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Physical Therapists
Significant Points
  • Employment is expected to grow much faster than average.
  • Job opportunities should be good.
  • Today’s entrants to this profession need a post-baccalaureate degree from an accredited physical therapist program.
  • About 60 percent of physical therapists work in hospitals or in offices of other health practitioners.
Nature of the Work

Physical therapists, sometimes referred to as simply PTs, are healthcare professionals who diagnose and treat individuals of all ages, from newborns to the very oldest, who have medical problems or other health-related conditions, illnesses, or injuries that limits their abilities to move and perform functional activities as well as they would like in their daily lives. Physical therapists examine each individual and develop a plan using treatment techniques to promote the ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. In addition, PTs work with individuals to prevent the loss of mobility before it occurs by developing fitness and wellness-oriented programs for healthier and more active lifestyles.

Physical therapists provide care to people of all ages who have functional problems resulting from, for example, back and neck injuries, sprains/strains and fractures, arthritis, burns, amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, conditions such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida, and injuries related to work and sports. Physical therapy care and services are provided by physical therapists and physical therapist assistants who work under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist. Physical therapists evaluate and diagnose movement dysfunction and use interventions to treat patient/clients. Interventions may include therapeutic exercise, functional training, manual therapy techniques, assistive and adaptive devices and equipment, and physical agents and electrotherapeutic modalities.

Physical therapists often consult and practice with a variety of other professionals, such as physicians, dentists, nurses, educators, social workers, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists.

Work environment. Physical therapists practice in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and private offices that have specially equipped facilities. These jobs can be physically demanding, because therapists may have to stoop, kneel, crouch, lift, and stand for long periods. In addition, physical therapists move heavy equipment and lift patients or help them turn, stand, or walk.

In 2008, most full-time physical therapists worked a 40-hour week; some worked evenings and weekends to fit their patients' schedules. About 27 percent of physical therapists worked part-time.

Physical Therapist, GS-0633-05

Nature, range, and complexity of work

GS-5 represents the initial assignment level for therapist who are graduates of the baccalaureate or approved curriculum program. Therapists work in clinics, wards, and other rehabilitation areas with patients whose mental or physical conditions provide broad and varied experience in planning and administering treatment. Therapists acquire skill in establishing and maintaining effective relationships with patients and with other personnel participating in the rehabilitation process. Tasks may be similar to those assigned to nonprofessional personnel but such tasks are directed to training the therapist to apply his/her knowledge and acquire the competence and skill to assure full professional duties.

The following tasks are illustrative:

  • Develops treatment plans based upon study of clinical records, the medical prescription, or physician's referral.
  • Determines patient's interests, attitudes, and abilities through interview, testing, and observation.
  • Administers established professional treatment procedures; teaches and guides patients in utilizing the treatment activities of the specialized field of therapy.
  • Evaluates treatment performed, and the condition, reactions, and progress of patients.
  • Level of responsibility

    Physical Therapists GS-5 follow established professional treatment procedures. They work under the immediate supervision of a higher-grade therapist who defines the treatment objectives, provides guidance in the development of the treatment plan, and indicates special precautions or conditions to be noted during treatment. The supervisor closely observes work performance and reviews treatment plans prior to initiation and written reports for completeness, accuracy, and conformance with prescribed administrative and professional practices.

    During this period of initial assignments, Therapists GS-5 gradually receive less supervision and are given increasingly greater responsibility for planning and administering treatment to patients.

    Physical Therapist, GS-0633-07

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    Physical Therapists GS-7 plan and carry out a full range of treatment for an assigned group of patients whose conditions can be treated by the application of established professional treatment procedures and use of standard approaches.

