Physical therapists are important members of health care teams involved in minimizing pain, enhancing movement and preventing permanent disability. According to a career overview published by APTA, the American Physical Therapy Association, therapists use a combination of specialized exercises, joint manipulation, electrotherapy and other tools and techniques to treat their clients. Physical therapists can start working in pediatric settings following graduation from a master's or doctoral program, but earning a formal pediatric certification takes longer.
Before starting a physical therapy program, most aspiring therapists have to complete an undergraduate degree first. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, useful courses to take at the undergraduate level include anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, social sciences and math. To meet prerequisite requirements, students choose majors in science, exercise science and related disciplines. An undergraduate degree normally takes four years, but there are programs that require less preparation. Some physical therapy degrees only require three years of pre-physical therapy courses prior to admission. According to the APTA, some of these programs recruit students right out of high school, guaranteeing accepted applicants a spot in the physical therapy program once they complete a set of undergraduate courses with a certain minimum GPA.
Doctoral or Master's Degree
After your undergraduate degree, you can choose to complete either a doctorate or master's in physical therapy (DPT and MPT respectively). Doctorate degrees usually take about three years to finish, while master's programs take two to two-and-a-half years. According to the APTA, either designation qualifies you to write the licensing exam in all 50 states. However, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education is gradually phasing out the master's designation. By December 31, 2015, all accredited programs in physical therapy will have to confer doctoral degrees.
All 50 states require that physical therapists be licensed. Although licensing requirements vary by state, most boards insist on graduation from an accredited program and successful completion of the National Physical Therapy Examination. Many states have their own jurisprudence examinations and require that licensed physical therapists take continuing education credits to maintain their credentials. The National Physical Therapy Examination takes five hours to write, but you'll want to study weeks beforehand to arrive for the test prepared.
Pediatric Specialist Certification
Once you're a licensed physical therapist, you can start practicing with pediatric populations right away. However, you can't call yourself a certified pediatric physical therapist until you take and pass the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialty's pediatric specialist certification exam. To sit for the examination, you need at least 2,000 hours of experience treating children directly. While it's possible to complete your hours within a year, the Board reports that some professionals take longer, since many work settings have mixed caseloads.