Is Physical Therapy Harder Than Nursing? It’s About The Nuance

It is common for these two professions to be compared when you are deciding on which medical career you are going to spend your time and money pursuing. On paper it may seem hard to decide whether you should become a nurse or a physical therapist and if quality of life is a concern of yours then how “hard” one may be will be a deciding factor. In this article we will dive into the nuance of each profession and help you decide for yourself which one is a better fit.

Both nursing and physical therapy have their own unique challenges so it is impossible to objectively determine which one is harder. It is best to assess your strengths, weaknesses, and interests to find your better fit. To avoid being subjective it is crucial to look at all aspects of the professions and pair yourself to the one that most closely aligns to your personal values. This will lead you to the most satisfaction at the end of the day.

Generally if your are passionate about movement science IE, you want to use exercise to improve the health of others you will find PT to be more “easy” for you. On the other hand, if you are more intrigued by conventional medicine approaches like prescription management or scrubbing into operating rooms then nursing may be a better fit for you.

What Is The Difference Between Physical Therapists and Nurses?

It is important to start with a common definition when describing these two professions. Nursing is a common field that the average household is familiar with, but many people aren’t too sure what exactly physical therapist do.

Nurses work in conjunction with doctors and other healthcare professionals to coordinate, plan, and deliver treatment to patients diagnosed with any number of medical conditions. This involves things such as placing lines and tubes, delivering medicine, coordinating discharge from the hospital, etc.

Physical therapists work with patients of all ages who have or may develop physical impairments, activity limitations, or participation restrictions due to a disease, disorder, or injury. By providing rehabilitation, performance enhancement, and prevention services, physical therapists help individuals achieve the best possible quality of life as it relates to body movement and health.

The Different Schooling Requirements Between Physical Therapists and Nurses?

Nursing has multiple academic entry points for someone wanting to become an RN ranging from an associates degree to a doctor in nursing. Physical therapists cannot start practicing until they attain their doctorate in physical therapy requiring a minimum of 6-7 years of training.

Nursing: There is a range of academic requirements with the lowest entry level being an associates degree and taking the national nursing exam. however, most people in modern days opt for their bachelors in nursing,

It may seem tempting to cut two years out and get your associates if it gets you the same license, but more jobs recently require a B.A. at minimum in order to be considered for employment and this trend is expected to increase. Also, there is a very short ceiling for nurses with only an associates degree. On average individuals start out making ~$15,000 less for the same job when they only have an associates, this is also coupled with an inability to move up the promotion ladder when compared to a BSN.

Physical therapy: Like stated earlier the most common path is to attain a B.A. first that satisfies the pre-requisites for the school you are looking to attend. After this step is accomplished the next is attaining acceptance to an accredited DPT program, followed by successfully graduating with your DPT.

There may be a slightly shorter option if you know ahead of time you want to become a DPT by attending a 3 + 3 program doctor of physical therapy program where you complete 3 years of undergraduate training then 3 years of DPT schooling in one smooth shot.

You will see individuals with Masters or even B.A. in physical therapy, but these have been phased out many years ago and these individuals have been grand-fathered into modern DPT practice.

What Can A Career Path Look Like: Nurses Vs Physical Therapists

Nurses and physical therapist can be found in very similar settings often working side by side in patient care. Common settings include hospitals, doctors offices, outpatient clinics, homecare, and nursing homes.

Physical therapists have additional settings they can find themselves that include sports teams, self-owned private practice, gyms, and telehealth exclusively.

While both physical therapists and nurses share many of the same settings, the work schedules between the two can vary drastically. It is common place for a nurse to only work 3 days a week but 12 hour shifts where as a PT typically works five 8 hour days or maybe four 10 hour days. While this sounds nice for nurses if you want 4 days off, a nurse commonly works night shifts where this is extremely rare for a physical therapists who typically starts 7am-10am and finishes 3pm-7pm.

Both careers offer opportunities for vertical and horizontal growth. Meaning you could work up the leadership ladder and eventually run a department or even an entire hospital with either degree. Both would need more education, nurses most likely requiring a doctorate and both possibly requiring a degree in public health or healthcare administration.

Both offer horizontal growth through a surplus of specializations to chose from. Some examples for PT’s include sports, orthopedics, pediatrics, acute care, and so much more. Nursing including ambulatory care, cardiac, critical care, dialysis, and so much more.

Did you ever want to work for yourself?

You can open and own your own autonomous practice as physical therapist, but NOT as a nurse. This is a huge factor to consider when choosing between the two professions. If you are fine with needing to always be tied to a hospital or doctors office then nursing will not be hard for you. On the other hand, if you think there is any chance you would want to work for yourself this will not be an option for a nurse.

Which Career is Harder Nursing or Physical Therapy?

Each career will have their own challenges and sticking points. The profession that is more difficult will depend on your specific strong suits, interests, and skills.

In order to see which one will be harder lets take a look at the biggest drawbacks of each career choice.

