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Make More Money as a Physical Therapist: PT Salary Negotiation 101

by Brendon Larsen


Eighty-four percent of people who ask for a higher salary while interviewing get a positive response. For 1 in every 5 salary negotiations, the pay increase is between 11% and 20%. In other words, a Physical Therapist Assistant offered $50,000 can expect to make an additional $134,000 over ten years with a successfully negotiated salary. At NGPT, we’ve created resources to help you at every step of your physical therapy job searchnail the interview. Below is our first-timer’s guide to salary negotiations.

Part One: Research

A successful salary negotiation begins long before the interview. It starts with the information you collect. You’ll need average salary data, cost-of-living data, information about the company you hope to work for, and you must identify what sets you apart among the other 10,000 new therapists who graduate each year. Without this information, you’ll be unable to intelligently negotiate your salary.

Cost of living and salary data

Cost of living is one of the most overlooked aspects of work-related relocation and should be among the first information you gather. Due to the high cost of living, a $103,000 salary in Seattle is worth less than a $70,000 salary in rural Washington. The best tool I found for assessing the cost of living is NerdWallet, where you can compare separate cities or regions.

Due to a variety of factors, finding accurate salary data is more complex. I recommend comparing multiple sources for the best understanding of what constitutes an average salary for your experience level, practice setting, and region. Here’s a list of recommended resources:

Your professional network will be a great resource for gathering information as well. Ask clinicians, rehab managers, or recent alumni for realistic salary expectations. Moreover, don’t overlook the power of Facebook and LinkedIn groups in gathering information.

What sets you apart

Now that you have a strong idea of what is the average pay for a therapist in your region, it’s time to explore why you are above average. Make two lists about yourself. What sets you apart right now, and what you’ll be achieving soon that will set you apart. Spend no less than 10 minutes creating it. Each item on your list may come into play as you negotiate your salary. A sample list might include:

Recent Achievements:

  • Volunteer experience
  • Previous employment
  • Similar clinical rotations
  • Additional languages
  • Continuing education/conferences
  • Professional involvement
  • Academic achievements

Future Achievements:

  • Certifications or credentials you want to pursue as a new graduate
  • Specialty treatments you’d like to offer (lymphedema, women’s health, etc.)
  • Willingness to work evenings or weekends
  • Non-clinical tasks you could do to help the company: social media, marketing, generating referrals, etc.

Your potential employer: Physical Therapy Incorporated

Begin by learning why Physical Therapy Incorporated is hiring. Are they a rapidly growing company? Have several of their therapists retired (opening the payroll budget)? Do they struggle to keep employees due to a smelly no-deodorant policy? Has the position been vacant for a while (indicating they may pay more to avoid hiring traveling therapists)?

Research the conditions you'll be working in. For an outpatient therapist, examples include the average number of evaluation you'll have daily, the length and number of appointments, productivity expectations, and documentation systems used. Online research will answer most of these questions. For further reading on this topic, see our article on making the most of your residency interview, as similar principles apply when researching a residency program.

Part Two: Interviewing and Receiving the Offer

It’s understood that you shouldn’t mention marriage on a first date. Likewise, there is no reason to bring up salary when first interviewing. Wait for the employer to mention salary. Until then, do everything you can to better understand their needs and how you can present yourself as a great fit.

During the Interview

The interview is a perfect time to answer remaining questions about your potential employer, Physical Therapy Incorporated, and better understand how you meet their unique needs. Ask questions that uncover their needs and provide follow-up examples (from your list of achievements) that highlight how you address each one. Good questions to ask include:

  • What’s the most difficult aspect of this position for most employees?
  • How often do you hire temporary or traveling therapists?
  • What does success look like in this role? (You can find further examples of questions in our article on questions to expect in an acute care interveiw.)

Frequently, the interviewer will address salary with questions such as, “what are your salary expectations for this job?” Always answer with a range. Use the median for salary for similar therapists as your lower limit and let the upper number be closer to the 90th percentile.

Let me repeat, the median salary (accounting for geographic location, practice setting, and years of experience) should be the low end of what you ask for. You’re an above average therapist – expect an above average salary.

Receiving the offer

Ask for time to review the job offer and benefits package for each full-time offer you receive. It will slow the negotiation down and give you important information. Fringe benefits make up to 1/3 of your total compensation, are a crucial part of the negotiating process, and are the last item discussed during a negotiation. Also, take a moment to congratulate yourself for nailing the interview.

