Do Physical Therapists Make Good Money
The best and worst jobs are often thought to be those with high stress levels and low pay. But what about physical therapists? Despite their crucial role helping people recover from injuries or illnesses, they don’t get much respect as far as income goes.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for all occupations was $63,840 in May 2019. And when you break it down by occupation, physical therapy is one of the worst paid. Just 22.5 percent of physical therapist assistants earned more than $70,000 during 2018; just 8.8 percent earned over $90,000.
And yet, despite this lack of financial reward, physical therapists are still some of the most important workers in healthcare. According to the BLS, almost 2 million Americans were employed as physical therapist assistants in 2017. And even though these roles have been expanding into other areas such as medical rehab centers, schools, hospitals, and sports medicine clinics, there’s no sign of a slowdown. In fact, the American Occupational Therapy Association predicts occupational growth will outpace average job creation through 2022.
So why do so many people seem to think physical therapy isn’t worth the effort? It might come down to a misunderstanding of what exactly physical therapy entails. While it can certainly help patients improve mobility, strength, and function, physical therapy also involves treating chronic conditions like arthritis, back pain, migraines, and depression. And since most physical therapists work in rehabilitation settings — whether at an outpatient clinic, hospital, school, or recreation center — they’re usually dealing with kids, teens, seniors, adults, and people recovering from injury or illness.
“There is nothing glamorous about working in physical therapy,” says Dr. Daniela DiMartino, a clinical specialist in exercise physiology at Columbia University Medical Center who has worked as a physical therapist herself. “It requires long hours on your feet, lots of patience, and compassion.”
That may sound harsh, but it’s not uncommon for physical therapists to spend up to 12 hours per day working with patients. And if you consider the time spent traveling to new locations, staying late to finish patient assessments, and attending continuing education classes, it actually adds up to quite a bit of time.
Even worse, the field doesn’t always offer great benefits, either. Many employers only provide health insurance, which means that physical therapists must purchase their own coverage through private insurers. Some states require licensing for certain types of physical therapy positions, but the process varies widely depending on where you live. And because of how physical therapy works, it can take years before employees reach retirement age.
But it’s not all bad news. There are plenty of ways to make good money as a physical therapist, including starting your own practice, opening up shop at a big-box retail store, or getting hired on by a large corporation.
How Much Do Physical Therapist Earn?
While the median annual wages for physical therapist assistants is lower than other fields, the actual range is wide. The highest 10 percent of earners make $122,050 or more annually, while the bottom 40 percent makes less than $28,400.
As we mentioned earlier, the top 10 percent of earners are mostly physical therapist assistants. These professionals earn anywhere between $92,780 and $123,950 every year. That’s pretty impressive considering the majority of them only graduated from four-year programs. On the flip side, the lowest 40 percent earns around $23,300 each year. That figure includes physical therapists’ aides, physical educators, and students enrolled in postgraduate or doctoral programs.
These numbers are based on information collected by the BLS in its Employment Situation Summary report, released in April 2021. This particular report tracks employment figures across multiple sectors throughout the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
What type of employer pays the most?
Overall, the largest percentage of physical therapist jobs come from hospitals ($29.3 billion) followed closely by home health care providers ($27.2 billion). Private practices took in roughly $16.6 billion, while government organizations pulled in $9.4 billion.
In terms of geographic distribution, the West region had the highest number of physical therapists. California, Texas, New York, and Florida led the way, taking in approximately $10.6, $7.1, $5.7, and $4.6 billion respectively. By comparison, the South saw the fewest amount of physical therapists last year, pulling in $2.5 billion.
Are You Making Enough As A PT?
If you want to know how much you’ll make annually, check out this calculator created by the National Council for Professional Teaching Standards. It takes into account specific factors, like location, experience level, and the average cost of living in your area.
Here’s the breakdown by state:
New Hampshire: $94,100
Rhode Island: $104,700
For example, let’s say you’re a physical therapy assistant in Boise, Idaho. Your yearly salary would be $84,250 using the national average. If you lived in Seattle, however, you’d see your earnings increase by nearly $20,000. Why? Because the cost of living is higher in Seattle compared to Boise. So if you wanted to move to Seattle to advance your career, you could potentially make more money each year.
Of course, the reverse is true too. If you moved to Los Angeles, your salary would drop by roughly $25,000.
Where Are The Best Jobs For PTLs?
Another interesting tidbit revealed by the NCPTSC is where the best paying jobs are located. In general, the Northeast region brought in the most cash last year, earning physical therapist assistants the most in seven out of nine major metropolitan areas.
Boston topped the list, bringing in $131,100 per annum. San Francisco came in second place, making $129,200. Meanwhile, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., rounded out the top five.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Southeast region brought in the least amount of money, averaging $72,100 per annum. Here, Atlanta ranked No. 1, followed by Nashville, Memphis, Charleston, Raleigh, Baltimore, and Columbus.
Where Can I Find Work As A PT?
If you’ve decided you want to pursue a career in physical therapy, the first thing you should do is research local colleges and universities. Most of them run their own physical therapy departments, offering entry-level training for prospective therapists. They also recruit students on campus for internships. In addition to these programs, several different professional associations exist specifically for physical therapists.
One of the biggest is the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Its members include clinicians, researchers, administrators, and educators, and they meet twice a year to discuss topics ranging from evidence-based treatment to advanced techniques.
Other organizations include the Academy of Pain Management Nurses, the National Board for Certification of Nutrition Professionals, the Physical Therapeutic Association, the American Occupational Therapy Association, and the Pediatric Advanced Life Support Organization.
Once you’ve secured a position, keep abreast of industry trends. Read trade journals like Physical Therapy News, Journal of Athletic Training, and Physician & Sports medicine to stay informed on the latest developments. Also listen to podcasts like Ask The Expert, The Chatter Show, and The PT Podcast Network.
Finally, find a mentor within your organization. Someone who knows what it’s like to work in your field can give you advice on everything from workplace challenges to networking opportunities.
“Having someone to talk to about difficult cases, or having someone to bounce ideas off of is invaluable,” says Dr. DiMartino.
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