Knowing how hard it is going to be to become a physical therapist is very important if you are either considering applying, currently applying, or already accepted into physical therapy school. You are about to make a decision that will change your life forever. As someone who has had the same questions and nearing the end of my own three year physical therapy program I am here to answer your questions.
Becoming a physical therapist will be a difficult journey for most people. It is challenging both to get the education to practice as well as after becoming licensed. Getting accepted into PT school will require an enormous amount of dedication and grit to acquire the necessary pre-requisites and experience many schools find adequate. After being accepted you will be required to dedicate to memory an immeasurable amount of information ranging from anatomy and physiology to differences in culture. Just when you think it is over you will need to sit for the 5 hour national exam which decides whether you can start the rest of your life or return back to the books.
After you are finally a practicing Doctor of Physical Therapy you will have more challenges to come. Firstly, landing a job. Depending on the market when you graduate this could be very easy or somewhat difficult, but rest assured PT’s are almost always in need somewhere, just depends on where you want to go.
Second, you will need to stay up to date on your licensure and any additional credentials you acquire which leads to my last point. You will need to be a dedicated life-long learner. The thought may sound great to some and an instant turn off for others, but this is a reality to all therapists in order to stay up-to-date and relevant.
Now that may sound scary, but if you’ve read to the point without being turned away there is light at the end of the tunnel. In the rest of this article we will break down harsh realities and shed light on the transition from an interested future therapist to a posh professional.
How Competitive Is The Physical Therapy Field?
When trying to decide how competitive the physical therapy field is we need to break the question into two parts. Pre PT school and post grad.
The answer is for when you are pre-PT is VERY competitive. I have tried to find a central source of acceptance rates for physical therapy schools and this just does not exist. Some websites make wild claims that are based off of extremely inaccurate numbers and do not paint a realistic picture at all. For example this misleading website claims university of Iowa has a 80%+ acceptance rate for their PT program. They state very obviously on their website their actual acceptance rate is ~7% (36-40/500 applicants).
The truth is most PT schools only accept 5-7% of their applicants. Which means 95% of people who want to go to a particular program will have to find another school or another career path!
This doesn’t mean do not pursue this career. What this does mean is you better read all of the requirements in-depth, do not make any assumptions, and exceed that institutions expectations.
A large handful of the applications will be automatically thrown out due to negligence (not meeting pre-reqs, not having enough observation hours, not hitting grade threshold, etc). After that you need to show your commitment by doing more than the minimum expected of you. Keep in mind showing diversity is important, good grades are awesome, but so is having genuine interests that you pursue outside of school that show perseverance or your dedication to community.
At this stage you have made it out of the trenches, you have your degree, and you are certified nationally. How competitive is the field of physical therapy now? Well that answer depends on so many factors. In the beginning you will most likely want to spread your nets wide and find anyplace willing to pay you and is somewhat related to your interests. Unless you were a superstar and super involved during PT school your resume looks just like everyone else who graduated that year.
Once you land that first job now is the time to really start building your resume and competing for those higher level jobs. The competition really depends on your path. It will be different depending on whether you are applying for grants for research, residency or fellowship training, or wanting to work up the leadership ladder in your institution.
In either case you will want to show a genuine interest and drive for whatever you are doing to get the attention of those reviewing your next application. To do that participate in events, get extra certifications, volunteer after work. Anything to make you stand out from the rest.
How Hard Is Physical Therapy School?
It is no walk in the park. You will need to compress an unimaginable amount of information into your head in a very short period of time. Not just cramming either. This is information that must be retained and is necessary to make a difference in a real persons life. Your ability to use this information is the difference between someone being independent in their daily life and participating in society, or needing to depend on external support systems and potentially feel like a burden.
There will be many long days that end with long nights. There will be an indescribable amount of “chaos” you will need to endure in order to pass your classes and get in the information you need to be a competent PT. The good news is you are in control of how difficult it will be. You can chose to do a little each day, pay attention in class, study consistently, and take some time for yourself. Or you can cram at the last minute, get behind on projects, not practice your skills, and not ask questions. One option will smooth out some of the bumpiness, the other option will be quite the roller coaster ride. The choice is yours.
How Long Is Physical Therapy School?
Most programs are 2.5-3 years. The one exception is 3+3 programs where you start your journey to DPT your freshman year of undergraduate studies. In this program you do an accelerated undergrad program and go directly into PT coursework after the first 3 years. This method shaves off atleast 1 year from your schooling and the anxiety of knowing where you will go to school.
Do I Have To Be Really Smart To Be A Physical Therapist?
No, you do not need to be “really” smart, but you need to be able to critically think. There are many traits that go into being a great physical therapist. Smarts are only one piece of the equation. The fact that you asked this question means you probably have what it takes to make a great physical therapist.
While being smart certainly helps it gets to a point where it becomes a negative. I have worked with therapists who are extremely smart, they aced every test and could recite all of the literature about a given topic. These same individuals will fumble when you put a live person in front of them. They over think and fail to treat the person in front of them. It pays to be smart, but the ability to treat the patient in front of you is more important
Traits I would value higher than smarts all things being equal? Interpersonal skills, empathy, ability to problem solve, abstract thinking, grit, perseverance humility, and many many more. I have met therapists that struggle to get C’s on exams, yet can change a patients life for the better in just one session. Big take away is if you want to be great you can be so as long as you put in the work and treat the patient in front of you.