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So You Want to be a Physical Therapist

Fast-growing demand, good pay and off-the-charts job satisfaction make the physical therapist career appealing. The one catch? Lots of schooling

A male physical therapist treats a male patient with shoulder pain

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Due to the demands of an aging population, many surveys of fast-growing professions rank physical therapy high on the list.

En español |  Thanks to the creaky knees and aching backs of aging Americans, it’s no surprise that so many surveys of fast-growing professions rank physical therapy high on the list. The median salary is $75,000, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a sizzling 39 percent growth rate in the coming decade. More surprising, though, is that it’s such a satisfying job, with a recent Forbes survey ranking it the third-happiest profession. (Only clergy and firefighters scored higher.)

One of the Happiest Jobs on Earth

“People go into this field because they want to help people get healthy and live better,” explains Jody Frost, PT, DPT, PhD, and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). “But unlike other health professions, where you might interact with patients for just five minutes, a PT works with people over an extended period of time. It’s a real relationship. That’s what makes it so rewarding.”

But becoming a physical therapist isn’t easy, and the extensive schooling scares off many midlife job-seekers. The field started in the World War I era, initially focusing on amputees and polio victims, but standards have been raised continually, and now require a doctoral-level degree, or DPT. Because the programs are rigorous, very few offer part-time, evening, or weekend options. And for older students, there’s the increased chance that old college credits may not transfer. While entry level salaries are high—between $60,000 and $65,000, reports the APTA—so is tuition for physical therapy education. Expect to pay $47,000 for public programs, and up to $90,000 for those at private universities.

“For someone in their 40s or 50s, this is an expensive commitment,” she says. “People have to ask themselves, `How many years do I have to work to make it worth it?’”

Still, those who decide to make the switch into a physical therapist career say the rewards make it all worthwhile. “I love my new job,” says Michael Johnson, 46, who graduated from the University of Michigan at Flint’s PT program in August, and now works at Memorial Healthcare in Owosso, Mich. “Yes, I have $90,000 worth of student debt. And yes, it’s meant that I don’t have a college fund for my three teenage sons. But my wife and I are confident that this was the right thing to do. It’s so gratifying to have clients thank me for working with them. And it’s satisfying to know that I’m solving health problems.”

The Long Road to a Degree

A career engineer, Johnson had been toying with the idea of becoming a PT. “Then, when the company I worked for was sold and I lost my job, it seemed like a sign.” On his first try, he got shot down. So he spent the next year working an IT job, volunteering at clinics, and retooling his application. When he finally got his acceptance email, “I set a record for being the fastest one to accept. It’s literally down the block and around the corner—I think I was there in 5 minutes.”

Others choose to work their way up the professional ladder while in school. Nancy Laird, 46, left her job as an office manager for the state of Delaware to become a physical therapist. “I wanted something more rewarding,” she says, and PT seemed like the best fit.

She began working as a physical therapy aide (itself a fast-growing profession with no credentials needed) while going to physical therapist school to become a physical therapy assistant, which requires an associate’s degree. (Again, the BLS lists this as a major opportunity, with a median salary of $50,000 per year.) “The job is at a smaller clinic, and I felt at home right away,” she recalls. She finished her associate’s degree in two years. “But as an assistant, there are limits to what you can do. I wanted to put all the pieces together, from beginning to the end.”

She spent 18 months finishing her bachelor’s degree, and then applied to the PT program at Neumann University, a 45-minute drive from her home in Bear, Delaware. While it allows her to continue working three days a week, the physical therapist education is intense: She’s in class from 7 am to 5:30 every Saturday and Sunday; there’s lots of homework, online tests and quizzes, and study groups. She expects to graduate when she will be almost 50.

Both Laird and Johnson say a supportive family is essential for transition into a physical therapist career. “We all had to suck it in,” says Johnson, “driving old cars and tightening our belts. And I had to figure out ways to balance studying and family time. We put a whiteboard up in my study area, so the kids could post their sports and school schedule and we could find more time to spend together.”

Laird says school “is definitely testing my organizational and time management skills, but—even though I am the oldest in my class—I don’t even notice an age difference anymore. I don’t even think about it. It’s a tough program, and we are all in this together.”

Her advice to people who might think they are “too old” to take on such a big challenge of becoming a physical therapist? “Get yourself organized, find a good support team, and then go for it. Life is too short. I want to be happy, and what makes this rewarding is what we do for other people. Patients are so grateful and appreciative, and I love knowing I am really helping.”

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