How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA): A Comprehensive Guide

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA): A Comprehensive Guide

If you’re drawn to healthcare and get immense satisfaction from aiding others, think about becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA). In this capacity, you’ll work hand-in-hand with Physical Therapists to deliver treatments aimed at helping patients regain or enhance their physical well-being. In this article, we will walk you through step by step on how to become a physical therapy assistant.

As a vital part of a patient’s journey toward recovery, you’ll assist with exercises, administer various treatments, and keep track of their improvements. The need for qualified PTAs is on the rise, presenting a quicker pathway into the healthcare field in comparison to several other professions. In this in-depth guide, we’ll provide you with a roadmap to kickstart your career as a PTA.

Why Choose a Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)?

As the healthcare landscape evolves, particularly with an increasingly aging population, the need for PTAs shows no sign of slowing down. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that job opportunities for Physical Therapist Assistants are set to grow at a rate much higher than the average for all careers. This trend translates not only into job stability but also into numerous prospects for upward mobility in your career. 

If you’re in the hunt for a profession that combines job security, competitive pay, and the undeniable satisfaction of making a tangible difference in the lives of those you serve, a career as a Physical Therapist Assistant might just be the perfect fit for you.

A Variety of Workplaces to Choose From

PTAs can select from an expansive array of work environments—whether it’s hospitals, outpatient centers, private practices, in-home healthcare, educational settings, or even corporate wellness programs. This variety gives you the flexibility to pick a setting that aligns with your lifestyle and career objectives.

Competitive Earnings

While the educational and training investment is relatively less onerous than for other healthcare jobs, PTAs generally receive competitive compensation packages. Moreover, the option for specialized training can open doors to even more financially rewarding positions.

Great Work Life Balance

Unlike some other healthcare roles that demand erratic work schedules, a majority of PTAs work full-time but enjoy the benefit of more predictable work hours. This balance affords you the luxury of engaging in your personal pursuits while still maintaining a fulfilling career.

Continuous Learning Opportunities

With advancements and changes regularly occurring in the realm of physical therapy, there are myriad pathways for professional growth. Whether your interest lies in specialized fields like pediatrics, sports medicine, or geriatric care, the prospects for further learning and certifications are abundant.

Making a Real-Life Impact

Arguably the most rewarding element of a PTA career is witnessing firsthand the positive impact you have on a patient’s well-being. Whether you’re aiding an athlete in returning to the game or helping an elderly individual regain their independence, the immediate and profound influence you exert is highly satisfying.

Educational Requirements to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

To jumpstart your career as a Physical Therapist Assistant, you’ll need to kick off with the right educational footing. Typically, aspiring PTAs go through an accredited associate’s degree program, which usually spans two years of full-time study. Here’s a roadmap:

Preliminary Courses

Before diving into a PTA program, you’ll often need to complete specific prerequisite courses. These usually include subjects like anatomy, physiology, and foundational math.

Program Accreditation 

When selecting a program, make sure it’s accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Accreditation guarantees that the education you’re getting meets the industry benchmarks.

Course Content

The curriculum you’ll tackle encompasses a variety of topics from anatomy and kinesiology to pathology and therapeutic methods. Some programs may also offer specialized courses, for example, in elder care or child health.

Hands-On Training: Beyond classroom instruction, most programs will require you to clock in a set number of clinical hours. This field training, supervised by a licensed Physical Therapist, is crucial for practical skill development.

Academic Performance: Strive to maintain a strong GPA. Certain states and employers might mandate a minimum GPA to be eligible for licensing or hiring.

Beyond the Classroom: Engaging in extracurricular activities, particularly volunteering in a physical therapy environment, can offer you a competitive advantage. It not only broadens your professional circle but also offers insights into the day-to-day tasks of a PTA.

Obtaining Your PTA Licensure

Once you’ve wrapped up your academic journey, it’s time to shift gears and focus on getting your license to work as a Physical Therapist Assistant. Here’s the lowdown on the licensing game:

National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE): Run by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), this exam tests whether you’ve got what it takes to work safely and effectively as an entry-level PTA.

