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How To Start Your Physical Or Occupational Therapist Career

physical therapy and occupational therapy career options

When a patient gets injured in one of a variety of different ways, therapy plays an essential role in managing those injuries. Whether you become an occupational therapist or a physical therapist, you will instruct your patients on ways to prevent or avoid injuries, while educating them on their healing processes.

Physical therapists help their patients with their movement abilities and pain management. Occupational therapist enlist daily activities to help patients recover the skills they need to go about their day.

Both OT and PT treat and rehabilitate their patients who have chronic medical conditions. The main difference in the two careers is the schooling that’s involved. PT has a more intense educational path, including a postdoctoral degree, and OT needs a master’s degree. Find out more about the two similar yet different careers of occupational therapy and physical therapy.


Main Article: How to Become a Physical Therapist

Main Article: From an industry leader: Career Talk

It doesn’t matter if your patients are from a professional sports team or they are postsurgical stay-at-home moms, you are there to help them get back on their feet. Literally. Your patients will lean on you as you help them restore their mobility after an injury or surgery (or both). Because you’ll have patients coming to you for quite a while, you really get to know them well, which some physical therapists will admit is a nice perk of the career.

What Physical Therapists Do

When patients come in with a physical disability, injury, or disease that affects their mobility and causes pain, your goal is to help them achieve a better quality of life. Here’s how you’ll go about doing that:

  • Explore the patient’s medical records along with the treating medical staff’s recommendations.
  • Spend time observing your patient’s movements in order to come up with a diagnose.
  • Create a plan of action along with expectations and projected outcomes.
  • By using exercising, stretching, and other forms of therapy, to lessen pain and increase mobility.
  • Evaluate your patient’s progress, and modify your plan as needed.
  • Meet with the family of your patient to get them involved in recovery.


There is quite a bit of schooling ahead of you if you want to be a physical therapist. Here’s an abridged version of what your life will look like:

  • Get your high school diploma.
  • Enroll in a bachelor’s degree program where you’ll major in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, biology, chemistry, or physics (or any other related field). However, if you already know which doctoral program you plan to enroll in, then check with them to see which bachelor’s degrees are acceptable.
  • Find a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, if you haven’t already. There are around 230 programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.
  • Apply to schools through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service.
  • The DPT programs take approximately three years to complete.
  • Complete your 30 weeks of clinical (hands-on) work.
  • All states require PTs to become licensed, so do that now.
  • After graduation, you have to option to apply to a resident program, which lasts a year. This will permit you to do a fellowship in an advanced area of physical therapy.
  • Once you’ve gained some work experience, you can become a board-certified specialist. There are nine specialties you can consider including women’s health, orthopedics, sports, pediatric, and geriatrics.

Job Outlook and Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for physical therapists was $92,920, with the top 10 percent earning an average of $127,110 in 2021.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also predicts a positive job market for physical therapists. With an expected increased employment of 21 percent by 2030 (much faster than the national average), physical therapy appears to be a promising career path.


There will be a whole slew of reasons patients need to see you, from illnesses through disabilities. You’ll work with them to improve their health and wellbeing via occupational therapy.

What Occupational Therapists Do

For one reason or another, your patients have lost abilities because of disabling mental, physical, developmental, or emotional conditions. You will help your patients by:

  • Talking to your patient, finding out his or her medical history, and observing movements.
  • Doing a patient evaluation.
  • Identifying the goals and creating a patient treatment plan to match.
  • Helping patients with ways to better improve their living conditions, making their homes conducive to their needs.
  • Recommending special equipment such as walkers, wheelchairs, or other devices.
  • Teaching your patient how to use the prescribed devices.
  • Recording your patient’s progress for the treating medical staff and insurance billing.


In order to become an occupational therapist, you need to have the proper education and licensing. You must:

  • Get your high school diploma.
  • Complete your bachelor’s degree. Some graduation requirements include physiology, biology, and kinesiology.
  • Work as a volunteer in an occupational therapy setting.
  • Go on for your Master of Occupational Therapy. This takes two to three years.
  • Complete six months of a supervised fieldwork study program.
  • Take and pass the national exam given by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).
  • Consider specializing in areas such as vision, pediatrics, geriatrics, or mental health.

Job Outlook and Salary

Once you graduate and pass the NBCOT, you can become a licensed OT. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for occupational therapists in 2021 was $89,470 in 2021. Your salary can vary depending on your location, experience, and industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment growth of occupational therapists is expected to increase 17 percent by 2030, which is much faster than the national average.


As either a PTA or OTA, you’ll work with the therapists to provide treatment to patients. Your job will be extremely hands on as you guide your patients along their journey to a healthy and relatively pain-free life.


You’re very interested in a physical therapy career, but you really don’t want to spend the next seven years in school. Well, you can have your cake and eat it too by deciding to become a physical therapy assistant (PTA).

What Physical Therapy Assistants Do

Therapy assistants help patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working activities. Therapy assistants are directly involved in providing therapy to patients, working under the direction of a physical or occupational therapist.


When you’re searching for an associate degree program, make sure you pick one that’s accredited. That will make a huge difference when you go to take the required licensing exam (unless you’re in Hawaii).

  • Get your high school diploma or GED.
  • Go to a community college or trade school for the physical therapy assistant program. It shouldn’t be too terribly hard to find one: There are over 350 accredited programs in the country.
  • Your program should also include a supervised hands-on clinical portion.
  • After two years of full time school, you’ll graduate with your associate degree.
  • Now it’s time to sit for and pass the licensing exam given through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
  • Once you’re licensed, it’s time to find yourself employment.
  • You can choose to specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, aquatic, and more.

Job Outlook and Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that physical therapy assistants made an average of $60,740 in 2021. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also states that the career outlook is expected to increase 32 percent by 2030, which is much faster than the national average of all occupations.


What An Occupational Therapy Assistant Does

The skills you teach your patients will carry them through the day, whether at work or at home. As an occupational therapy assistant, you will help the OT with:

  • Aiding the patient in stretches and exercises
  • Monitoring all patient activities
  • Using play and other activities when working with developmentally impaired children
  • Teaching patients how to use the equipment recommended by the OT
  • Doing administrative duties such as recording in patients’ records and reporting back to the OT
  • Working with the OT to develop a therapy plan


As you already know, you’ll be working underneath a certified occupational therapist. Even still, you will need a certain amount of education and training to be prepared for this career.

  • Get your high school diploma or GED.
  • Choose an accredited occupational therapy assistant program through a community college or trade school.
  • Get your associate degree.
  • The program you’re enrolled in must include 16 weeks of hands-on fieldwork.
  • Most states will require you to be licensed in order to work as an OT assistant.
  • Take continuing education to keep your license up to date.
  • Get a job!
  • Consider going back to school to advance your career by getting either a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Job Outlook and Salary

Occupational therapy assistants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, made an average of $63,560 in 2021. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also projects a growth rate of 34 percent by 2030 for occupational therapy assistants, which again, is much faster than the national average.


To become fully licensed, students must graduate from an accredited school. Most OT and PT classes need to be taken in a physical classroom. There are no accredited online courses at this time. Students interested in physical therapy should look for schools accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), while those interested in occupational therapy should enroll in a school accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).