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. 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 completed PTA and prerequisite courses 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 PT bridge programs 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, pain management, and modality use. Then, they put their knowledge to the test in clinical environments 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.
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
Responsibili-who? While PTAs and PTs 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. Begin your career path as a professional therapy traveler!
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 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.