What academic degree is needed to become a physical therapist?

To practice physical therapy one must be a graduate of a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education and have satisfactorily passed the National Physical Therapy Exam for Licensure. A list of accredited and developing programs is available on the American Physical Therapy Association, website.

What is the best undergraduate major as preparation for the physical therapy curriculum?

There are a number of undergraduate degrees that a student can obtain to be eligible for a physical therapist program as long as the prerequisite coursework requirements are met. The best advice is to follow your area of interest. No one major is looked upon more favorably than another; however, a strong background in the biological sciences is recommended. At The University of Iowa, the most popular undergraduate majors of pre-PT students are Human Physiology, Biology, and Psychology.

What are some suggested elective courses to take during undergraduate years?

Courses in exercise physiology, neuroscience, biomechanics, genetics, kinesiology, speech/communication, public speaking, business courses, organizational leadership, and medical terminology would be helpful. Most students say that the more science they have as undergraduates, the more meaningful the profession curriculum is.

Will I have a better chance of being admitted to the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at the University of Iowa if I complete my undergraduate work at The University of Iowa?

As long as you are a graduate of an accredited college or university in the U.S. and meet the required GPA, applicants from all schools are treated equally. In 2023, the students enrolled came from 22 different colleges. Almost all colleges and universities have courses which will allow one to complete the prerequisites.

Can I specialize in one area, for example sports physical therapy, in the entry-level program?

No, the emphasis in entry level education is on training a generalist in practice. However, an introduction to the specialty areas is available during clinical experiences. Formal certification as a clinical specialist requires clinical experience as a physical therapist and the passing of a specialist certification examination. Clinical specialty areas in physical therapy are: orthopaedics, geriatrics, sports, neurologic, pediatrics, cardiopulmonary, clinical electrophysiologic, women's health, and oncologic.

What can I do to enhance my chances of successful admission to a physical therapy program?

  • Pay close attention to the admission criteria for a minimum of 3 or 4 programs to which you intend to apply. Be certain to meet their prerequisite coursework.

  • Do well academically.

  • Research the field and try to get volunteer or work experience in a variety of health care or physical therapy settings. We recommend a broad exposure of at least 50-60 hours to physical therapy in more than one setting. For example, an in-patient setting and an out-patient setting.

  • Develop your rationale as to why you want to be a physical therapist.

  • Meet with your undergraduate advisor and a physical therapy faculty member to discuss other strategies to improve your application.

2023 Applicant Pool - The University of Iowa

In 2023 we interviewed 138 applicants (68 Iowa Residents; 70 Nonresidents).  Fifty (50) students enrolled (32 Iowa Residents; 18 Nonresidents). The mean cumulative GPA of the students enrolled in 2023 was 3.76. The prerequisite GPA mean was 3.67. The mean verbal GRE score was 153.9 (60.5%); mean quantitative score was 155.9 (53.9%); and mean analytical score was 4.4 (70.6%). 

What qualities are needed to be a good physical therapist?

As with most health professions, a practitioner should be intelligent and have an ethic of caring. Communication and interpersonal skills are vital. These traits are needed to deal both with the patient and the patient's family. Manual dexterity and physical stamina are important as is a commitment to life-long learning.

Are physical therapists licensed?

Yes, the National Physical Therapy Examination is given in all states. To take the exam one must be a graduate of an accredited program in physical therapy. The purpose of licensure is to protect the public from unqualified practitioners. Other requirements for physical therapy practice vary from state to state according to physical therapy practice acts or state regulations governing physical therapy.

How much do physical therapists earn?

According to the most recent data from the APTA, the median annual income of salaried physical therapists who worked full time  for 10-15 years in the field was $89,000.  Starting salaries for new graduates average around $64,000 and vary depending on geographic regions and practice settings. Starting salaries in the Midwest range from $65,000 - $85,000 with 0-3 years of experience.

Where do physical therapists practice and what is the employment outlook?

Physical therapists work in a variety of settings including but not limited to hospitals, private clinics, rehab facilities, home health agencies, nursing homes, schools, sports clinics, fitness centers and industry.  A substantial number of physical therapists are in private practice. Some teach, conduct research, or serve as consultants. Indications are that the need for physical therapists will remain high as the population both grows and ages and as physical therapists become more involved in the areas of health and wellness promotion. Physical therapy continues to offer great opportunities.