Physical Therapist Assistant helping a patient

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Physical Therapist Assistant helping a patient

Do you love the idea of helping people heal but think you’d prefer a working environment with a slightly less frenetic pace than your average hospital emergency room? If this sounds like you, a career as a physical therapist assistant (PTA) could be right up your alley. As a PTA, you’ll get the chance to help people overcome challenges every day and watch your hard work translate directly to improving patients’ quality of life.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming a physical therapist assistant, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch your new career as a PTA.

Not sure if becoming a physical therapist assistant is right for you? Click here to see our full list of the best entry-level medical jobs.

Physical Therapist Assistant Definition

What Is a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Physical therapist assistants play a crucial role in helping people recover from injuries and illnesses. Under the direction of physical therapists, PTAs provide hands-on care to help patients through treatment and exercise routines that restore range of motion, manage pain, and improve balance and motor skills.

Physical Therapist Assistant: Job Description

What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

Physical therapist assistants are often the first people to treat any given patient who arrives for therapy. As a PTA, you’ll observe the patient’s status and progress, record important information to pass on to the physical therapist, and often work with the patient on warm-up treatments like stretching or massage. Under a physical therapist’s supervision, you’ll also guide patients through exercise routines and provide instruction on how best to continue making progress at home.

Physical Therapist Assistant Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of physical therapist assistants include:

  • Observing patients and recording their status
  • Helping patients perform specific exercises as part of their treatment plan
  • Treating patients with hands-on techniques like stretching or massage
  • Helping patients use exercise equipment or medical devices like walkers
  • Educating patients and their caregivers on what to do after a therapy session and what exercises to do at home

Physical Therapist Assistant Skills

Great physical therapist assistants are empathetic individuals who are passionate about helping people make miraculous recoveries. Patients undergoing physical therapy are often in pain and dealing with major challenges, so having a compassionate caregiver can make a major difference in someone’s recovery. A career as a physical therapist assistant also requires a fair bit of physical stamina—depending on the patient, you may be doing a lot of stooping, crouching, bending, and lifting.

Physical Therapist Assistant Hours & Work Environment

Physical therapist assistants often work standard full-time hours, though part-time jobs are also fairly common. Some clinics or facilities may be open on weekends or outside normal business hours to better accommodate patients’ schedules. However, working hours for PTAs are usually quite predictable since physical therapy typically occurs in a non-emergency setting.

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 get started in your new career as a physical therapist assistant, you’ll need to complete a Physical Therapist Assistant program from an accredited institution. This usually requires about two years in school, but with an accelerated degree program, you can earn your degree in as little as 75 weeks and be well on your way to a rewarding new career as a PTA.

Like any long-term goal, working toward a new career as a physical therapist assistant seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps.

Physical Therapist Assistant manipulating an arm

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become a physical therapist assistant:

1. Enroll in a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) Degree Program

Enrolling in a PTA associate’s degree program at an accredited college or university is the first step in your journey to becoming a physical therapist assistant. Just about anyone can make it as a PTA if they’re willing to work hard. For example, to get accepted into the Physical Therapist Assistant program at Brookline College, all it takes is a high school diploma or GED and completing a background check.

2. Earn Your Physical Therapy Assistant Associate’s Degree

While most of your associate’s degree program will focus on the specific skills and knowledge you’ll need to become a physical therapist assistant, you’ll still need to complete a few general education requirements in Math, English, and Science. These courses will help build a solid foundation for your career-specific skills and make you a more well-rounded person in general.

As for your program-specific studies, you’ll be spending a reasonable amount of time studying anatomy, physiology and learning about the body’s various systems and the latest methods for treating them. Towards the end of your program, you’ll spend a significant amount of time in a clinical setting performing supervised therapy work with actual patients. This is a great way to build the skills and confidence you’ll need once you land your first job at a physical therapy facility.

When comparing different PTA degree programs, consider looking for one that offers students job-placement assistance after finishing their degree. The job search becomes much less daunting when you’ve got somebody in your corner who can help you put your best foot forward with potential employers.

3. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

After completing your physical therapist assistant associate’s degree, you’ll need to pass the NPTE exam administered by the Federation of States Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) to prove you’ve mastered the required skills and knowledge needed to administer care safely and effectively. The NPTE is a timed multiple-choice test, usually with 200 questions. You’ll have around four hours to complete the version of the exam given to physical therapist assistants (full-fledged physical therapists are required to take a longer, more in-depth version).

Practice exams are available for a moderate fee and can be highly beneficial because you’ll know what to expect when it comes time to take the real thing. The Practice Exam and Assessment Tool (PEAT) is available from the FSBPT and can provide real-time feedback on any areas you may need to spend a little extra time studying.

4. Get Licensed On a State-By-State Basis

Once you’ve passed the NPTE, you’ll be able to get licensed by individual states to practice as a physical therapist assistant. You may need to complete a criminal background check or take continuing education courses at semi-regular intervals to renew your license. The FSBPT not only oversees certification exams but can also help you transfer your NPTE test results to gain licensure in additional states, should you want to relocate at some point during your career.

How Much Does it Cost to Earn a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree?

There’s no denying it—earning a degree can be pretty expensive. Many colleges and universities charge over $20,000 per semester, and that number often doesn’t include lab fees, books, or other course materials. However, the rise in online education has made attending college much more accessible for millions of people, often with a reduced (and much more transparent) price tag. Wherever you decide to earn your PTA degree, make sure the college you choose is upfront about how much you can expect to spend.

Physical Therapist Assistant manipulating a foot

Physical Therapist Assistant Salary

How Much Do Physical Therapist Assistants Make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapist assistants earn an average annual salary* of about $58,000. Gain some experience and make it into the top 10% of earners among physical therapist assistants, and you’ll be looking at making over $80,000 a year. It’s one of the highest-paying careers in the medical industry you can get without having to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Highest Paying Industries for Physical Therapist Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the industries where you’ll find the top-paying PTA jobs:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Nursing Care Facilities $31.79 $66,120
Assisted Living Facilities & Retirement Communities $31.63 $65,800
Home Healthcare Services $31.46 $65,430
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals $27.02 $56,210
Offices of Physicians $26.58 $55,300

Highest Paying States for Physical Therapist Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the states where PTAs earn the highest average annual wages:

Location Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
New Jersey $33.40 $69,480
Texas $33.02 $68,680
California $31.81 $66,150
Connecticut $31.50 $65,510
Rhode Island $31.48 $65,480

Highest Paying Cities for Physical Therapist Assistants

The following cities pay the highest average salaries for physical therapist assistants in the US:

State Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Houston, TX $37.75 $78,530
Victoria, TX $37.53 $78,070
Sacramento, CA $36.28 $75,470
Laredo, TX $35.80 $74,470
Beaumont, TX $35.68 $74,220
Mission, TX $35.06 $79,920
Orlando, FL $34.90 $72,600
Tyler, TX $34.89 $72,570
Punta Gorda, FL $34.74 $72,250
Las Vegas, NV $34.45 $71,650

Physical Therapist Assistant Job Outlook

What Is the Job Outlook for Physical Therapist Assistants?

Demand for physical therapist assistants is projected to skyrocket in the coming years. According to the BLS, the employment of PTAs is projected to grow 33% by 2029, making it one of the fastest-growing jobs in the entire healthcare industry. For comparison’s sake, the average growth rate for all careers in the same time period is 4%, which means the employment of physical therapist assistants is expected to increase over eight times faster than average. When it comes to long-term job prospects, this career is tough to beat.

Ready to Start Your Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Two smiling graduates against a blackboard

If you’re a natural healer who thrives on helping others, there are few careers more rewarding than becoming a physical therapist assistant. With such a positive job outlook, earning your PTA degree is a solid investment that will pay off for years to come. Learn more about the Physical Therapist Assistant program at Brookline College, and get started on your way to earning a great living in a fulfilling field.