Physical therapy team with a patient

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Learn the Qualifications, Requirements, and Responsibilities of Physical Therapist Assistants

Physical therapy team with a patient

Finding a job that pays the bills and satisfies your personal ambitions can be difficult. It’s important that you love what you do so that someday your job doesn’t feel much like a “job” at all. The healthcare industry provides millions of people with fulfilling careers that range in salary*, schedule, and work setting.

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) are one of the most in-demand positions in the healthcare industry. If you’re looking for a rewarding profession where you can help others while staying active, you should consider a career as a Physical Therapist Assistant.

To help you learn about this rapidly growing occupation, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on how to become a PTA. Continue reading to find out what it takes to become a Physical Therapist Assistant and what makes this career so worthwhile.

What is a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)?

Physical Therapist Assistants help patients recover from injury or disability. A PTA works directly under the supervision of a physical therapist, however, they also work with the patients directly. This is one of the main differentiators between a “Physical Therapist Assistant” and a “Physical Therapist Aide.” A Physical Therapist Aide is only given responsibilities indirectly related to the patient, such as cleaning, transporting patients, and clerical duties.

What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) Do?

Physical Therapist Assistants have varying duties when it comes to patient care. They are members of a team dedicated to helping patients recover their strength and mobility to perform daily tasks and activities.

PTAs assist in the treatment of patients of all ages who have medical conditions that limit their ability to move and perform daily activities. There are several conditions that are treated with physical therapy. Some of the most common conditions include sports-related injuries such as concussion and tennis elbow, as well as neurological conditions such as stroke or spinal cord injuries.

Some of the treatments that physical therapist assistants are authorized to conduct include massage, exercise, and electrical stimulation.

PTAs are also responsible for obtaining and recording data regarding the patient’s treatments and implementing changes based on that data in order to improve their journey to recovery.

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Physical Therapist Assistant include:

  • Observing patients before, during, and after therapy, noting the patient’s status, and reporting it to a physical therapist
  • Helping patients do specific exercises as part of the plan of care
  • Treating patients using a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching
  • Using devices and equipment, such as walkers, to help patients
  • Educating patients and family members about what to do after treatment

Where do Physical Therapist Assistants Work?

Physical Therapist Assistants work in a variety of healthcare settings, including the offices of physical, occupational, and speech therapists and audiologists. Other settings include hospitals, nursing care facilities, home healthcare services, and the offices of physicians.

Physical Therapist Assistant vs. Occupational Therapist Assistant

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) are similar to Occupational Therapy Assistants OTAs) in that they both help patients develop, recover, and improve their condition. PTAs work under the direction of a Physical Therapist to help patients who are recovering from injuries and illnesses to regain movement and manage pain. OTAs collaborate with Occupational Therapists to improve a patient’s ability to function effectively at work or in their daily life.

PTAs work under the supervision of Physical Therapists to treat patients through exercise, massage, gait and balance training, and other therapeutic interventions. They record patients’ progress and report the results of each treatment to the physical therapist.

OTAs work under the supervision of Occupational Therapists to develop and carry out a treatment plan for each patient. Plans include diverse activities such as helping patients perform therapeutic activities like stretching and exercising to teaching patients how to use special equipment to make routine tasks easier. Occupational Therapy Assistants also may work with people who have learning disabilities, teaching them skills that allow them to be more independent.

Physical Therapist Assistant assisting a patient

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of an Occupational Therapist Assistant include:

  • Helping patients do therapeutic activities, such as stretches and other exercises
  • Leading children who have developmental disabilities in play activities that promote coordination and socialization
  • Encouraging patients to complete activities and tasks
  • Teaching patients how to use special equipment—for example, showing a patient with Parkinson’s disease how to use devices that make eating easier
  • Recording patients’ progress, reporting to occupational therapists, and doing other administrative tasks

What Is the Job Outlook for a PTA?

Now is the perfect time to become a Physical Therapist Assistant since career opportunities for PTAs are growing rapidly.

According to the BLS, employment of physical therapist assistants is projected to grow 32 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. As chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity have become more prevalent in recent years, more Physical Therapist Assistants will be needed to manage the effects of these conditions and support patients in maintaining mobility. The BLS also reports that job prospects will be particularly prevalent where the elderly are most often treated, such as in nursing homes and home health.

PTA Training & Education

All states require Physical Therapist Assistants to have an associate’s degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Programs typically last about 2 years and include coursework in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology. PTAs also gain hands-on experience during supervised clinical work.

All states also require PTAs to be licensed, which typically requires graduation from an accredited physical therapist assistant program and passing the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapist assistants. The exam is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

PTAs may also need to take continuing education courses to keep their license. Check with your state board for specific licensing requirements.

Physical Therapist Assistant Certification

Beyond education, licensing, and experience, Physical Therapist Assistants can earn certifications to enhance their knowledge, skills, and specialization. Certifications not only give you an edge in the job market, but they can also increase your value to employers and help improve your career opportunities. Some options for certification are included below:

Stethoscope draped over a laptop

Functional Training Specialty Certification. Offered by the American Council on Exercise, this certification is designed for fitness and allied health professionals who want to garner a deeper understanding of how to train the body to move more efficiently. You will be qualified to work with a wide variety of clients including competitive athletes, post-rehabilitation patients, and clients who need to improve their balance and joint stability.

Wound Care Certification. The National Alliance of Wound Care offers this certification to measure the academic and technical competence of candidates in the area of skin and wound care management. Upon passing the certification exam, graduates may use the initials WCC, Wound Care Certified, in their title.

