Physical therapists are among the best-trained and most-educated healthcare providers, aside from physicians. They're licensed in every state, and it takes a master's or doctoral degree to qualify for a license. Their pay is correspondingly high, compared to other caregivers such as registered nurses. However, the therapist's six to seven years of training are dwarfed by the 11 to 16 required to become a doctor. That's why even pediatricians and other primary-care physicians, whose salaries are among the lowest in medicine, earn more.
Physical Therapist Income
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in its 2011 figures that the average salary for a physical therapist was $79,830 per year. Therapists in the lowest 10 percent earned $54,710 or less. Those in the top 10 percent earned $110,570 or more, and their median salary was $78,270. In comparison, registered nurses -- the largest group of healthcare professionals -- reported an average income of $69,110, with the lowest 10 percent earning up to $44,970 and the top 10 percent earning $96,630 or more.
Pediatricians earn a significantly higher income, beginning from their first year in independent practice. In its 2011/2012 salary survey, specialist-recruiting firm Profiles reported a median first-year salary of $162,000 for general pediatricians. A review of major industry salary surveys performed in 2011 by "Modern Healthcare" magazine reported average pediatrician salaries ranging from $161,732 to $229,041 per year. These figures are generous by most standards, and comparable to those of other primary-care physicians including family doctors, internists and gynecologists. However, surgeons and specialists can earn two to three times as much.
Scope of Practice
Physical therapists work with patients whose strength and mobility are impaired as a result of injuries, surgery, chronic medical conditions and other causes. They draw on their detailed knowledge of human anatomy and the musculoskeletal system to create a detailed exercise program for each patient, restoring strength and range of motion. Pediatricians are fully-trained doctors, either M.D.s or D.O.s, who specialize in the treatment of children and infants. Children's bodies are less robust than those of adults, and respond differently to treatment. Many medical conditions affect children disproportionately, or only affect children. Pediatricians can also specialize in cardiology, neurology, psychiatry and other fields, like their adult-medicine counterparts.
Physical therapists begin their careers like doctors, by earning an undergraduate degree with an emphasis on the sciences. Then they complete a graduate degree in physical therapy, and pass a national licensing exam. Each state can impose its own requirements for licensing, though they're broadly similar. Pediatricians follow their undergraduate degree with four years of medical or osteopathic college, then three years in a pediatric residency. Specialists can spend up to another three years in fellowships, for a possible total of 14 years' training. Both physical therapists and pediatricians have high levels of job satisfaction. Physical therapy regularly ranks among careers with the highest satisfaction levels, while Medscape's 2012 lifestyle survey of doctors reported pediatricians to be among the happiest physicians.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Physical Therapist
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis: Pediatrics
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment Statistics -- Physical Therapists
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment Statistics -- Registered Nurses
- Profiles.com: 2011/2012 Physician Salary Survey
- Modern Healthcare: Par For Doc Pay? 2011 Special Issue
- Onward Health Care: Is Physical Therapy a Good Career?
- Medscape: Physician Lifestyle Reports by Specialty -- Pediatricians
- Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images