Career as a Physical Therapist

How to Advance as a Physical Therapist

Diploma in hand, job interview aced, experience under the belt... but now what?

For physical therapists, the next stop along the career path isn't always an obvious one. And how do you get there? As a result of our research here at ValuePenguin, we have identified three steps to take when moving up the ladder in the field. Along the way, we'll also detail related career options and ask 14 working professionals about how to excel.

When it comes to "related," all is relative. In fact, the careers most connected to that of physical therapist can be wildly different in terms of the education required, salary earned and common work activities. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are four somewhat similar jobs to keep in mind.


DegreeMedian Salary (2014)Job Growth (2014-2024)
ChiropractorDoctoral/professional$66,72017% (7,900 new jobs)
Occupational TherapistMaster's$78,81027% (30,400)
Physical Therapy AssistantAssociate's$41,64040% (51,400)
Recreational TherapistBachelor's$44,00012% (2,200)

Career Comparison: Physical Therapist versus Occupational Therapist

The biggest difference between PTs and OTs? Education level and types of patients. Occupational therapists need a master's degree, not necessarily a doctoral degree, and they specialize in helping people, such as those with disabilities, who are learning to live with an impairment instead of trying to eliminate it. OTs accomplish this by demonstrating exercises and recommending adaptive equipment. For example, a woman recovering from ankle surgery would receive tips on mobility exercises and limiting soreness (from the PT); and tips on using crutches and getting up and down the stairs (from an OT). Explaining their name, many occupational therapists are also experts in optimizing the workplace. Regardless of their environment or clientele, OTs, like PTs earn a higher-than-average salary and expect higher-than-average growth in their field.

Three Steps to Advance

Poll: What Separates a Great Physical Therapist from an Average One?

Just as no two physical therapists are identical, no two physical therapists are of the same caliber. What, then, is the difference between a great PT and a so-so peer? Of course, there is no single correct answer. Here are 14.

Brian Dombal (DPT): "A great physical therapist builds strong relationships with patients. Not only having a strong rapport, but also really knowing the patient and understanding his or her goals as well as his or her strengths and weaknesses. A great therapist will make progress each visit, while realizing that small leaps of progress are part of the overall improvement process. And making sure the patient feels comfortable and confident enough to succeed not only in the small leaps but also throughout the whole rehabilitation process. And a great physical therapist works alongside patients, not directing them but assisting them in reaching their goals."

Samuel A. Mielcarski (PT, DPT, PES): "Simply put: desire, dedication, and doing. Great therapists are ones who are: good role models and lead by example each day; open-minded and in a continual state of growth, learning, and evolving; effective communicators; respectful; using best practices and evidence in their care plans; following the PT Code of Ethics; referring out to -- and collaborating with -- other professionals when needed; responsible, accountable and committed; always giving back to their profession."

Elizabeth Hayden (PTA): "Great therapists look at every patient and thinks, 'What does the patient need?' and will tailor their exercise program to match the needs of the patient, whereas an average therapist may tend to give the patient a cookie-cutter treatment. A great therapist is also very observant and works well with their patients and coworkers."

Bonnie Torres (DPT): "Someone who always wants to know why and continues to investigate and experiment, who wants to continue learning to provide the best possible care."

Meghan O. Haus (DPT): "First, I think that an eagerness to continually expand your skills is essential. This will help you continue to best serve your patients. I also think that you need to have good listening skills and to be able to use what your patient tells you to best design your treatment programs. Lastly, you need to be a team player among your co-workers. This will help you problem solve through patient treatment issues and create an optimal work environment."

Lindsay Lavato (DPT): "Enthusiasm, drive and compassion are what differentiate a great therapist from an average one. Someone lacking those qualities can come into work and perform almost robotically to get through the day, treating patients and writing clinical notes. Someone who poses those qualities comes into work with a genuine desire to help others and, in the process, creates lasting impressions and makes a significant difference in the quality of life for their clientele."

Christine Rosenberg (OTR/L): "Establishing a rapport and an interpersonal relationship with your patient. Therapy is hard work and you must help your patients to stay motivated. If you have a special relationship with your patient, this is extremely helpful. The businesslike approach doesn't go far when people are in need."

← Vivian Eisenstadt (MAPT, CPT, MASP): "A physical therapist who looks at the causes and source of the issue instead of working on just the symptoms makes the difference between the patient getting better or not. An exceptional therapist isn’t afraid to cause a bit of discomfort to the patient for the greater good of full recovery. And a therapist who listens and cares about their patient will do a much better job then one going through the motions."

Karen Litzy (DPT): "Having a real sense of empathy, being an empathetic provider. A lot of people who go into physical therapy probably have that as an innate skill. When you have that sense of empathy for your patients, it goes such a long way. They pick up on that; they know it and then that patient is more likely to be on board with you and your plan, and more likely to follow your instructions, and be part of the team."

Rick Olderman (MSPT): "In my opinion, it is inquisitiveness. If you are a therapist who is constantly wondering why things are happening, and pursue that curiosity, you will be a great therapist."

Jennifer Moehring-Schmidt (PT, DPT, OCS): "Many things. Primarily, a PT must have the passion and desire to help someone to overcome a physical obstacle in their life; without this passion to help others in this way, it would be near impossible to continue a life-long career in this field. Secondly, a great physical therapist will be consistently engaged in the current literature of the field, being aware of the changing research and practice modules used in the profession. A great physical therapist will also be compassionate, yet firm, encouraging and comfortable pushing a patient to where they need to be."

Kosta Kokolis (MSPT): "Continuing education. Having recent knowledge of research and current techniques can only improve your ability to treat patients. Experience is also crucial, as nothing can outmatch the knowledge gained from on the job training, and learning in what one can and can’t do."

Matt Likins (PT, MPT, OCS): "Like any other profession, it's passion. If you love what you do, you will be better at it.

"A constant need to know more and more. As with any other field, the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn. Never be satisfied, never be cocky."

Virginia Dula (DPT, OCS): "A mentor of mine at the start of my career told me, 'In 10 years, you can have ten years of experience, or one year of experience you've repeated ten times.' That has stuck with me, so I believe the great PTs never stop learning, growing and perfecting their craft. The average or below average PT is happy with the status quo and never challenges themselves to be better."

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