What did you want to be when you grew up? A nurse? Or maybe a firefighter? For me, it was a professional figure skater. Whatever it was, chances are it was something important and fulfilling, 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) is your next step.
Growing Your Career from PTA to PT
Despite their name, PTAs are far more than assistants to physical therapists (PTs). In fact, life as a PTA is the dream for those medical professionals who have a passion for physical therapy, helping patients, and building connections with people.
However, if you’re more into the problem-solving aspect of the physical therapy industry, a career as a PT could be in your future. When it comes down to it, there are some key differences between a PTA and PT that could help guide the next steps of your professional career.
PTA vs PT round no. 1: The six-year difference
If we told you that you could be a student for seven-to-eight years, what would your reaction be? Would you celebrate with confetti canons? Would you cry in bed, snuggled with comforting blankets? Or would you roll your eyes and give that idea a hard nope?
One of the major characteristics that set apart a PTA from a PT is the level of education required to practice. For PTAs, a two-year associates degree is necessary, whereas for a PT, you need a bachelor’s degree, plus a doctoral degree in physical therapy (DPT) before you can practice your skills in real-life.
Because of this jump in schooling, going from PTA to PT isn’t as simple as getting a job promotion for your persistent hard work, but wouldn’t that be dope? To grow your career from PTA to PT, you must first hit the books.
- Step no. 1: Complete your bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. Sometimes your completed PTA courses and prerequisites can carry over to PT programs—double-check with your alma mater to see how many credits you can apply from your associate’s program to your bachelors
- Step no. 2: Research bridge or transition programs that help streamline a student’s learning to obtain a DPT. Spoiler: There’s only two in the U.S. so hopefully you like either Ohio or Texas. If a 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 or you can find a degree program that combines the undergrad and graduate requirements into one so you can knock out all of your education requirements in one foul swoop
- Step no. 3: Register for and crush the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE)
- Step no. 4: Save the world one physical therapy exercise at a time
Not only is the schooling for a PTA and PT different in length, but they also differ in subject matter. While learning the tricks of the PTA trade, they study the wide variety of therapy types, like deep tissue massage, mobility development, pain management, modality use, and more. Then, they put their knowledge to the test in clinical environments with their fellow classmates and other volunteers. Gaining experience in the clinic helps PTA students hone-in on their impressive therapy, patient interaction, and communication skills.
PTs learn all that PTAs do, and then some. Within their bachelor and doctoral degrees, PTs go in-depth on the theory, diagnosis, and optimal treatment options that will allow them to treat each and every patient with personalized care and attention.
Here’s a little secret for you: Many PTs who were formerly PTAs have reported that the knowledge, skills, and experiences obtained while practicing as a PTA contributed greatly to their learning and career success.
PTA vs PT round no. 2: Responsibili-who?
PTAs and PTs are both therapy superheroes, but they each have different powers. PTs meet with the client to learn about physical symptoms and then come up with a game plan specific to the individual’s injury. They’re the ultimate decision-makers but rely greatly on the expertise of PTAs.
While PTs consult with patients, assess their treatment options, and create short- and long-term goals for individuals, PTAs are the lucky ones getting the majority of patient facetime. These supportive therapists cheer for patients on the daily as they oversee exercises 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 no. 3: Perks for physical therapy professionals
Remember those fun OxiClean commercials back in the day with Billy Mays, and he’d always say, “But wait, there’s more!”? Yes? Okay, great. Because wait! There’s more!
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 opportunities with an estimated 47,000 physical therapy jobs to open up by 2029
- The chance to take your career on the road as a professional traveler
Now, more specifically, the pros exclusive to PTAs are:
- The opportunity to practice active, meaningful, hands-on work
- Interacting with a variety of clients through diverse exercises and therapy techniques
- Seeing the progress patients make over time
- Less school to complete, which also means fewer student loans
Lastly, PTs reap the benefits, too:
- A chance to earn a higher salary
- Entrepreneurial and management opportunities
- Professional coaching to PTAs and other staff
A career as a PTA isn’t a steppingstone to becoming a PT—it’s a wildly meaningful and in-demand profession all on its own. Don’t believe us? Well, only about 10 percent of PTAs ever pursue their PT licensure, so ha!
Both PTAs and PTs are indispensable to our overall healthcare 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).
A career of a lifetime is waiting for you
Your future is waiting for you! Whether you’re a PTA or PT, you can take your career a step further by adding “professional med traveler” to your 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 into your first couple therapy travel assignments smoothly and with ease. Through this elite program, new travelers are paired with mentors who show you the ropes on 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. And if that doesn’t make your heart grow three sizes, then I don’t know what will, ya Grinch.
Don’t stand in the way of your own professional happiness and success. Begin your career as a professional therapy traveler A$AP, Rocky!
PTAs and PTs are the glue that holds the physical therapy division together. Although the two professions require different lengths of education, specific licensing and certifications, and unique responsibilities, both are crucial to a patient’s overall health and wellbeing. If you truly want to take your PTA or PT career to the next step, apply for a travel job, and see what the world has in store for you.