Anyone who has dealt with injury pain and gone through the recovery process knows how disruptive and awful it can be, which is why so many people are inspired to enter the field of physical therapy.
Physical therapists help patients improve their quality of life by working to address movement issues and pain management. But what are the requirements to become a physical therapist, and what is the job outlook like for those who study physical therapy?
To determine which careers are available in the field and what schooling is necessary to become a physical therapist, we spoke with two experts from the hybrid online/on-campus pathway of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at USC.
Below, Yogi Matharu, professor and director of physical therapy at Keck Hospital of USC and USC Norris Cancer Hospital, and Terry Richardson II, a professor of clinical physical therapy, share what to expect in the program and the budding career opportunities for graduates.
What Is Physical Therapy?
As part of the medical field, physical therapists assist patients to restore movement and physical functions. While much of physical therapy is restorative, PTs also work with those looking to prevent future problems and improve their overall health.
PT treatments aim to enhance mobility, improve physical function and reduce or manage pain, helping patients live healthier, more active lives. These treatments vary by case but include personalized exercises, stretches and movement techniques.
With a specialized background in movement and muscle and joint function, physical therapists are able to maximize physical activity without surgery or prescription medication.
How to Become a Physical Therapist
Like any other medical profession, intensive schooling is required to become a physical therapist. First, aspiring PTs must earn their bachelor’s degree and then apply to a DPT program. Following graduation, they have to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) and any other state requirements for licensure.
Doctoral program admission requirements vary by school, but at USC, prospective students must have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, taken specific prerequisite courses and completed 150 hours of clinical experience in a physical therapy setting.
What to Expect in the Hybrid Pathway of the USC DPT Program
The hybrid pathway of the USC DPT program is only offered on a full-time basis, and it takes three years to complete. The hybrid pathway includes both online classes and on-campus clinical laboratory experiences — both of which are led by top global PT leaders — and students complete clinical experiences in their communities or across the nation.
“The DPT program in particular has a long, illustrious history. For [decades], the USC DPT program was ranked number one in the country by the U.S. News and World Report. We’re still a top five program as it stands currently,” Richardson said.
For online courses, students watch the required content before meeting up in small groups for live sessions with faculty members. From there, they’re able to apply their learnings in the virtual classroom, later practicing in person to refine hands-on clinical experience with their cohort and professors.
“In essence, the program is designed to create the best clinicians possible, to be leaders in the field, to have excellent clinical skill sets so that they can provide care to patients in the community and be a valued member of the health care team,” Matharu explained.
One of the greatest strengths of the program, according to Richardson, is the focus it’s placed on diversity, equity and inclusion. Emphasizing DEI values is especially important for those who aim to become medical professionals, as health care workers must treat every member of their community in a compassionate and equal way.
The USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy even implemented a Division-Wide Comprehensive Anti-Racism Plan in 2020, which was formed to combat racism and “change the system in which we exist, especially the health care system,” according to the division’s announcement video.
The plan includes the creation of a diversity council, a focus on recruiting students who come from underrepresented groups and even a partnership between USC and Xavier University, a historically Black college, so students who are “interested in pursuing a career in physical therapy can create a fast track for themselves to get into [the USC] program,” among other efforts.
“We have a duty as health care professionals to educate where we can and to encourage especially folks from underserved and underrepresented communities to be engaged in the health care process and in the health care system so that we can ultimately create a better and more equitable system for everyone,” the video stated.
What Careers Are Available in Physical Therapy?
Obtaining a Doctor of Physical Therapy prepares graduates to work in a variety of health care settings, including hospitals — where they can focus on acute care, in-patient care and rehabilitation — emergency departments, nursing facilities, home health, out-patient private practices and more.
PTs can also work in more unexpected environments: “What people aren’t always aware of is there are physical therapists in the school system working on not just clinical, but having students access the educational environment … There’s a corporate portion where there’s injury prevention, wellness programs. Sometimes they’re in fitness centers. Often, you’ll see people working with athletic teams,” Matharu explained.
Some graduates of the program merge their love of physical therapy with their passion for education, becoming professors to pass on the skills they’ve learned, according to Richardson. Others go on to become advocates for physical therapy, “lobbying at the local, state, and federal level for the profession,” he said.
“We need people who are passionate about the profession and helping the profession grow, gaining more exposure, but also making sure the laws are putting our profession in a position where we can earn what we’re worth,” Richardson explained.
For those who are a bit more established in the field and are looking for a change of pace from direct patient care, PTs can also pursue research opportunities.
“The research provides us with the evidence that we need to know that the different interventions and the different therapies that we offer are effective and they’re going to be able to efficiently help those patients recover,” Richardson said.
The good news for people who want to land a career in physical therapy is that it’s a fast-growing field filled with job opportunities. PT positions are expected to increase 17 percent in the next decade, much faster than the average for other occupations, reported the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While pay can vary by location, experience and employer, the median salary for physical therapists in 2021 was $96,000, according to the BLS.
Overall, physical therapy is a rewarding, fulfilling and often life-changing career. Not only do PTs help their patients live healthier and happier lives, but the field also provides immense stability and competitive compensation.
If you’re looking to join this growing health care sector and learn more about USC’s hybrid online/on-campus pathway of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program, request information today.