Physical therapy professional examining a patient

PT vs. PTA

Job Duties, Educational Requirements, Pros and Cons, and More Key Differences

Physical therapy professional examining a patient

Though they work closely together daily, physical therapists (PTs) and physical therapist assistants (PTAs) have two distinctly separate careers. While both careers focus on helping patients recover from injuries or illnesses, each of them has their own responsibilities, degree requirements, and scope of practice.

For anyone considering a career in the field of physical therapy, it’s important to understand the different available options and the timeline each role requires. And if you’re a little unsure of the difference between a PT and a PTA, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we’ll provide a side-by-side comparison of both careers, from their daily duties and necessary education to the salary* potential and long-term job outlooks for each. We’ll even cover some pros and cons of each career so you can decide which might be the best fit for you.

Looking for more details on what it takes to become a PTA? Check out our in-depth guide on how to become a physical therapist assistant.

PT vs. PTA: Definition

What is a PT?

Physical therapists (PTs) are healthcare providers who specialize in helping patients recover from or manage a huge variety of health conditions—including bone and muscle injuries, long-term disabilities, neurological issues, post-surgical recoveries, and more.

PTs have advanced training that qualifies them to assess patients and diagnose health conditions, either independently or in collaboration with a patient’s physician. It falls within their scope of practice to create treatment plans for each individual patient and make adjustments as necessary based on how a patient responds.

What is a PTA?

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) work under the direction of a physical therapist, and are often at the front lines of implementing a treatment plan developed by their supervising PT. They work closely with patients to help them perform exercises properly, and use a variety of treatment techniques to help restore mobility, manage pain, and encourage healing.

While physical therapist assistants may perform many of the same therapeutic tasks as a physical therapist, the main differences between PTs vs. PTAs come down to scope of practice.

PTAs are also highly trained providers who provide hands-on patient care, but they cannot perform initial evaluations, design treatment plans, or make changes to a patient’s treatment plan without a supervising PT’s approval.

PT vs. PTA: Duties and Responsibilities

PT Responsibilities

Ultimately, the physical therapist is the one who bears responsibility for each patient under their care in a physical therapy setting. In addition to providing hands-on treatment, they’re responsible for creating and overseeing the success of the overall treatment plan.

Day-to-day PT responsibilities commonly include:

  • Conducting initial patient assessments to evaluate their therapeutic needs
  • Formulating a treatment plan based on each patient’s condition and goals
  • Delivering hands-on patient care through a wide variety of modalities
  • Modifying treatment plans based on how the patient responds
  • Supervising PTAs and other clinic support staff like aides or administrative workers

PTA Responsibilities

Physical therapist assistants always work under the direction of a PT, and also work closely with patients to provide hands-on care. PTAs do not create or modify treatment plans, but they are instrumental in carrying them out, and in monitoring each patient’s progress so the supervising PT can make adjustments as necessary.

Day-to-day PTA responsibilities commonly include:

  • Implementing treatment plans as directed by a physical therapist
  • Measuring and recording patients’ progress to determine the effectiveness of treatment
  • Administering hands-on care like massage, stretching, or mobility work
  • Operating other treatment devices like electrical stimulation or ultrasound equipment
  • Supervising and instructing patients as they perform prescribed exercises
  • Educating patients and caregivers on the use of adaptive equipment

Close up of a medical professional typing on a laptop

PT vs. PTA: Education

Educational Requirements for PTs

Becoming a physical therapist is a lengthy, multi-year process that requires earning multiple college degrees. Most PTs start their education with a bachelor’s degree in a related field like biology, kinesiology, or exercise science, which usually takes around four years.

From there, aspiring PTs will need to enroll in a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, which usually takes about three years to complete. This is where PTs gain their advanced knowledge of anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, and the many treatment tools available to rehabilitate a huge range of medical conditions.

After earning a DPT degree, physical therapists will need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam, consisting of 225 questions over a maximum allowed time of five hours. Passing the NPTE allows recently graduated physical therapists to obtain a license in the state where they intend to practice.

Many PTs also choose to complete a year-long residency or fellowship after earning their license, which can help them gain experience in specialized fields like orthopedics, sports medicine, women’s health, neurology, and several other fields.

When it’s all said and done, most physical therapists spend around 7-8 years in school before they begin practicing on their own. Becoming a PT can be a lucrative and fulfilling career, but it’s also a major commitment!

Educational Requirements for PTAs

Physical therapist assistants don’t have the responsibility of creating treatment plans or overseeing clinical operations. As a result, their education consists of an associate-level college degree that’s focused mostly on job-specific skills and knowledge, in addition to some general education requirements.

