Is Physical Therapy A Good Career? 

Is Physical Therapy A Good Career? 

Deciding on a path within the healthcare field can be a significant challenge. There are many different avenues to explore that can offer a way to help people that aligns with your passion.


Physical therapy as a career
Nicolette Natale


March 12, 2024

Do you love working with your hands and want to help patients in a physical way? Are you excited about sports medicine, rehabilitation, and managing pain? Are you looking for a career that enables you to consistently promote positive change in your patients’ lives?

If so, you’re likely weighing between two career paths: physical therapy and medicine. Both choices offer unique opportunities to help patients recover from acute conditions like physical injuries or surgeries and chronic health conditions like multiple sclerosis, strokes, or Parkinson’s disease. In providing therapy, you can drastically improve your patients’ quality of life. In particular, the hands-on training in osteopathic manipulative medicine that comes with physical therapy is similar to obtaining a degree in osteopathic medicine.

In this article, we will explore what a physical therapist is, delve into what makes this a great career choice, and discuss how long physical therapy school takes compared to medical school. We will also define what exactly a physical therapist does, and outline the differences between these two careers. Additionally, we will look at the conditions these medical professionals treat and help you figure out which field might be right for you.

What Is Physical Therapy as a Career?

Physical therapists are experts in movement. They are specially trained healthcare providers who help their patients improve how their body performs physical movements using methods like prescribed exercise, hands-on care such as massage or stretching, and patient education. 

Physical therapists examine their patients, go through medical records, and then develop a treatment plan aimed at improving mobility, reducing or managing pain, restoring function, and preventing further disability. They often treat people with acute or chronic health conditions, but can also assist people in achieving fitness goals, reclaiming or maintaining their independence, and leading active lives.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

To practice as a physical therapist, you must first earn a doctorate in physical therapy and subsequently pass a state licensing examination. This entails completing an undergraduate degree in an appropriate field before applying for admission to a DPT program. 

Common undergraduate majors for physical therapists include exercise science, kinesiology, biology, and psychology. Having a background in these fields will help you understand human anatomy and physiology and their essential interactions, allowing you to complete the required prerequisite courses. 

Training for a physical therapist typically spans three years. The courses cover: 

  • Biology/anatomy
  • Cellular histology
  • Physiology
  • Exercise physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Kinesiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathology
  • Clinical reasoning
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary systems
  • Endocrine and metabolic systems
  • Musculoskeletal systems

Throughout these three years, about 80% of your time will be spent in classroom learning, and the remaining 20% will be in clinical education. 

The clinical experience offers students insights into which area of physical therapy they could see themselves thriving in. Physical therapists can specialize in a breadth of areas after they complete their training, including special training in:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports medicine
  • Women’s health
  • Wound management

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapists have a broad scope of practice and can work with people of all ages, from neonates to the elderly. They use exercise and an array of physical manipulations such as massage, lymphatic drainage, electrotherapy, and hot and cold therapy, primarily based on physical stimuli, to treat their patients. Patient education is also a cornerstone of a physical therapist’s arsenal, empowering patients to take their health into their own hands by strengthening their bodies on their own.

Depending on their area of expertise and interest, physical therapists can work in various clinical settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, people’s homes, schools, sports and fitness facilities, workplaces, and nursing homes.

What Are The Common Conditions You Treat As A Physical Therapist?

Physical therapy can be used to treat conditions such as:

  • Osteoarthritis 
  • Back pain/injury
  • Issues caused by wear and tear to the muscles, tendons, or joints
  • Pelvic floor issues
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cardiovascular or circulatory diseases
  • Respiratory or breathing diseases
  • Neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and stroke recovery
  • Developmental problems in children that impact movement

What Is The Difference Between Becoming A Medical Doctor And A Physical Therapist?

There are quite a few differences between becoming a medical doctor and a physical therapist, including the length of training and the scope of practice. 

There are two different educational pathways to becoming a medical doctor that may impact your choice if you decide to pursue medicine. The more traditional option is to complete training in an allopathic medical school to become a medical doctor (MD). These physicians do not receive training in physical manipulations. If you are interested in learning hands-on techniques to treat disease similar to physical therapy, there is another option to obtain a medical degree through osteopathic medicine. Osteopathic medical school graduates obtain a doctorate in osteopathic medicine (DO) and complete over 200 hours of training in osteopathic manipulative medicine, which utilizes body manipulations to treat diseases.  

The length of training significantly differs, with physicians spending anywhere from seven to ten years before they can practice independently. Physical therapists spend three years in training and have the option to specialize, but this is not required. 

Once training is complete, physical therapists can obtain their licenses and begin practicing. Medical school, on the other hand, is four years long and followed by compulsory residency training in a specialized field. Residency training can range from three to seven years, depending on the specialty.

Physical therapists and physicians are free to treat patients with various conditions, but physical therapists have a more limited scope of practice. Both careers offer the ability to own a private practice that you can tailor to your unique interests. But, physical therapists can’t prescribe medications or perform surgeries. Additionally, they primarily rely on referrals from physicians to acquire new patients.

What Are The Benefits Of Becoming A Physical Therapist?

There are many benefits to becoming a physical therapist, including excellent income potential, flexibility in your practice and work environment, the gratification of seeing tangible results in your patients, and plenty of room to grow. 

According to the US News Report, physical therapists are ranked number three in healthcare jobs, making this one of the best careers in the healthcare field. The median salary is $95,620, with the highest 75% of earners making around $101,920 and the lowest 25% earning $77,750. This salary range can vary based on the physical therapist’s location, practice scope, and area of interest.

Physical therapists can work in various environments, including inpatient hospital settings, nursing care, patient homes, or sports facilities. What is excellent about physical therapy is the ability to change your work environment at any point in your career. For example, if you wish to transition from sports medicine to geriatrics, physical therapy allows you the flexibility to do so. In contrast, once you choose your residency training in medicine, you are largely stuck in this field for the remainder of your career. 

One of the most rewarding parts of becoming a physical therapist is seeing tangible results in your patients.

As a physical therapist, you develop a treatment plan and monitor your patient’s progress closely. Can you imagine working with a stroke patient and helping them regain the ability to walk or perform fine motor movements like writing? Seeing these transformations and you played a major role in your patients’ success can be extremely rewarding, validating, and motivating. 

Additionally, the physical therapy industry has plenty of room for growth. Once you are licensed, you can pursue board certification in a physical therapy specialty or remain a more general practitioner. You can work in a group or open a private practice catering to your preferred patient population. There is limitless potential for career expansion in the field.

Is Physical Therapy Right For Me?

Picking a career path can be challenging, but you definitely can’t go wrong in choosing physical therapy. The profession offers countless opportunities for growth and independence, and the ability to tailor your career to your desires. If you love working with the elderly, pursue geriatrics. If you prefer sports medicine, you can work in a sports and fitness facility and never see an elderly patient for the rest of your career. There is indeed the ability to make your practice your own and do what you love daily.

Picking a career in osteopathic medicine provides similar opportunities regarding growth and independence, but comes with longer schooling, requires residency training, and has different requirements for licensing. This can add up quickly in both time and finances, making physical therapy a more attractive option if you want to complete your education sooner, spend less getting it, and still have the freedom to practice how you would like.

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Physical therapy is a booming career choice in the healthcare field and an excellent option for those interested in working with patients in a hands-on way and producing tangible results. As you embark on your career in the healthcare field in physical therapy, you can be sure you will enjoy a fulfilling, rewarding, and lucrative career for many years to come.

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