Skills for a Successful Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant

Physical Therapy
Carlos Davila/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) provide therapeutic care to patients under the supervision of a physical therapist. They help patients regain mobility or manage pain if they have sustained injuries in accidents, had surgery, or are ill. PTAs also may supervise physical therapist aides. Some quick facts about the profession include:

  • In 2016, physical therapist assistants earned a median annual salary of $56,610 or $27.21 hourly, according to O*NET.
  • Approximately 88,000 people worked in this occupation in 2016.
  • Most work in physical therapists' offices, hospitals, or other healthcare facilities.
  • Hours typically are full time and often include evenings and weekends.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies physical therapist assistant as a "bright outlook" occupation because it expects employment to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2026.

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

To work in this profession, you must earn an associate degree from a physical therapist assistant training program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). For a list of CAPTE-accredited programs, visit the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) website. There you will also find a wealth of information about this occupation.

In every state in the United States, physical therapist assistants must have a license to practice. This includes Hawaii, which until December 2014 did not require one. All candidates for licensure must take the National Physical Therapy Exam, administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).

Each state's physical therapy board may have additional requirements. You can find their contact information on the FSBPT website.

The Soft Skills You Need to Succeed as a Physical Therapist Assistant

As with most careers, there are general skills not specific to the field that will help you succeed as a physical therapist assistant. Some of these include:

  • Active Listening: You must be able to listen carefully to your patients' questions and concerns about their treatment.
  • Verbal Communication: Your patients must be able to understand your instructions for their treatment to be successful.
  • Interpersonal Skills: In addition to listening and speaking skills, you need other communication skills that will facilitate your interactions with your patients and colleagues. You need to be able to coordinate your actions with others, and you must be aware of people's reactions even if they don't verbalize them.
  • Service Orientation: To be successful in any healthcare career, you need a strong desire to help people.
  • Reading Comprehension: You must be able to understand doctors' and other healthcare professionals' written instructions.
  • Critical Thinking: When you have to solve problems, you need the ability to weigh the potential success of possible solutions before choosing one.

Challenges of Being a Physical Therapist Assistant

To accommodate patients' busy schedules, physical therapist assistants often have to work nights and weekends.

You also will be on your feet a lot and will need to lift and move patients who have mobility problems.

Job Responsibilities of a Physical Therapist Assistant

These job responsibilities from actual postings found on can help summarize expectations:

  • "Assist as necessary in patient evaluation under the direction and assistance of a Registered Therapist."
  • "You will keep the treatment area clean and organized."
  • "Provide follow-up treatment and feedback to the staff therapist to effectively plan for discharge."
  • "Assist in the development of treatment plans."
  • "Document patient progress toward meeting established goals."
  • "Instruct residents' families or nursing staff in follow-through programs."

Related Occupations

  Description Median Annual Wage (2016) Minimum Required Education/Training
Physical Therapist Aide Works in a physical therapy office tending to tasks that aren't directly related to patient care $25,680 HS or equivalency diploma
Veterinary Assistant Provides basic care to animals in an animal hospital or clinic $25,250 HS or equivalency diploma
Occupational Therapy Assistant Assists occupational therapists in teaching patients who must relearn how to perform tasks of daily living $59,010 Associate degree from an accredited program
Nursing Assistant Provides basic patient care under a registered nurse's direction $26,590 Completion of a state-approved education program


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016 Employment, and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online.