David Hughes ’96 is studying to become a Physical Therapist at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Department of Applied Health Sciences. David has provided the following description of the field. He has also provided a list of the required courses for several programs and a Frequently Asked Questions page.

Who are physical therapists?

Physical therapists (PTs) are movement specialists whose duty is to help their patients perform their daily activities to the best of their ability. Daily activities can range from competing in elite sports to getting out of bed. Settings for the PT vary: outpatient clinics, hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers, and many more. Reasons for physical therapy include pain, post-surgery, rehabilitation from an injury, post-amputation prosthetic training, wound care and many other conditions.

One role of the physical therapist that has received attention more recently is as an advocate for a healthy lifestyle. There is a lot of focus on preventative treatment, and it is part of the PT’s job to help patients to avoid injuries rather than have to respond to them. 

How does one become a physical therapist?

Physical therapy school has evolved over the years, from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree in the 1980s to the current day, when almost all of the physical therapy programs are doctorate level (DPT). In general, they last about three years, with approximately two of those years being didactic (classroom) training and the rest of the time as clinical training. Programs vary as to how that is broken up.

In order to be accepted into a program, an applicant must complete a number of prerequisites, which always include the basic sciences (chemistry, physics and biology including anatomy and physiology), but can also include other disciplines such as math, psychology and writing.  Because programs vary in their prerequisites, it is very important to verify that your coursework matches up with the requirements of ALL of the schools to which you are applying.

In addition to the coursework, it is almost always required for you to do observation in PT settings. Not all schools will be clear about the number of hours necessary or the settings suggested. However, one admissions officer recommended that if you have a lot of experience at one location or in one setting, such as working in a clinic, depth would be the appropriate approach. On the other hand, if you are starting near scratch, breadth would be better, so you would want to work in various settings, such as an outpatient clinic, a hospital, a rehabilitation facility and/or a nursing home, to name a few.  In general, programs will require you to have clinical experience in a variety of settings, so this would be a good time to be prepared for those.

Physical therapy school is tough. You will be learning material that other health care professions (physicians, dentists, nurses, etc.) also learn.  Many of the tests will be on paper, but there are also oral exams at some schools, and practical exams at every school. Classroom hours are only the beginning, since a lot of study and practice time is necessary to perform well. At the end of the classroom portion of the program, the clinical experiences are each a full-time job and more. 

Testing Requirements

In order to qualify for admission to a graduate program, applicants must take the the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). This test, administered by the Educational Testing Service, is a comprehensive examination that measures skills in quantitative, verbal and analytical reasoning.

Visit the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) website for up-to-date information about this field. Also, look for the APTA list of accredited schools and contact your top choices for their admissions information.