State Guidelines: Beyond the NPTE, you’ll need to meet some additional requirements depending on your state. This could mean taking tests on local laws or completing background checks.

Submitting Your Application: This part typically involves showing proof of your educational background, sharing professional references, and handing over your passing exam scores. Fees and wait times will vary.

Getting Your Initial License: After crossing all the T’s and dotting the I’s, you’ll get your first license to practice. Some states might ask for an extra period of supervised practice.

Staying Current: To keep your license up to date, you’ll need to earn Physical Therapist Assistant continuing education units (CEUs) and renew your license every so often. The rules for this differ from state to state.

Optional Certifications: Not mandatory, but gaining advanced certifications can set you apart and open doors to specialized roles.

By now, you’ve navigated the academic and licensing maze and are all set to practice as a PTA. But remember, learning never stops in the fast-evolving world of physical therapy.

Career Advancement: The Road Ahead

Even after entering the field, there are still heaps of ways to grow and develop. Whether you’re eyeing specialization, dreaming of a managerial role, or thinking of becoming a full-fledged Physical Therapist someday, the sky’s the limit. Here are some routes to consider:


PTAs can also zero in on physical therapy specializations like orthopedics or sports therapy. Additional training and certification are usually the way to go here.

Climbing the Ladder

As you gain experience, you may get the chance to oversee other PTAs or even coordinate entire therapy programs. PTAs can also go into other areas of practice management like physical therapy marketing.

Becoming a PT

If you feel like taking it to the next level, your background as a PTA can give you a leg up in becoming a Physical Therapist. You’ll still need to go back to school and pass more exams, but it’s a journey many find rewarding.

Consulting and Your Own Practice

With enough experience and the right connections, you could even become a consultant or open your own clinic. Just be sure to check state laws about what PTAs can and can’t do in private settings.

Lifelong Learning

Whether it’s through formal courses, webinars, or workshops, always aim to be a student of your craft. Some employers even offer tuition help for further studies.


Organizations like the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) are great platforms for networking. Being a part of such communities can keep you in the loop and even open doors to new opportunities.

Advancing your career as a PTA involves more than just clocking in and out every day. With dedication, ongoing education, and a strategic career plan, you can reach new heights and make significant contributions to the field of physical therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How long does it take to become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

It typically takes about two years to complete an accredited Physical Therapist Assistant program. Once complete, you must pass the state licensure exam.

Is it possible to work while studying to become a PTA?

Yes, some programs offer flexible schedules or part time options. However, keep in mind that PTA programs can be rigorous, and balancing work and study will require good time management skills.

What’s the job outlook for PTAs?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for Physical Therapist Assistants is expected to grow much faster than the average for all other occupations. This growth is fueled by the healthcare needs of an aging population and increased focus on rehabilitative care.

What’s the difference between a PTA and PT?

Physical Therapists are responsible for assessing patients and creating treatment plans, while PTAs typically work under the supervision of PTs to help execute these plans. However, PTAs still have considerable responsibilities, including monitoring patients and reporting back to the PT.

How much do PTAs earn?

Salary varies by location, experience, and specialization. However, the median annual wage for Physical Therapist Assistants was about $58,040 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Final Thoughts

Choosing to become a Physical Therapist Assistant is more than a career decision—it’s a commitment to making a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Though the road ahead may seem long, filled with academic courses, hands-on clinical training, and licensing hoops to jump through, each step is a building block. They all contribute to a fulfilling career where you’re not just clocking in and out—you’re helping people reclaim their lives.

By diving into this educational odyssey, you’re doing more than securing a job; you’re laying the foundation for a richly rewarding profession. One that doesn’t just pay the bills but enriches your life and the lives of those you’ll help. Our guide is here to serve as your roadmap. Yet, remember that your journey will be distinctly your own, sprinkled with unique chances to specialize, take on leadership roles, and contribute to a healthcare landscape that’s always on the move.

So, why wait? Start researching schools, connect with folks already in the field, and take the first steps on your educational path. A community of healthcare professionals, not to mention countless individuals in need of quality rehab care, are eager for you to join them, bringing your unique blend of skill, empathy, and dedication.