PTA Specialty Certification in Orthopaedics. This certification, offered by Evidence in Motion, provides licensed PTAs the opportunity to advance their knowledge and practice in the care of patients suffering from orthopaedic-related conditions. Graduates gain the skills and confidence needed to provide evidence-based care utilizing advanced exercise prescription and pain neuroscience education.

PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways. Offered by the American Physical Therapy Association, this is the premier program for increasing a PTA’s knowledge and skill in a chosen area of physical therapy. PTAs can gain advanced proficiency in one of the following areas:

  • Acute care
  • Cardiovascular/pulmonary
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Wound management

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)?

Now that you know what a PTA does and how much they make, here’s a step-by-step guide on what you need to do to become one:

Step 1: Find an Accredited Physical Therapist Assistant Program

In order to become a PTA, you’ll need to earn an associate’s degree from an accredited PTA program. When choosing a school to attend, it’s important to know the duration of the program, the credibility of the school, and the cost of the program.

The average length of a PTA program is typically 2 years (5 semesters). The program begins with general education courses and progresses into physical therapy courses and clinical education. Some of the subjects that are covered throughout the curriculum include anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and neuroscience. The curriculum is about 75% classroom orientated, with the remaining 25% dedicated to clinicals.

Accreditation, length, and affordability should all play a role in finding the right program for you. The only recognized accreditation for PTA programs is CAPTE, and you’ll only be able to take the licensure exam if your program is CAPTE accredited. If you lead a busy life and can’t be in class full time, many programs offer a significant portion of their curriculum online. Some other factors you should consider when researching PTA programs include campus setting, licensure pass rates, and the size of the college.

For those looking for in-depth data about CAPTE accredited PTA programs, they do provide some expansive information available here.

Step 2: Pass the PTA Licensing Exam

Before you can start looking for a PTA job, you’ll need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). Once you’ve graduated from a PTA program, you’re eligible to apply for the exam.

It’s imperative that applicants are adequately prepared for the exam, as retakes are only allowed three times per year and six times total. The minimum passing score for the PTA exam is 600, with scoring ranging from 200–800. Official practice exams are available through the Practice Exam & Assessment Tool (PEAT) website. There’s also access to some sample questions on the FSBPT website available for free here.

Requirements for licensure do vary by state, so it’s important to know your state’s individual process. More information can be found on The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website.

Medical professionals shaking hands

Step 3: Prepare Yourself for Interviewing and Begin Applying

If you’ve earned your degree and have successfully passed your state’s licensure exam, you’re almost ready to begin your career as a PTA. However, just like any career, it’s important to polish up your skills and prepare yourself for the interviewing process. Look back at your education and work experience. If necessary, begin cultivating or enhancing the necessary skillsets that healthcare employers are seeking.

As a PTA, your communication skills should also be on full display when interviewing, as employers are looking for applicants that will be able to effectively instruct and motivate their patients. Employers are also looking for applicants that are detail-oriented and possess a strong ability to multitask. You must be prepared to carefully track patient progress while simultaneously assisting many patients at one time.

Before you begin applying, you’ll also want to determine your preferred practice areas. PTAs work in a variety of environments including hospitals, offices, nursing care facilities, in-home healthcare, and athletic organizations. While the work environment may depend on your location, it’s always helpful to narrow your search and tailor your resume to what you enjoy most.

How Much Do Physical Therapist Assistants Make?

One of the most promising aspects of becoming a PTA is the significant salary* you can receive as soon as you land a job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary* earned by Physical Therapist Assistants in 2021 was around $61,000 or about $29 per hour. PTAs who earned salaries in the top 10 percent made more than $80,000 per year.

Highest Paying States for Physical Therapist Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the states where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for Physical Therapist Assistants:

State Average Hourly Pay Annual Salary
California $35.17 $73,150
Rhode Island $33.98 $70,690
New Jersey $33.87 $70,450
Texas $33.40 $69,470
Connecticut $32.88 $68,390

Highest Paying Cities for Physical Therapist Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the cities where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for Physical Therapist Assistants:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
San Jose, CA $41.33 $85,960
San Francisco, CA $37.86 $78,740
Santa Barbara, CA $36.73 $76,390
Midland, TX $36.32 $75,550
Salinas, CA $36.13 $75,150
Los Angeles, CA $36.12 $75,120
Santa Rosa, CA $35.92 $74,720
Bakersfield, CA $35.69 $74,240
Dallas, TX $35.16 $73,130
Fairfield, CA $34.94 $72,670

Highest Paying Industries for Physical Therapist Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the industries where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for Physical Therapist Assistants:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Home Health Care Services $36.12 $75,130
Nursing Care Facilities $33.60 $69,890
Retirement Communities & Assisted Living Facilities $33.43 $69,530
Outpatient Care Centers $31.63 $65,790
Specialized Hospitals $31.57 $65,660

Team of medical professionals at a table

Get Started

Founded in 1984, Provo College has empowered thousands of graduates to pursue rewarding careers in physical therapy, nursing, and healthcare. With an up-to-date curriculum, modern labs, and hands-on training from experienced healthcare professionals, our robust Physical Therapist Assistant associate degree program prepares graduates to excel as entry-level PTAs.

Are You Ready to Start Your Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Now that you know everything there is to know when it comes to becoming a PTA, do you feel ready to jump in? If so, click here to learn more about our Physical Therapist Assistant program. We’re ready to help you find success as a physical therapist assistant.