Physical therapy:

  • Debt- the most obvious and painful drawback. The debt to income ratio for PT’s is astronomical in the negative direction for most PT’s. It is not talked about enough and many PT students have been lied to that money doesn’t matter and that they will just have “another bill” but be able to do something they love. The bill is huge and the income to support can be challenging.
  • Reimbursement– going along the same lines as the previous, insurance pays less and less for PT services in the U.S. each year causing wages to stagnate and coupled with huge inflation caused by US politics, living on a PT salary becomes more difficult.
  • Burnout– many employers in-response to decreasing reimbursements increase productivity requirements (patients seen per day) to be able to still turn a profit and pay staff. This causes PT’s to see sometimes an unethical amount of patients per day which leads to burnout if not properly managed.
  • Ambiguity– the research in the field and the nature of the service lends the profession to have many grey area when it comes to treatment plans. This puts the pressure on the DPT to properly research and adapt treatments for each patient individually. This lends itself to a lot of trial and error which can be frustrating at times and cause a yearning for more standardized protocols.


  • Hours– Nurses are known to provide 24hr service. This lends itself to unstable and long work schedules that can be rough on the body when irregular and overbearing. Hospitals make up the number one employer for nurses which requires nurses to work many weekends and holidays which can be frustrating when it comes to friend and family events. Understaffing is common as well especially after what has unfolded post 2020 which only adds fuel to the fire.
  • Stress and burnout– Couple these hour requirements with being yelled at from doctors and patients the career can feel like there is a lot of give and not much given back. In other words a thankless job described by some nurses. Nurses along with other healthcare professionals who cannot process these demands become “burned out” which can have negative mental and physical consequences.
  • Lack of Autonomy- Nurses are by design an auxiliary provider. They are the glue that keeps the system together, but are subject to following others decisions in order to provide their service. This can be frustrating because in some cases the nurse may be better prepared to make an executive decision, but be over shadowed by someone in a higher position. On top of this they can never operate their own practice like a DPT or MD could due to not having autonomy to treat patients.
  • Pace– Nurses work at a very high pace at all times. This could be a drawback if you are someone who prefers a more relaxed environment. Nurses are in everything and are the spine of the hospital. If you would rather play the background then this may not be the profession for you.

Here is a break down you can use to determine which one would be a better fit your you.

Physical TherapyNursing
Duties– Consulting with patients to learn about their medical conditions and how to self-manage
– Diagnosing movement problems and creating a treatment plan
– Teaching patients various therapeutic exercise techniques
– Maintaining patients’ records and monitoring goals and progress
– Advising patients and their families about in-home treatment options and exercises
– Providing manual therapy or stimulation to promote healing
– Increasing mobility for patients with the use of assistive devices, such as wheelchairs or walkers
– Administering care directly to patients who are sick, injured, recovering or experiencing disability
– Supervising physical therapist assistance and techs
– Performing physical examinations to evaluate patient health issues
– Administering care directly to patients who are sick, injured, recovering or experiencing disability
– Developing and implementing nursing care plans
– Educating patients about their medical conditions and the treatment plan they have to follow
– Supervising nursing aides, assistants and other licensed nurses and medical professionals
– Ensuring a hazard-free and hygienic working environment
– Providing emotional support to patients and their families
– Administering and analyzing medical tests
– Assisting physicians during medical procedures
– Encouraging patients and their families to adopt healthy habits
Education– Doctorate in Physical Therapy (3 year graduate program + 4 year undergraduate)
– Pass NPTE
– Degrees range from Associates-Doctorate degree (2-8 years)
Debt– Average DPT student debt $142,489 (APTA)Associate Degree Nursing (ADN): $19,928 average debt.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): $23,711 average debt.
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN): $47,321 average debt.
– no night shifts
– rarely making life or death decisions
– general high levels of job satisfaction
– copious amounts of documentation
– some settings can have very high productivity requirements
– caregiver burnout
– multiple job settings
– compensations
– time off
– working weekends and holidays
– contact with bodily fluids and contagious disease
– short staff

Should You Pursue Nursing or Physical Therapy?

If you are someone who would prefer to take a holistic approach to delivery healthcare then you may prefer to go the physical therapy route. Physical therapists create treatment plans that are heavily reliant on patients specific concerns and needs, promotion of patient autonomy, reducing the need for prescriptions, and avoiding surgery.

If you prefer to follow a more traditional medicine role involving medical management and intervention as well as help patients through education and compassion then nursing might be the fit for you.

Physical therapists interests in high-school and college most likely revolved around exercise and/or sports, where as nurses probably excelled in their science classes and volunteered for extracurriculars such as leadership committees.

In general,

Pursue nursing if:

  • You enjoy fast paced environments
  • You’re competitive
  • You enjoy taking care of others
  • You can handle difficult situations
  • You have tough skin

Pursue physical therapy if:

  • You have a deep appreciation for the human body
  • You see exercise and vital to health
  • You can critically think under pressure
  • You can put others values ahead of your own
  • You want to help others

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