Physical Therapy Or Nursing: Finances and Career Growth

So you are for sure that you want to go into the medical field and have narrowed your interest down into either physical therapy or nursing. Now you are trying to decide which one you should invest your time and money into for the next half a decade. In this article we will look at the financial benefits and burdens of each career as well as what the future could bring.

In a previous post I broke down whether nursing or physical therapy is harder based on job duties, schooling requirements, debt, stress, etc. Go check that article out if you are still not sure which one you like from a pure “personality” perspective.

While following your passion is great the money does matter. You want to be well informed about your financial future when deciding to go down a particular career path. Many students are told that money doesn’t matter and to just “follow your interest”. Yes, you should be very interested in what you do in order to be happy, but you should also not be buried in debt in order to do so.

Comparing Salary Between Physical Therapist and Nurse

First, let us look at the average salary of an entry level nurse vs a physical therapist. It is important to distinguish entry level from more advanced professionals due to the salaries varying dramatically between the advancements, especially for nurses.

*Median Pay*Physical Therapist Nurse
Entry Level Salary$75,729/yr$77,734/yr
Pay Per Hour (*must read below)$45.97 $37.31
Salary after 5-6 years$85,927/yr$94,415/yr

Entry Level Physical Therapist Salary1

$75,729/yr median pay across the entire United States for therapists with 0-1 years of experience. Median pay meaning half of those in this career make more than this and half make less. This is broken down to be $55,133/yr base pay with an additional $20,596/yr in additional pay. Additional pay may include bonuses, commissions, tips, and profit sharing.

Entry Level Nursing Salary2

$77,734/yr median pay across the entire United States for therapists with 0-1 years of experience. Median pay meaning half of those in this career make more than this and half make less. This is broken down to be $58,026/yr base pay with an additional $19,708 /yr in additional pay. Additional pay may include bonuses, commissions, tips, and profit sharing

Median salary for physical therapists can expect to increase to $85,927 after 4-6 years of experience whereas nurses can expect a bump to $94,415/yr after the same amount of time.

It is important to consider the intangibles when it comes to both of these careers. *Here is a very important point to consider. According to the bureau of labor statistics the median hourly wage for a physical therapist is $45.97 Physical Therapists ( whereas it is $37.31 for a nurse Registered Nurses (

What does this mean?! How could nurses make less per hour but make more money per year?


Nurses commonly work overtime due to employee shortage and increased demands. This allows them to generate time and a half pay during those extra hours. Working more than 40 hrs/week combined with being payed time and a half allows them to end the year with more money in their pocket.

These stats are important when it comes to determining your path. Yes you may make more money as a clinical nurse vs a clinical physical therapists, but you will also have to work more hours in order to do so.

I further break down the intangibles in this article touch topics such as night work and working 12 hour shifts for PT’s vs nurses.

Education Cost: Physical Therapist vs Nurses

Next, we need to look at the cost of education for nurses vs physical therapists as there is a large difference.

Average Physical Therapy School Graduate Debt

The average student who graduates from an accredited Doctor of Physical Therapy school program leaves with $142,489 of debt according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

Average Nursing School Graduate Debt (

Nurses can enter the work force with a variety of degree levels as opposed to PT’s so here is their break down.

  • 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.

This info may be what makes or breaks your decision. How much help will you have to pay for school? If you are lucky enough to have financial assistance that you are not in debt to then either career option is a great one. If on the other hand you are solely responsible then maybe consider working while in school, scholarships, or accept the amount of debt as it comes.

Opportunity Costs

There are opportunity costs to each career choice that are important to consider. These are things that most people do not realize until it is too late so read carefully in order to make the best decision for yourself.

When pursuing nursing you can start working 5 years earlier with an associates and 3 years earlier with a bachelors. Quoting the numbers from earlier that is a lifetime career loss ranging from $233,205-$388,675 if you were to chose PT. On top of that it, is possible to work for a system that pays your way for a more advanced degree with the expectation you return so many years of employment. This will further increase your earning potential while decreasing your debt.

Working later in life due to higher degree requirements and having little to no opportunities for scholarships, loan forgiveness, or access to systems that will pay your way forward to a higher degree is a huge opportunity loss for physical therapists. On the other hand physical therapists are autonomous practitioners which enable them to escape from overbearing and unsatisfying healthcare systems. They can open a private practice, make the rules, and increase their earning potential to an almost limitless ceiling.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Both careers have several different advanced practice tracts that can be followed. Many people decide to advance to higher levels of their career at some point. If you think you may be one of those people it is important to think forward and have an idea for what is out there.

Career advancement opportunities for physical therapists

  • Physical therapy professor– You can chose to teach part-time and still treat or even become a full-time professor and dedicate your life to educating the next generation of therapists.
  • Research– you can earn a Phd in PT and pursue answering questions you have encountered in the field.
  • Administration- You can become a practice manager or a rehabilitation service director. A practice manager oversees a individual practice managing employees, treating patients, and making sure the business goals are being hit. A rehab director will work with multiple practices or large systems managing every aspect of the rehab team even other disciplines such as speech and occupational therapy.
  • Entrepreneur- You can chose to become independent and operate a small solo practice or run a medium to large business employing several to dozens of staff.

Career advancement opportunities for nurses

  • Nursing educator– For this option you would be involved with educating the next generation of nurses to follow you. You typically will be required to earn at least a masters to take on this role
  • Nursing/healthcare administration- This is a leadership role where you will be challenged to identify aggregate health or system needs and work with diverse stakeholders to achieve health-related goals
  • Researcher– This is for those who want to become more science based and spend their time researching to solve problems they saw in practice.
  • Specialty certified– Niche your skills to serve a specific population like pediatrics or to provide a specific service like nurse anesthetists. Any of which increase your pay.

In Summary

You have there are pro’s and con’s to each career and it really boils down to your debt tolerance, personality, and interest. Nursing has more clear routes for career growth and promotion whereas physical therapy is less stressful on a day to day bases and allows for more autonomy.

If you truly are stuck take some time shadowing each position before you jump right in to a profession.

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