    Physical Therapists GS-7 prepare a graduated treatment plan for each patient based upon study of the information in the medical prescription or physician's referral and in the clinical record, an evaluation of the patient's condition, the determination of treatment goals, and the selection of activities suitable to achieve treatment objectives. In developing the treatment plan, Therapists GS-7 consider such factors as physical and mental conditions, energy output and concentration required, range of motion involved, and psychological stimulus required. They continually evaluate the patient's progress or response to treatment and modify the treatment plan accordingly. Therapists GS-7 discuss with professional personnel, such as physicians and nurses, the treatment plan and progress of patients in therapy. By comparison, Therapists GS-5 perform a number of closely supervised tasks which provide experience in applying the professional skills and knowledge, working in a medically-supervised program of rehabilitation, and developing effective relationships with patients. The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Provides kinesiotherapy to a group of chronically regressed psychiatric patients; performs various tests with each patient to determine muscle strength, endurance, coordination, muscle atrophy, balance, and vital capacity; develops individual treatment plans, selecting exercises or activity of proper dosage and intensity suitable to condition and limitations of the patient.
  • Administers physical therapy to general medical and surgical patients whose condition generally involves a single disability without secondary complications. Carries out full range of treatment procedures using heat, light, water, massage, therapeutic exercise, training in use of prosthetic devices. Performs and interprets results of manual muscle and nerve tests, skin temperature and resistance tests, joint motion tests. Evaluates patient's response to treatment. Revises treatment plan when patient fails to respond or shows adverse reactions to agent used in treatment.
  • Administers manual arts therapy utilizing a variety of vocational activities such as drafting, printing, and electrical and appliance repair to enable patients to achieve objective of physical or mental rehabilitation. Evaluates patient's aptitudes through a number of tests and trial assignments; provides instruction to patients in fundamentals of electricity, electronics, drafting, etc. Constructs projects in these activities for participation of patients; adapts tools and machinery for patients having specific physical disabilities. Evaluates patient's progress and recommends vocational training appropriate for patient upon discharge from the hospital.
  • Level of responsibility

    Physical Therapists GS-7 typically work under general supervision of a higher-grade therapist. They exercise independent judgment in interpreting the medical information, developing the treatment plan, evaluating the patient's progress, and determining when the patient has achieved treatment objectives. In making such decisions, Therapists GS-7 rely upon their academic knowledge of physiology, anatomy, and the pathology of disease; the concepts, principles and practices of the specialized field of therapy; and skills acquired in clinical practice and professional work experience.

    Physical Therapists GS-7 seek the advice of a higher-grade therapist in nonroutine situations or when the patient fails to respond or responds negatively to established professional treatment procedures and approaches. The supervisor observes work performance for application of professional knowledge and skill in carrying out treatment, in motivating patients, and in achieving results. The supervisor reviews treatment plans for technical adequacy and appropriateness in relation to treatment objectives. Written reports covering initial evaluations, progress, and termination of treatment are reviewed for conformance with medical objectives and adherence to professional standards and practices.

    By comparison, Physical Therapists GS-5 work under close supervision of a therapist who assigns patients, interprets the medical information, suggests treatment techniques, guides development of the treatment plan, and makes frequent observations of the therapist's work performance.

    Physical Therapist, GS-0633-09

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    Physical Therapists GS-9 plan and carry out a full range of treatment where therapeutic objectives are complex and the procedures involved require the application of highly specialized skills and knowledge. Established treatment procedures are not applicable or must be substantially adapted and applied with critical concern for patients who are acutely ill or have a combination of severe mental or physical disabilities with secondary complications. Frequent modification is made in the graduated treatment plan in response to subtle but significant changes in the condition of the patient. By comparison, Therapists GS-7 utilize established professional techniques and approaches typically without major adaptation or modification in planning and carrying out treatment for patients whose physical or mental conditions are usually not severe or critical.

    Physical Therapists GS-9 devise or adapt equipment to carry out treatment with severely disabled patients. They must employ unusual motivational techniques to obtain the participation of the patient in his/her rehabilitation.

    Physical Therapists at this level may coordinate and employ simultaneously several treatment approaches to accomplish complex treatment objectives. They perform complex evaluations and tests, the results of which are used by physicians to determine whether surgical, medical, or psychiatric procedures are appropriate. Such tests involve prolonged and highly specialized procedures requiring skill in application, accuracy in evaluating sensitive reactions, and a thorough understanding of the pathology of the physical or mental disability as well as the psychological and physiological implications. The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Plans and carries out physical therapy for tubercular and chest-surgery patients. Instructs chest-surgery patients prior to operation regarding physical limitations to be encountered following surgery and the muscles and bones involved. Teaches exercises and movements to be performed after surgery to prevent occurrence of deformities; instructs in special breathing procedures to insure maximum ventilation of lung, and to minimize development of complications; modifies exercises in light of special physical limitations caused by post-surgical dressing and drainage tubes. Meets frequently with ward physicians to advise on changes which may affect classification of patients and objectives of the medical program for treatment of the disease.
  • Plans and administers physical therapy for neuropsychiatric patients who have severe or acute physical disabilities, such as fractures, amputations, hemiplegia, peripheral nerve injuries, or other forms of paralysis. Performs and interprets results of tests and measurement of the patient's condition, for use in preparing the treatment plan, modifying treatment, and evaluating results of treatment. Also performs special tests to determine existence of neurological conditions or disease; carries out complex test procedures, determines kind and degree of muscular reactions to test, and interprets results of test.
  • Level of responsibility

    Physical Therapists GS-9 work with a high degree of independence. They exercise independent professional judgment in planning and carrying out a treatment program to meet complex treatment objectives. On the basis of their professional knowledge and experience, Therapists GS-9 independently exercise originality in solving problems not covered by the guides and make adaptations and modifications of treatment plans and specific treatment activities and procedures without supervisory guidance or review to meet the complex and highly varying needs of the patients.

