Smiling physical therapist assistant with client

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Educational Requirements, Certifications, Daily Responsibilities, and Salary

Smiling physical therapist assistant with client

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) are pillars of support in many physical therapy services. Many clients who attend physical therapy will work with a PTA. In fact, some clients will spend most of their time with a PTA rather than a physical therapist. Physical Therapist Assistants maintain attention to detail and a strong commitment to patient care. These traits are essential when it comes to helping treat people’s injuries, illnesses, and disabilities.

This career guide will teach you all you need to know about becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant. We’ll cover the required schooling, certifications, and what to expect from your work environment. This guide also details how much you could make and how long it usually takes to launch your career as a PTA.

Are you interested in becoming a PTA but still considering other types of healthcare careers? Explore the other options on our list of the best entry-level medical jobs.

Physical Therapist Assistant Definition

What is a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Physical Therapist Assistants work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists. As an extender of the physical therapist, they help patients regain movement, manage pain, and return to their life role while recovering from injury or illness.

Physical Therapist Assistant: Job Description

What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

A Physical Therapist Assistant is involved in the direct care of patients/clients. They may prepare patients for therapy, measure their progress, and document important details so the physical therapist can use their time as efficiently as possible. PTAs also guide patients through exercises and therapeutic activities prescribed by their physical therapist.

Physical Therapist Assistant Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Physical Therapist Assistant include but are not limited to the following:

  • Measuring strength and range of motion to monitor patients’ progress during recovery
  • Supervising patients performing mobility or strengthening exercises
  • Performing hands-on therapy like stretching or massage
  • Teaching patients how to continue their recovery progress at home
  • Preparing and organizing exercise and therapeutic equipment

Other duties can include light administration work, such as responding to emails, scheduling appointments, answering incoming calls, and more.

Client and physiotherapy worker in rehabilitation center

Physical Therapist Assistant Skills

The ideal PTA is a good motivator who wants to help others succeed. Recovering from an injury or illness is both a mental challenge and a physical one, so Physical Therapist Assistants should strive to raise their patients’ spirits and help them focus on long-term recovery. Other important qualities include compassion, detail-oriented nature, and dexterity.

Another vital skill? PTAs need physical stamina to withstand the regular squatting, lifting, and bending that their job requires.

Where Do Physical Therapist Assistants Work?

Physical Therapist Assistants often practice in medical settings like hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centers, and home healthcare. They may also specialize in one of several areas. Some common ones include pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, and neurology.

Physical Therapist Assistant Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Physical Therapist Assistant?

To become a PTA, you must complete an associate-degree program that’s accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Many associate-degree programs require two full years of school, but with an accelerated program, you could earn your PTA degree in as little as 20 months.

Just like most big achievements in life, the path to becoming a PTA is best broken down into a series of smaller steps. Keep in mind that if you take a full course load, you will be able to earn your degree faster than those who take classes part-time.

Our guide breaks down the necessary steps to become a PTA:

1. Complete a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program

The first step is to enroll in a PTA program at an accredited college or university. Keep in mind that PTA careers are accessible for almost anyone who is willing to study hard and take their education seriously. To qualify for the PTA degree program at Unitek College, you’ll need a high school diploma or GED, a passing score on the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam, and more. The Unitek College program also requires background checks and drug screenings.

Like most associate-degree programs, your PTA education will include some general-education requirements like English, science, and psychology. These courses will help you become a better critical thinker and communicator, both of which are important attributes for Physical Therapist Assistants.

However, the majority of your program will focus on the specific skills and knowledge you need to excel as a Physical Therapist Assistant. Through your coursework, you’ll build a deep understanding of the human body and learn how to provide therapy to patients with injuries or illnesses. You’ll take courses that cover applied kinesiology; therapeutic exercise; health, disease, and disability; and more. You’ll also participate in hands-on training to teach you how to rehabilitate patients to the best of your ability.

2. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

Before earning your PTA license and starting your career, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) to prove you’ve mastered the necessary skills to perform PTA tasks. The NPTE is a multiple-choice test with 200 questions. You’ll have four hours to complete the exam.

Remember: Not everyone passes the NPTE on their first attempt, but this doesn’t mean that you should give up. However, be advised that you can only retake the test up to three times in any given 12-month period, so be sure to take your exam preparation seriously.

Close up of a patient in physical therapy

3. Get Your PTA License on a State-By-State Basis

Once you’ve passed the NPTE, you’ll be eligible to become licensed in the state(s) where you plan to work. Because the NPTE is a national exam, it’s usually easy to transfer your scores to gain licensure in different states. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy will be your go-to resource for determining each state’s licensing requirements for PTAs.

Keep in mind that some states have different requirements for maintaining your PTA license. However, most states will require the completion of ongoing education programs or proof of current employment and relevant work experience.

4. Earn Additional Certifications

Physical Therapist Assistants who want to stand out from other candidates for highly desirable jobs should seek out certification in basic life support (BLS). In addition, you might want to consider advanced specialization or certification in areas previously mentioned, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, and neurology.

Physical Therapist Assistant Salary

How Much Do Physical Therapist Assistants Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Physical Therapist Assistants earn an average annual salary of around $61,000, which is about $29 per hour. Factors that often influence salary are geographic location, level of education, and type of experience.

Physical Therapist Assistant Job Outlook

What Is the Job Outlook for Physical Therapist Assistants?

The BLS has stated that employment of PTAs is expected to grow 24 percent by 2031. This rate is much faster than the average for all occupations. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as retiring.

In addition, there are several potential career advancement opportunities. Not only can PTAs specialize in several areas, but they may also use their experience to apply for physical therapy schools and start the path to becoming a physical therapist.

Ready to Start Your Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant?

For people who love the idea of helping others return to peak form, becoming a PTA could be an ideal career choice. Injuries and illness will always be an unfortunate part of life, and so there will always be a need for healthcare professionals like Physical Therapist Assistants.

Learn more about the Physical Therapist Assistant program at Unitek College. Get started on the road to an exciting and fulfilling new PTA career. It’s never too late to pursue your dream career!