Compared to physical therapists, the path to becoming a PTA is much quicker and more straightforward. PTA programs usually last around two years, though some accelerated programs may be able to trim a few months off the timeline. (At Provo College, you could earn your PTA degree within 21 months!)

Like physical therapists, PTAs also need to pass the PTA version of the NPTE certification exam before they can earn their license and begin practicing. The NPTE-PTA includes 180 multiple-choice questions over a maximum of four hours. There is certainly no walking in the park, but it’s not as intense or in-depth as the exam given to PTs.

Because the required education for PTAs takes only a fraction of the time compared to a physical therapist, it can be a great choice for people who want a career in physical therapy without spending several years in school.

PT vs. PTA: Salary

How Much Do PTs Make?

It takes a lot of education and commitment to become a physical therapist, which is rewarded with above-average compensation. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary* for PTs is over $100,000 per year, which works out to over $48 per hour.

Like any career, wages are affected by factors like location, experience, and job market conditions. Physical therapists in the top 10% of earners can bring home up to $130,000 a year or more.

How Much Do PTAs Make?

While physical therapist assistants aren’t paid as highly as physical therapists, PTA is one of the highest-paying healthcare careers available without earning a bachelor’s degree, and offers the chance to earn an excellent living. BLS data shows the average annual salary* for PTAs is nearly $65,000 per year or over $31 per hour.

The same source shows top-earning PTAs in the upper 10% of their field earn over $85,000 per year. Considering the timeframe to become a PTA is significantly shorter than becoming a physical therapist, PTAs have an excellent balance of short-term career accessibility and long-term earning power.

Physical therapy professional helping an older woman lift weights

PT vs. PTA: Job Outlook

PT Job Outlook

Demand for physical therapy continues to grow as patients and healthcare providers look to rehabilitative options to supplement (or replace) other treatment avenues like medication and surgery. The BLS projects a 19% growth in the employment of physical therapists by the year 2032, which is significantly faster than the average growth rate among all careers.

PTs also have many opportunities to specialize, which can lead to greater earning potential depending on the demand for their chosen specialty. With additional experience and training, physical therapists can specialize in working with cancer patients, athletes, children, or older adults. They may focus on rehabilitating stroke or TBI patients, people with chronic disabilities, treating women’s health issues, or several other patient populations.

With excellent projected career stability and many opportunities to seek out personally fulfilling work, becoming a physical therapist remains a great option for anyone seeking a career in healthcare.

PTA Job Outlook

Physical therapist assistants are also poised to benefit from the steady demand for physical therapy—perhaps even more than physical therapists. Career projection data from the BLS indicates PTAs are expected to be in even higher demand than PTs—with a 26% increase in employment expected by 2032. That’s over eight times higher than the average 3% growth rate for all careers.

PTAs are one of the most in-demand careers in all of healthcare and can specialize in many of the same areas as physical therapists. From acute care and oncology to neurology, pediatrics, and cardiovascular care, PTAs can seek out advanced certifications based on their preferred patient population.

The extremely high demand for PTAs—combined with the relatively short time it takes to complete your education—means becoming a PTA is a practical career choice, as well as a rewarding one.

The Pros and Cons of Becoming a PT vs. a PTA

Choosing a career is a highly personal decision, and there’s no one answer that’s perfect for everyone. It’s always wise to consider the pros and cons of your options if you’re strongly considering a career in physical therapy.

Physical Therapist Physical Therapist Assistant
Pros: Pros:
Higher maximum earning potential Significantly less time in school
Fulfilling career helping others heal Fulfilling career helping others heal
Good long-term career outlook Excellent long-term career outlook
Opportunities to start your own practice Easier to “leave work at work”
Cons: Cons:
Requires many years in school Limits on scope of practice
More management, administrative, and entrepreneurial responsibilities Must practice under the direction of a PT

African-American medical professional at a desk

Start Your PTA Career at Provo College

The decision between becoming a PT vs. a PTA can be a tough one, as they’re both rewarding careers with solid earning potential and a great long-term outlook. Consider your lifestyle goals and preferred timeline for starting your new career—and the financial implications of being in school for 7-8 years as opposed to just a couple of years.

If you do decide to pursue a career as a PTA, choosing a program designed with your success in mind can be a major advantage as you learn a new skill set and prepare to begin your career. In the physical therapist assistant program at Provo College, you’ll learn from experienced professionals, train in skills labs, and have access to a Career Services team to help you make the transition from the classroom to the clinic.

Interested in learning more about potential career paths available to PTAs? Click here to check out our list of the top 8 physical therapist assistant jobs.