it’s important to study in a way that allows you to retain all you have covered in class and course readings.
Get hands-on experience outside of class. By this point, you will be sufficiently qualified that lots of groups will want to have you on staff. Consider taking on a part-time job or internship with an organization that needs physical-therapists-in-training. Consider reaching out to organizations like the Special Olympics, The Arthritis Foundation, or the National Football League to supplement your academic experience with hands-on learning.
Take care of yourself to avoid burnout. In graduate school, you are closer to becoming licensed than ever, but you have also been hard at work for years. The late-night study sessions you may have pulled in high school and college are starting to catch up to you. At this point in your schooling, it is important to take a step back and make sure you are setting reasonable goals for yourself. You still have a lot of academic work ahead of you, so it is critical that you find a sustainable work schedule.
Choose your specialization. Once you earn your DPT, you have the choice of whether to be a generalist or specialist. Completing a clinical residency program is key if you want to work with certain kinds of patients. Example specializations include:
Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
Sports Physical Therapy
This is a great opportunity to gain the specific skills and knowledge that your patients need. Up till now, you will have worked with a wide range of patients, many of whom have conditions you will not see again in your practice.
From residency onward, you get to work directly with the patients whom you feel best equipped to support. Your residency year tends to be very rewarding, since it’s the year when you finally get to practice your profession in the way you hoped you would.
Decide whether to pursue further study. Physical therapy residency programs typically last for one year. After that, you can continue with an additional fellowship in an advanced clinical area, or get started with an employer or private practice.
Physical therapists have the rare blend of working with both body and mind, connecting with people daily, and earning a great salary. If that sounds like the kind of work life for you, keep exploring this field by trying out the steps listed here. And good luck as you search for a great fit career!
To practice as a physical therapist in the U.S., you must earn a doctor of physical therapy degree from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education-accredited physical therapist education program and pass a state licensure exam.
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