How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)

An aging Baby Boomer population is driving a large demand for more healthcare professionals. Employment in healthcare occupations is projected to grow 13 percent between 2021 and 2031, a rate significantly faster than the national average for all occupations. For the physical therapist assistant (PTA), the demand is even more acute: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022), the need for physical therapy assistants and aides is set to grow 24 percent by 2031, adding an estimated 33,900 jobs.

PTAs work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists. They will implement some aspects of care, collect information related to certain treatments, and coordinate with the physical therapist to adjust a client’s care. They can help clients with particular exercises, educate clients about what to do after treatment, and perform administrative tasks. PTAs can work with patients of all ages, and those both healthy and injured. They largely work in hospitals or privately-owned practices, but can also work in home health, schools, or rehabilitation units.

As older people stay active longer than ever before, PTAs are in high demand. PTAs are also critical resources for helping people maintain their mobility through chronic conditions. As physical therapy is sought out more and more, physical therapists will rely on assistants to help them manage their caseload and provide the best care possible.

The BLS projects there will be approximately 23,800 job openings for physical therapist assistants every year this decade. And since this is a career that requires only an associate’s degree, it’s possible to take advantage of this position’s rapid growth sooner rather than later.

To learn more about how to become a physical therapist assistant, read on.

Steps to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Step 1: Graduate From High School Or Pass the GED (Four Years)

The first step to becoming a PTA is to graduate from high school or pass the General Educational Development (GED) test. While it’s not a strict requirement, aspiring PTAs should focus their attention on courses in biology, anatomy, and other sciences; extracurricular activities involving physical exercise can be a benefit, too.

Step 2: Complete An Approved Associate’s Degree Program (Two Years)

After graduating from high school, aspiring PTAs must complete an associate’s degree program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). These programs typically last five semesters and are split between 75 percent classroom study and 25 percent hands-on clinical education.

The curriculum will cover topics such as anatomy, behavioral science, biomechanics, clinical pathology, exercise physiology, and kinesiology. Aspiring PTAs can streamline their application experience by using the Physical Therapist Assistant Centralized Application Service (PTACAS), hosted by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

St. Philip’s College

St. Philip’s College offers an associate of applied science (AAS) degree that prepares students to become physical therapist assistants. Labs expose students to topics such as electrotherapy, thermal agents, therapeutic exercises, the use of exercise equipment, rehab techniques, and functional treatment. During clinical courses, students will be onsite in a clinical setting for 40 or more hours per week; clinical courses range from five to seven weeks in length.

  • Location: San Antonio, TX
  • Accreditation: CAPTE
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $6,592 per semester (non-resident)

Cerritos College

Cerritos College offers an associate of science (AS) degree that prepares graduates to take the National Examination for Physical Therapist Assistants (NPTE) and the California Laws Test for Physical Therapist Assistant licensure.

Courses include soft tissue interventions; neurology; physical therapy aspects of growth and development; prosthetics and orthotics for applied health professionals; and aspects of aging and integumentary management. Students will also complete a licensing exam review before graduation.

  • Location: Cerritos, CA
  • Accreditation: CAPTE
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $320 per unit (non-resident)

LaGuardia Community College

LaGuardia Community College offers an associate of applied science (AAS) through its physical therapy assistant program. In the pre-clinical phase of the program, students will take courses in subjects such as human anatomy and physiology; general psychology; community health; and functional pathology.

Students must also complete 50 volunteer hours in physical therapy before entering the technical phase. The PTA core includes topics such as clinical kinesiology; functional gait training skills; and neuromuscular rehabilitation. Graduates are eligible for certification by the State of New York.

  • Location: Long Island City, NY
  • Accreditation: CAPTE
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $320 per unit (non-resident)

Step 3: Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (Timeline Varies)

All PTAs must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) and required by all states for licensure. The exam assesses each candidate’s entry-level competence after graduation from an accredited program. It consists of 250 multiple-choice questions presented as patient scenarios; exam-takers will have five hours to complete it. Scaled scores range from 200 to 800, with 600 being the threshold for passing.

The NPTE is broken down into the following content sections, in order from most-tested to least-tested: evaluation, examination, intervention, and non-system domains (equipment & devices, therapeutic modalities, safety & protection, professional responsibilities, and research). The exam also covers nine systems (again, in order from most-tested to least-tested): musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular, lymphatic, integumentary, metabolic & endocrine, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and system interactions.

Applicants can register to take the NPTE no more than 150 days before they graduate from their CAPTE-accredited program. Currently, 36 states allow PTAs to sit for the NPTE before graduation. The NPTE is offered four times a year: in January, April, July, and October.

Step 4: Achieve State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Every PTA must be licensed to practice, and licensure requirements are managed individually by state regulatory boards. While each state requires PTAs to pass the NPTE, there are additional state-level obligations that must be met as well. More information on state licensing authorities, and on each state’s specific licensure requirements, can be found on the FSBPT website.

Step 5: Gain Advanced Proficiency (Optional, Timeline Varies)

While it’s not a requirement, PTAs may choose to pursue advanced proficiency in a specific area of physical therapy through the APTA’s PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways program. Pathways are available in the following skill areas: acute care, cardiovascular, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, orthopedics, pediatrics, and wound management.

To be eligible, candidates must be members of APTA and licensed as PTAs. Candidates will also need a self-designated supervising physical therapist and clinical mentor. Once enrolled, candidates have five years to complete all program requirements, which include: 60 hours of continuing education in the designated specialty pathway; completion of all mentored clinical experiences; and documentation of 2,000 hours of work experience in the designated specialty area.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in medical technology, particularly the modernization of the medical laboratory and the network effects of both health data management and health IT. In consultation with professors, practitioners, and professional associations, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best. For, he’s interviewed leaders and subject matter experts at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).