“I’m considering physical therapy as a career path. Should I become a physical therapist (PT) or a physical therapist assistant (PTA)?” This was the question in my email inbox recently from a reader of The PT Student.
If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that question, I would have retired at the age of 35. (Note to self: charge students 5¢ for the answer to this question from now on.)
If you choose physical therapy for your career path, this is one of the most profound questions you’ll answer. It requires research and a lot of thought. This article will get you started with some of the important information you’ll need to make this decision.
Start with what it will take to get you there. What is the difference between PT and PTA school?
Time to Complete Degree Awarded
A PTA program can be completed in about a quarter of the time it takes to become a PT. But, if you love to learn and have the time, physical therapy is an extremely interesting area of study.
Think about where you see yourself in two to seven years. Is it important for you to get to work as soon as possible because you have a family to support? Or are you young and single, and have all the time in the world? What about the degree itself? Is it important to you to have a terminal degree in your field? Or will you be happy with an associate’s degree because you don’t plan to need a graduate degree for teaching or other pursuits?
The curriculum you need to complete to become a PT is rigorous, but rewarding. PTA courses are tough too, but they are usually at the 100 or 200 undergraduate level, and there are a lot less of them. You should also consider that the grades for courses taken to get into PT school will need to be higher than grades for PTA school. You will need to earn an A (or close to it so your GPA is in the 3.5 and above range) for PT school, while for PTA school, the threshold is usually a C or better.
Think about your strengths and weaknesses as a student. How did you perform in the past, especially with tough subjects? Are you academically ready for rigorous course work? Do you have the time to devote to your undergraduate courses so that you can earn top grades?
Working full-time while attending a DPT program is extremely challenging, if not impossible, due to the full-time nature of the program. You are basically there to eat, sleep and breathe physical therapy, and there are very few DPT programs designed to be completed on a part-time basis. PTA programs allow more time to squeeze in work and family commitments on a daily basis.
Think about your current life circumstances, and be honest with yourself. Can you realistically scale back your work and family commitments to accommodate a full-time school schedule? Or, do you need more flexibility? Are you ready to put things on hold while you go to school full time, or are the things in your life too crucial to let go of right now?
These numbers do not take into account your general living expenses. These are just the amounts you pay to the school; it doesn’t cover rent, food, or anything else. Since PT students go to school full-time, many take out additional loans to cover living expenses. So, you can tack on another $20,000 to $30,000 per year (depending on your situation) to the totals above if you choose PT school.
With some loan payback programs stretching over 10, 20 and even 30 years, you want to be positive that you won’t have any buyers’ remorse. Are you willing to take out loans that you may be paying back for decades? Or do you feel more comfortable paying as you go, which is possible in a PTA program given the lower cost? (In our next article in this series, we will discuss salary, which can help you decide whether the cost of tuition, including loans, is worth it for you.)
So, now you know a bit more about the educational requirements. Next, we’ll discuss the differences between being a PT and a PTA, once you have graduated and started working. Make sure you subscribe to this blog, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to make sure you get the latest from The PT Student as soon as it’s posted!