What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Would you enjoy being a physical therapist? Take our quick discovery questionnaire and check out our interview with a physical therapist below to see if this is the calling for you.  


Physical therapists assess, plan, organize, and participate in rehabilitative programs that improve mobility, relieve pain, increase strength, and improve or correct disabling conditions resulting from disease or injury.

  • There are about 216,000 physical therapists in the US in 2017.
  • Jobs for physical therapists have increased 17% since 2011—faster growth than most occupations.
  • Approximately 9,000 physical therapists get hired each month.
  • Median hourly wages are solid at almost $41 per hour (about $85,000 per year).

1. What education and training did you get to become a PT?

I graduated with a bachelor’s in physiology—the typical degree when you plan to attend medical school. But I didn’t want to go to medical school, so I volunteered at a hospital’s physical therapy department and discovered I enjoyed it.

Then I earned another bachelor’s, this time in physical therapy. A bachelor’s degree was all you needed back then; now you need a doctorate. The education has become more expensive and time-consuming—about five to six years after high school. So you’d better enjoy studying! After that, you take the licensing exam to get your state certification, just like a lawyer or a doctor.

2. Can you work in the field while you are going to school?

Only if you’re fortunate enough to get an aide job; you can’t work as a physical therapist or even an assistant until you get your license. You can do internships where you work full time—but usually not where where you currently live or go to school.

3. What are the biggest challenges of your job?

One challenge is paperwork. You’re expected to make time to get all the documentation done—maybe during lunch or when you go home. It’s common for me to write a formal letter of medical recommendation for certain patients, on top of all the standard exam notes I’ve already done.

There’s also the challenge of working with human beings. We fix people, and that means dealing with their psychology, physiology, and muscular and skeletal systems—everything. And they’re always under some degree of stress. They need care, attention, time. Some days you come home drained!

However, the hard work is balanced out by success stories. You get to watch your work help people. If someone blows out their knee and can’t play basketball, but next year they’re back out on the court, you know you made a difference!

4. What attracted you to physical therapy?

I liked the science. Kinesiology. Applying physics to the study of the human body. Therapy is like detective work. If I get a referral from a doctor that says “shoulder pain,” it may as well say “blah blah blah.” I have to run through my series of diagnostic tests and measurements and come up with a real diagnosis. I enjoy that.

Two other common reasons for getting into physical therapy is 1) the desire to help people, and 2) the sports aspect; it’s a cool way to turn sports into a career by focusing on sports injuries.

5. What does a typical day look like?

My day is 80% direct care and 20% paperwork, as well as preparation for the next day, thinking out treatment, and doing research. I’m an outpatient therapist, so I’ll see eight to 10 patients a day, spending 45 minutes to an hour each.

6. What tools do you use to do your job?

Hands, eyes, and brain. Those are my primary tools. I have to observe, assess, and instruct. An iPad is also useful; I can record the patient, then slow down and observe specific movements.

As for actual “tool” tools, I use Graston Technique® tools for what we call “soft tissue mobilization” (we don’t really use the term “massage”). Graston tools are stainless steel tools that manipulate soft tissue. We also use weight, resistance bands, balance boards, and all kinds of fitness club machines like bikes and treadmills.

7. What is your work environment like?

People-intensive. (We have lots of patients plus about 40 coworkers!) You talk all day. You’re also on your feet a lot. Physical therapists are pretty fun-loving; there’s a lot of joking around because you’re balancing out pain and dysfunction and you want to stay cheerful for the patients’ sake.

8. What kind of person would you hire for your job?

We look for people who are independent, cheerful, intelligent, sociable, able to fend for themselves, and good at communication. You have to believe in what you’re doing so that patients trust you.

9. What are some lower-level occupations related to physical therapy?

Working as a physical therapist aide is considered to be on-the-job training for becoming a physical therapist. These aides are commonly students who have a high school diploma and are perhaps in college. Their job is to prep the patients, pick up after the therapists, and take care of the basic details so we can treat as many patients as possible.

There’s a middle position called a physical therapy assistant which needs an associate degree. These assistants are licensed, but they can’t do evaluative techniques, design treatment programs, and or make major changes to treatment programs. Their job is mostly to implement treatment under our direction.

10. If someone is thinking about becoming a physical therapist, what are some things they should know?

If someone is interested in medicine and likes hands-on work, but they don’t want a 60-70-hour work, then physical therapy might be for them. It’s a nine-to-five job, which is unusual in the medical field.

Take our free Discovery Questionnaire to see if you’d like to become a physical therapist! Follow FYC on Twitter, Instagram, and FacebookSign up for our monthly newsletter. Contact me at gwen@findyourcalling.com

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