Want To Grow Your Career from PTA to PT? Here’s How!

January 23, 2023


Megan Bebout

GettyImages-1306728106 (1)-min

What did you want to be when you grew up? Whatever your answer, chances are it was something important and fulfilling. You know, like a medical professional with hopes to grow and change in your ideal role. If you're a physical therapy assistant (PTA) looking to advance in your medical career, taking the steps to become a physical therapist (PT) could be your next move.



How To Grow Your Career From Physical Therapist Assistant to Physical Therapist



Despite their name, PTAs are far more than assistants to physical therapists (PTs). Life as a PTA is the dream for medical professionals with a passion for physical therapy clinical practice, patient education, and building connections with people.

However, if you’re more into the problem-solving aspect of the physical therapy industry, a career as a physical therapist could be in your future. When it comes down to it, some key differences between a PTA and PT could help guide the next steps of your professional career.


Physical Therapist Assistants vs Physical Therapists round one: educational requirements

One of the major characteristics that set apart a PTA from a PT is the level of education required to practice. For PTAs, you need a two-year associate degree from a PTA program. However, to become a physical therapist you first need to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree and then a doctor of physical therapy program (DPT) before you can practice your skills in real life.

So to go from a PTA to PT, you've gotta go back to school and continue your physical therapy education by hitting the books.

Complete your bachelor's degree

If you haven’t already earned one, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy to become a licensed physical therapist. The good news is that sometimes your educational background as a physical therapy assistant can carry over to PT baccalaureate degree programs. Double-check with your alma mater to see how many credits apply from your undergraduate PTA courses and associate’s program to your bachelor’s physical therapy degree.

Research physical therapy education bridge programs

Bridge or transition programs help streamline physical therapy students learning to obtain a DPT. Currently, there are only two PTA to DPT bridge program options available — one at the University of Findlay in Ohio and the other at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in Texas.

If a PT bridge program doesn’t work for you, you can return to a four-year university for your bachelor’s and then enroll in a three-year DPT program. Alternatively, you can find DPT programs that combine the undergrad and graduate requirements into one. That way, you can knock out all your education requirements in one go.

Get your PT license

Now that you’ve completed your DPT program or bridge program, it’s time to get licensed as a physical therapist. To do so, PT students must register for and pass the American Physical Therapy Association National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). This board certification exam tests your overall knowledge of the physical therapy discipline. Here are some study tips to help PT students prepare for the test.

Once you pass the NPTE and earn board certification, it’s time to think about state licenses. Here’s a pro tip: go for a PT compact license when you're getting board certified. This type of state licensure allows you to practice physical therapy in all participating states. Currently, 25 U.S. states participate in the PT compact. 

Not only are the PTA and PT educational requirements different in length, but they also differ in the subject matter. While learning the tricks of the PTA trade, they study a wide variety of therapy types, including deep tissue massage, mobility development, exercise science, pain management, and modality use. Then, they put their knowledge to the test in a clinical environment with their fellow classmates and other volunteers. Gaining clinical experience during completion of PTA programs helps PTA students hone in on their impressive therapy, patient interaction, and communication skills.

Physical therapists learn all that PTAs do, and then some more. With their bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, PT programs go in-depth on the clinical education, theory, diagnosis, and optimal treatment options that allow them to treat each and every patient in the practice setting with personalized care and attention. Plus, the clinical rotations give physical therapists the hands-on experience of providing therapeutic exercise and care in a clinical setting.

Here’s a little secret: many PTAs who go on to become physical therapists have reported that the knowledge, skills, and clinical experiences obtained while practicing as a PTA contributed greatly to their learning and career success.


Like what you’re reading? You may also like: Reasons to Become a Physical Therapist with Eileen Dempsey, PT


PTA vs PT round two: job responsibilities

Responsibili-who? While physical therapist assistants and physical therapists are both therapy superheroes, they each have different powers. A PT’s job responsibilities include meeting with the client to learn about physical symptoms and then coming up with a game plan specific to the individual’s injury or condition. Physical therapists work with patients, assess their treatment plan options, and create short- and long-term goals for individuals. They’re the ultimate decision-makers when determining treatment, but rely greatly on the expertise of PTAs.

On the other hand, PTAs are the lucky ones who get most of the patient facetime. These supportive therapists cheer for patients daily as they provides hands-on care and oversee the prescribed exercise and activities to ensure movements are done safely.

“PTAs are a huge component of maintaining appropriate care and facilitating the execution of their planned care,” said traveling PT Ethan Weiss. “While they can’t change the actual plan of care, they can update the PT if something changes to maximize patient care.”