What a job offer actually means

Receiving a job offer means the hiring manager you're working with believes YOU are the best person for the job. It means Physical Therapy Inc. wants you on their team. Be prepared to make a counteroffer. There’s no promise you’ll be paid what you’re worth. If you can’t get a fair salary now (when they WANT you) it’ll be much harder to negotiate a raise once Physical Therapy Inc. already has you.

Part Three: Getting Down to Brass Tacks

More than a quarter of all employers admit their initial offers are $5,000 less than what they are willing to pay. Always negotiate for a higher salary – remember, this is successful 84% of the time. Begin negotiations by talking about the base salary for as long as possible, then discuss fringe benefits before accepting or rejecting a position at Physical Therapy Incorporated.

Negotiations of the base salary

Most job offers fall into two categories:

  • Slightly lower than the salary range you provided
  • At the bottom of the acceptable salary range

If the salary is below the range you provided, a proper response would be along the lines of: “I like the company culture, I know that I have what it takes to be successful here and I'm prepared to give a starting date of XYZ to show sincerity. However, I couldn't justify that with your initial salary offer, I hope there's room to negotiate.” Then, wait for their response.

When salaries are at the bottom of your chosen range (as will most often be the case if your research is accurate), I recommend responding by highlighting the attributes that make an above-average applicant. An example includes, “I think this is a fair offer and matches with my understanding of what is average. However, I believe I will be an above average employee for your team. My experience as a graduate assistant, co-authoring kinesiology workbooks, and serving in the APTA highlight a history of above-average performance.”

You can also use your future achievement list to negotiate higher pay dependent on performance. One way to counter an offer is by saying, “$25 an hour is acceptable and something I'm willing to work with as a new graduate PTA, but would you be willing to agree to a $0.50 raise once I obtain my _______ certification?” Try to make these “early raises” an explicit, written, part of your employment contract.

There are a number of ways to negotiate “early raises.” Tie them to a certification, productivity levels (useful for new graduates who may require a ramp-up period), or completion of hospital-systems training. Finally, you can also compare the offer from Physical Therapy Incorporated to other therapy companies’ starting wage and ask for a matching bid.

Fringe Benefits

Once you’ve negotiated the subject of compensation as far as possible, you should transition (in a non-committal way) to negotiating fringe benefits. An easy way to transition is to say, “That offer is definitely interesting. But if it’s all right, I’d like to talk with you a bit about your company’s benefits package.”

Although the cost of a health insurance plan or 401k-match may not be negotiable, many aspects of employment are. Those include:

  • An increased continuing education budget, or a MedBridge subscription (click the link for $175 off!).
  • Reimbursement for APTA Membership dues. Made much easier due to the Career Starter program.
  • Increased paid time off during your first years as a clinician to attend APTA’s NEXT conference. Registration is free for first-year professionals who retain their APTA membership.
  • A slightly altered schedule. (Working four ten-hour days, or allowing yourself time to drop children off at school, etc.)
  • Mentoring. Any company can provide mentoring opportunities. One option is to ask for regularly scheduled meetings to review clinical cases and study with a more experienced therapist. I meet monthly with another therapist who has been teaching me advance manual therapy skills. This time spent one-on-one, more than any continuing education course, has helped me as a clinician.
  • Sign-on bonus. In today's Physical Therapy profession most sign-on bonuses come with a retention clause requiring you remain with the company for several years or return the bonus. It frankly reminds me of indentured servitude. I always recommend exchanging a portion (or all) of your sign-on bonus for a higher hourly wage. Case in point, decreasing your sign on bonus by $2,000 in exchange for a $0.50 hourly raise pays for itself in less than two years. You’ll also receive an added bonus since every successive raise at Physical Therapy Incorporated is likely compounded by your higher initial wage.

Final thoughts

No employment offer is official until it’s in writing and no negotiation is over until you’ve signed an agreement. Until then, there’s always room for negotiation.

In a letter to his friend Lord Bolingbroke, the satirical essayist Jonathan Swift wrote, “A wise person should have money in their head, but not in their heart.”

Money, although important, shouldn’t be the only focus of your job search. You’ll most likely have a long career in physical therapy, be sure to pick a position you’ll enjoy and that will provide opportunities for growth and satisfaction. Doing so will help you avoid burnout. In the end, is an extra $10 a day really worth it if your caseload is 50% higher?


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