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Physical Therapy Job Description: What You’ll Do

man helping woman in exercise

Here’s what’s involved in a physical therapist’s career.

As a physical therapist, your role will typically fall somewhere in between doctor and personal trainer—you’ll assess each patient’s condition, needs, and possible treatment outcomes, and then develop a multi-step plan to help restore them to full health.

Physical therapy patients can be any age and athletic ability, and you’ll treat a large variety of injuries and conditions.

What does a physical therapist do?

As a physical therapist, you might work in a physicians’ office, hospital, home health care service, or residential care facility. Your goal will be to develop treatment plans for clients who have lost mobility or strength in a particular area of their body. You’ll instruct clients in exercises and repetitive movements that they can use in physical therapy sessions and on their own time to help regain full physical capabilities. An example of daily tasks includes:

  • Assessing patients’ physical states and needs
  • Determining reasonable goals for clients
  • Demonstrating exercises properly for patients
  • Assisting clients in exercises to minimize injury and promote fitness
  • Monitoring patient progress
  • Modifying exercises as needed for patients

One responsibility that can be easy to overlook is fostering positivity for patients. Oftentimes, recovering from an injury or surgery can be frustrating and even scary for patients. Part of your job as a physical therapist will be to encourage and motivate your patients to do their best while undergoing physical therapy.

Take a look at median salaries for physical therapist at the national level, or choose your state.

Physical Therapists

National data

Median Salary: $91,010

Bottom 10%: $63,530

Top 10%: $126,780

Projected job growth: 20.5%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $92,200 $64,630 $129,480
Alaska $98,770 $65,680 $145,700
Arizona $90,240 $67,660 $124,030
Arkansas $84,950 $51,390 $123,870
California $105,910 $68,060 $142,480
Colorado $85,440 $61,540 $119,500
Connecticut $97,250 $72,490 $132,630
Delaware $96,060 $68,810 $128,960
District of Columbia $93,000 $69,940 $128,190
Florida $87,800 $48,460 $119,430
Georgia $86,950 $59,210 $124,640
Hawaii $89,600 $66,940 $129,390
Idaho $82,850 $50,590 $110,770
Illinois $95,470 $66,980 $134,480
Indiana $88,210 $61,340 $113,480
Iowa $81,580 $60,720 $110,060
Kansas $92,140 $65,300 $123,980
Kentucky $86,020 $61,560 $113,700
Louisiana $89,220 $60,280 $131,730
Maine $81,560 $63,070 $104,960
Maryland $91,510 $49,900 $124,770
Massachusetts $88,820 $61,500 $116,290
Michigan $86,780 $65,740 $110,670
Minnesota $86,280 $68,850 $105,170
Mississippi $91,540 $68,940 $122,020
Missouri $85,460 $59,190 $108,310
Montana $81,440 $63,080 $110,690
Nebraska $85,280 $66,010 $110,350
Nevada $99,670 $72,220 $175,010
New Hampshire $85,170 $66,280 $104,790
New Jersey $100,390 $72,010 $131,920
New Mexico $93,310 $66,190 $151,620
New York $91,770 $66,630 $125,910
North Carolina $86,450 $63,270 $113,230
North Dakota $83,830 $67,530 $105,690
Ohio $89,680 $64,160 $121,300
Oklahoma $93,010 $59,900 $129,680
Oregon $90,200 $68,950 $116,580
Pennsylvania $89,140 $62,720 $127,130
Rhode Island $85,930 $58,860 $116,480
South Carolina $88,270 $51,280 $112,140
South Dakota $78,980 $58,040 $101,520
Tennessee $88,880 $52,730 $118,100
Texas $90,630 $52,710 $129,990
Utah $83,010 $58,260 $118,480
Vermont $77,800 $55,610 $103,250
Virginia $94,230 $69,710 $125,600
Washington $92,660 $66,850 $116,120
West Virginia $85,950 $62,460 $132,110
Wisconsin $88,460 $66,540 $113,780
Wyoming $88,240 $68,390 $119,100

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2020 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

What degree or certification will I need to become a physical therapist?

Becoming a physical therapist will require you to earn your doctorate from an accredited physical therapy program. In addition to earning your degree, you’ll also need to pass national and state licensing exams. Depending on where you live, the licensing requirements will vary. However, if you work hard in your degree program, you should be well prepared to take and pass your state’s licensure exam.

Once you’ve earned your license, you’re eligible to begin working as a physical therapist. Bear in mind that you will be expected to regularly complete training and education that will keep you up-to-date on shifting health and safety regulations within your field.

What career paths can I take as a physical therapist?

As a physical therapist, your main task will be to help patients regain or maintain the best body function possible. This task could involve a specific type of patient, or a wide range. Physical therapists can work with patients who are recovering from injury or surgery, elderly patients, or special needs patients. Possible places of work for physical therapists include:

  • Health practitioners’ offices: In a health practitioner’s office, you will work in tandem with other health care professionals to provide patients with holistic treatment. Depending on the patient, your duties in a health practitioner’s office will vary. Usually, you will work with the same patients regularly for a certain period of time, until their conditions improve.
  • Hospitals: Many physical therapists who work in hospitals will interact primarily with patients who need an extended stay or who are recovering from surgery or serious injury. You will help patients either regain body function, or adjust to having a life-changing injury.
  • Home health care services: Being a physical therapist for a home health care service means you will visit patients in their own homes to work with them there. This can involve massage, exercise, or even helping to come up with solutions for in-home mobility issues patients might have in day-to-day tasks.
  • Nursing care facilities: This will often (though not necessarily always) involve working with elderly patients. In a nursing home setting, you will be responsible for working with patients to improve overall function and promote best possible mobility for each patient’s individual condition.
  • Self-employment: Owning or co-owning a physical therapy practice is no easy task, but it does have benefits; you can choose your own hours, practices, and even decide to focus on a specific type of patient.

Learn about pay and salary projections for physical therapists.