PTA vs PT round three: benefits of being a physical therapy professional


As if helping people wasn’t rewarding enough, a career in physical therapy offers even more perks for professionals in the field. In the Venn diagram of PTA and PT, the overlapping personal and career advantages include:

  • The glorious satisfaction of improving the lives of others
  • Diverse job options with an estimated 47,000 physical therapy jobs to become available by 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • The chance to take your career on the road as a professional traveler

Now, more specifically, the pros exclusive to PTAs are:

  • Includes a variety of career advancement opportunities and career paths
  • Less school to complete, which also means managing fewer student loans

Lastly, PTs reap their own benefits:

  • A chance to earn a higher average annual salary
  • Entrepreneurial and management job options
  • Opportunity to coach PTAs and other therapy staff

A career as a PTA isn’t a stepping stone to becoming a physical therapist — it’s a wildly meaningful and in-demand profession all on its own. Don’t believe us? Well, the numbers show that only about 10 percent of PTAs ever become a physical therapist.

Both PTAs and PTs are indispensable to our overall health care system, so remember, there’s no “right” path when it comes to what you want to be when you grow up (and let’s face it, no matter how old we are, we’re all still growing up).


Explore a travel physical therapy career

PTA vs PT: which is better? As we know, each profession has its own pros. Whether you’re a physical therapist assistant or physical therapist, you can take your career a step further by adding “professional medical traveler” to your healthcare resume. The best part about being a traveling physical therapy professional is that you don’t have to wait after graduation to start your first travel adventure.

Even better, though, is Fusion Medical Staffing's mentorship program that helps you transition smoothly and easily into your first few therapy travel assignments. Through this elite program, new travelers are paired with mentors who show you the ropes of what it takes to be a Fusion traveler.

Hop from location to location as a Fusion traveler and offer your personal assistance to a wide variety of patients across the U.S. With your help to examine, diagnose, and treat ailments, more individuals will lead their best physical lives because of you.

Don’t stand in the way of your own professional happiness and success as a healthcare provider. Begin your career path as a professional therapy traveler!


Frequently asked questions 

What are the educational requirements for bridge programs that help PTAs transition to becoming physical therapists?

While there isn't a universally standardized "bridge program" for this transition, PTAs may need some of the following educational requirements including a bachelor's degree, though some DPT programs may accept PTAs with an associate degree. Completion of prerequisite courses in subjects like anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology may also be necessary.

Clinical experience is a common requirement, with some programs preferring recent experience or considering past PTA work as qualifying. Letters of recommendation, typically from professors, healthcare professionals, or relevant individuals, are often part of the application process. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is frequently required, assessing analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning skills. Interviews may be conducted to evaluate an applicant's experiences, motivations, and suitability for the DPT program.

It's important to note that specific requirements can vary among DPT programs, and individuals should research the admission criteria of their chosen programs.


Can the credits earned during undergraduate PTA courses and an associate's program be applied directly to a bachelor's degree in physical therapy, and how does this process work?

The transferability of credits earned during undergraduate Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) courses and an associate's program to a bachelor's degree in physical therapy hinges on institutional policies. Institutions offering bachelor's programs in physical therapy typically assess PTA credits to determine alignment with their specific program requirements. Some universities have formal articulation agreements streamlining credit transfers from certain PTA programs to designated bachelor's programs.

Prerequisite coursework, including anatomy and physiology, may be fulfilled by PTA credits, contingent on course content and level. Prospective students are advised to consult with academic advisors or admission offices for personalized guidance. Admission to a Bachelor's in Physical Therapy program usually involves meeting academic criteria, submitting transcripts, letters of recommendation, and potentially completing an interview. Direct communication with institutions is crucial for accurate and up-to-date information due to variations in credit transfer policies between colleges and universities.


How does the mentorship program facilitate the transition for physical therapy professionals into their first few travel assignments. What does the program entail?

Fusion Medical Staffing's mentorship program plays a pivotal role in easing the transition for physical therapy professionals into their initial travel assignments. The program is designed to provide comprehensive support and guidance during this critical phase. Seasoned mentors offer practical insights and advice based on their own experiences, helping newcomers navigate the unique challenges of travel assignments. The mentorship entails personalized assistance in areas such as adapting to new work environments, understanding facility expectations, and addressing any concerns that may arise.

Through regular communication and mentorship, Fusion Medical Staffing aims to enhance the confidence and success of physical therapy professionals as they embark on their travel assignments.


PTAs and PTs are the glue that holds the physical therapy division together. Although the two healthcare professionals require different lengths of education, specific licensing and certifications, and unique responsibilities, both are crucial to a patient’s overall health and well-being. If you truly want to take your physical therapist career to the next step, apply for a travel job and see what the world has in store for you.