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The 2019 Physical Therapist Report

by Brett Kestenbaum, PT, DPT


Earlier this year, CovalentCareers conducted a survey of 1,496 physical therapists and physical therapy students. We asked questions that uncovered both basic facts about this group of PTs (graduation years, salaries) as well as their attitudes towards more nebulous issues (concerns about student debt, hope for the future of the profession). In this report we’re sharing our findings to assist anyone looking to hire physical therapists and any PTs looking to get a better understanding of the current state of the profession and how they stack up to their peers.

In this report we cover:

  • Physical therapist hiring – Employer branding and recruitment marketing, the difficulty in hiring PTs, or considerations for physical therapy jobs
  • Physical therapist employment – Top settings and patient populations for physical therapists
  • Physical therapist salaries – Expected starting salaries; current physical therapist salaries by setting, gender, and grad year
  • Finances – PT student loans, taxes, and confidence in managing finances
  • The Future – PTs’ feelings about the transition to the DPT and what they think about the future
  • And more!

Who We Surveyed

We surveyed 1,496 PT professionals, including students, practice owners, and practicing PTs. In line with overall industry demographics, 78.6% of respondents were female. 921 were currently practicing physical therapists, 511 were current physical therapy students, and 16 were practice owners.

Outpatient was by far the most represented physical therapy setting, with practicing physical therapists most often treating orthopedics or geriatrics patients.

For the rest of the data—including the most desirable setting for PTs looking to switch jobs—download the full report!

Physical Therapist Hiring Trends

Physical therapist recruitment was a key trend throughout our survey, and we evaluated it from many angles. These included student perspectives on what they look for when choosing a job and employers’ top priorities for a new hire.

Hiring physical therapists is a hot topic in the industry due to the difficulty of recruiting candidates in today’s tight labor market. According to research conducted by CovalentCareers in 2018, 56% of physical therapy students find a job before graduating and the remaining 44% find jobs in about two months.

Our research revealed a number of opportunities for employers to more effectively source their next hires. For instance, although 96.7% of PTs stated that they researched an employer even before applying for a job, and practice owners generally agreed that employer branding is important for hiring quality PTs, barely half of practice owners spent any money on recruitment marketing. In fact, the average amount spent was $800 per year which comes out to less than $70 per month!

Since company culture is a key priority for PT grads when selecting a new job, this suggests that employers looking to hire should focus on building a compelling brand story.

Physical Therapist Student Loan Debt

Physical therapists have been decrying rising student debt and crushing productivity standards for years. Yet PTs are still graduating with substantial student debt. We found that 22.5% of PTs have between $100,000 and $150,000 of student debt, and 19.7% have over $150,000 of student debt.

In her 2019 Presidential Address to the APTA House of Delegates, APTA President Sharon L. Dunn, PT, PhD, said to the assembled members, “Regardless of how we got here, the simple truth is that student debt is creating a future that will hurt the profession, unfairly penalize those who seek to pursue it, and ultimately deprive [the people who need it of our expertise].”

Our study findings echo these sentiments and indicate that student debt is a significant problem facing today’s physical therapy students and haunting practicing PTs for years after they first start working.

With a median starting salary of less than $72,000 a year, it’s no wonder PTs often turn to side hustles and creative strategies to tackle their loan payments.

Suggestions for how to pay off their student debt range from cash-pay PT to driving Lyft on the weekends—in either case, working seven days a week for five years straight to pay off that debt before it doubles or triples. This often means working for practices where high productivity standards result in PTs taking home their documentation to complete, effectively working far more than they anticipated.

Read the full breakdown of student debt, starting versus current salaries, attitudes towards the APTA, and more in the full report.

The Future of Physical Therapy

As a profession, physical therapy has gone through many changes in the past decade. One of those changes was the transition to the DPT. As we can see in the report, the debate over the utility of an entry-level doctoral program has not been put to rest by any means, even though all physical therapy programs in the US have transitioned. Overall physical therapists are largely ambivalent about the transition, with average opinion about the effectiveness of the transition to the DPT ranking at 6.12.

When we asked PTs if they had any interest in a non-clinical career, 74.3% of respondents answered in the affirmative. At the same time, 78.9% of PTs said that if they had to do it all over again, they would still choose physical therapy.

“At CovalentCareers we feel there is a strong correlation between the feeling of burn out and the desire to pursue a non-clinical career. A career in healthcare and/or physical therapy not tied to physically seeing patients seems liberating from afar and it seems that most PTs are curious to explore this more.”

- Matthew Geller, OD | CEO & Co-Founder of CovalentCareers

Overall, the average feeling about the future of physical therapy—on a 1-10 scale—was 7.66. However, there exists a large gap between 2013 grads, whose average feelings were ranked at 6.83, and 2022 grads, who ranked their feelings at an average 8.85.

Younger PTs are more optimistic about the future of physical therapy than therapists who have been in the field for longer. What can we do, as a collective, to change that? What steps can we take to keep PTs optimistic and invested in the good of the profession?

What This Means for Physical Therapy

As a company committed to career development with a focus on new graduates, we put a lot of effort into understanding the unique problems facing PTs who are just entering or have recently entered the profession. At the same time, we also look to existing practices to figure out what their problems are, and how we can help solve them.

As you’ll read in the report, PTs are concerned about student debt; they’re skeptical of their preparation for business endeavors; and they’re definitely interested in non-clinical careers. But still, PTs are optimistic about the profession: even with all of these problems, and an uncertain future, physical therapists are confident that this profession is a worthwhile one.

At CovalentCareers, we, too, are hopeful for the future: every day, we see the excitement and intensity that therapists bring to their jobs, and we’re confident in the ability of PTs across the profession to meet and overcome the challenges that face our present. 

Download The Report


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