    The tests and evaluations performed by the Physical Therapists GS-9 require extreme care and accuracy in determining patient's reactions. Results of such tests are frequently used by physicians as the basis for medical, surgical, or psychiatric procedures. The work of Therapists GS-9 is reviewed for general professional adequacy through the supervisor's occasional observance of work performance and through review of reports. By comparison, Therapists GS-7 work under the general supervision of a higher-grade therapist who observes work performance, provides guidance in development of treatment plans, and reviews reports for conformance with professional standards and practices, application of appropriate treatment techniques, and effectiveness in achieving treatment objectives.

    Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

    Today’s entrants to this profession need a post-baccalaureate degree from an accredited physical therapy program. All States regulate the practice of physical therapy, which usually requires passing scores on national and State examinations.

    Education and training. The American Physical Therapy Association’s accrediting body, called the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), accredits entry-level academic programs in physical therapy. In 2009, there were 212 physical therapist education programs. Of these accredited programs, 12 awarded master's degrees; and 200 awarded doctoral degrees. Currently, only graduate degree physical therapist programs are accredited. Master's degree programs typically are 2 to 2.5 years in length, while doctoral degree programs last 3 years.

    Physical therapist education programs include foundational science courses, such as biology, anatomy, physiology, cellular histology, exercise physiology, neuroscience, biomechanics, pharmacology, pathology, and radiology/imaging, as well as behavioral science courses, such as evidence-based practice and clinical reasoning. Some of the clinically-based courses include medical screening, examination tests and measures, diagnostic process, therapeutic interventions, outcomes assessment, and practice management. In addition to classroom and laboratory instruction, students receive supervised clinical experience.

    Among the undergraduate courses that are useful when one applies to a physical therapist education program are anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, social science, mathematics, and statistics. Before granting admission, many programs require volunteer experience in the physical therapy department of a hospital or clinic.

    Licensure. All States regulate the practice of physical therapy. Eligibility requirements vary by State. Typical requirements for physical therapists include graduation from an accredited physical therapy education program; passing the National Physical Therapy Examination; and fulfilling State requirements such as jurisprudence exams. A number of States require continuing education as a condition of maintaining licensure.

    Other qualifications. Physical therapists should have strong interpersonal and communication skills, so they can educate patients about their condition and physical therapy treatments and communicate with patients' families. Physical therapists also should be compassionate and possess a desire to help patients.

    Advancement. Physical therapists are expected to continue their professional development by participating in continuing education courses and workshops. Some physical therapists become board certified in a clinical specialty. Opportunities for physical therapists exist in academia and research. Some become self-employed, providing contract services or opening a private practice.

    Job Outlook

    Employment is expected to grow much faster than average. Job opportunities should be good.

    Employment change. Employment of physical therapists is expected to grow by 30 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. Changes to restrictions on reimbursement for physical therapy services by third-party payers will increase patient access to services and, thus, increase demand. The increasing elderly population will drive growth in the demand for physical therapy services. The elderly population is particularly vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. Also, the baby-boom generation is entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation. Medical and technological developments will permit a greater percentage of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects to survive, creating additional demand for rehabilitative care. In addition, growth may result from advances in medical technology and the use of evidence-base practices, which could permit the treatment of an increasing number of disabling conditions that were untreatable in the past.

    In addition, the federally mandated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees that students have access to services from physical therapists and other therapeutic and rehabilitative services. Demand for physical therapists will continue in schools.

    Job prospects. Job opportunities will be good for licensed physical therapists in all settings. Job opportunities should be particularly good in acute hospital, skilled nursing, and orthopedic settings, where the elderly are most often treated. Job prospects should be especially favorable in rural areas as many physical therapists tend to cluster in highly populated urban and suburban areas.


    Median hourly wages of nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants were $11.46 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $9.71 and $13.76 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.34, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $15.97 an hour. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants in May 2008 were:

    Employment services $12.10
    General medical and surgical hospitals 12.05
    Nursing care facilities 11.13
    Community care facilities for the elderly 10.91
    Home health care services 10.58
    Sources of Additional Information

    Additional career information and a list of accredited educational programs in physical therapy are available from:

    • American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 North Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314-1488. Internet:

    In addition, the American Physical Therapy Association has developed the PT Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) that allows one to apply to some of the accredited physical therapist programs. Internet:

    Information on obtaining Physical Therapist positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.


    • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
    • Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.

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