Athletic Trainer Vs. Physical Therapist: Career, Salary, Education

athletic training vs physical therapy

Athletic Trainer vs. Physical Therapist – what’s the difference? While there are several similarities between an athletic trainer and a physical therapist, there are key differences in job setting, schooling, and salary

Careers in physical therapy (PT) and athletic training (AT) professions tend to attract people with similar personality traits. Most PTs/ATs are bright, active, and driven – and oftentimes they are former athletes. Both professions offer a variety of settings for practicing the more physical aspects of medicine.

Although many similarities can be drawn between the two professions, they differ in just as many ways. As a physical therapist, I can lend insight on the overview of each profession, the schooling required, typical work settings, and what to expect when it comes to salary and career advancement. 

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

physical therapy

What exactly does a physical therapist do? Depending on the setting, physical therapists evaluate, diagnose, and treat a variety of injuries, conditions, and surgeries. This treatment typically serves to minimize pain, restore strength or range of motion, and improve overall function.

Physical therapists help patients achieve their short-term and long-term goals through the following techniques:

  • Passive stretching
  • Joint mobilization / manipulation 
  • Proper application of modalities (ice, heat, ultrasound, etc.) 
  • Proper prescription of assistive devices (crutches, braces, orthotics, etc.)
  • Development and implementation of training programs in strength, conditioning, and balance

What Does an Athletic Trainer Do?

Athletic Training is recognized by the American Medical Association and Department of Health and Human Services as an allied health profession. But what does an athletic trainer do, exactly? 

athletic trainer

What is an Athletic Trainer?

The role of an athletic trainer consists of preventing, evaluating, diagnosing, and/or treating acute or chronic injuries under the direct supervision of a physician. Most often, this role coincides with the rehabilitation program of an injured athlete.

Generally, a rehabilitation program begins once the athletic trainer and physician have diagnosed a musculoskeletal injury through special testing (and imaging, if necessary). Once a diagnosis is made, the athletic trainer helps the athlete rehabilitate with the following techniques:

  • Management of acute pain and inflammation
  • Guidance and performance of exercise programs
  • Implementation of  injury-preventative devices such as tape or braces, as needed. 

Before we answer the question, “How much do athletic trainers make compared to physical therapists?” let’s consider the schooling required to become an Athletic Trainer vs. Physical Therapist. 

Physical Therapy Schooling: DPT

In 1993, Creighton University initiated the first doctoral-level program for physical therapists. Since then, the DPT (Doctorate of Physical Therapy) has been adopted across the US as the new requirement for incoming physical therapists. 

After completing 4 years of undergraduate education – consisting of prerequisites such as biology, anatomy/physiology, physics, chemistry, calculus, kinesiology, etc. – you must then attend a DPT program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

Most DPT programs are 3 years long and consist of coursework and clinical rotations. Some schools offer a 6-year program, combining a PT-focused undergraduate degree and DPT rolled into one. This option may save you time and money, but it requires that you be sure of your career choice from the start. (No coming in as “undecided” and making up your mind as you go.)

Once you’ve earned your DPT, in order to practice you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Board of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). You’ll need to periodically complete continuing education units (CEUs) to retain your license. 

physical therapy school

Athletic Training Schooling: ATC

As opposed to the doctoral-level training of a PT, an Athletic Trainer Certification (ATC) only requires a Bachelor’s degree. However, over 70% of practicing athletic trainers also have a Master’s degree, which adds 2 years of schooling.

Like physical therapy, ATC coursework consists of both clinical internship and classroom learning, covering health-related subjects such as biology, anatomy/physiology, nutrition, and ATC-specific courses.

Athletic trainers are board-certified by the BOC (Board of Certification) in every state except California. You must complete an ATC program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) before you can become board-certified. Similar to physical therapists, athletic trainers must also complete CEUs, including BOC Evidence-Based Practice CEUs, in order to renew their certification. 

Physical Therapy: Job Settings

When you picture physical therapy, what sorts of images come to mind? Likely, you imagine an outpatient clinic in which someone in khakis and a polo stretches a patient’s shoulder. Perhaps you picture a therapist helping an elderly individual walk with the use of a gait belt in a hospital setting. While those settings are among the most common, they represent just the tip of the iceberg. 

With roughly 250,000 physical therapists on the job, there are many possible settings in which to work. Here is the distribution of those settings across PTs: 

PERCENTAGE OF ALL PT’sJOB SETTINGS
33%Outpatient PT Clinics
26%Hospitals
11%Home Health Care
8%Nursing Facilities
6%Self-Employed
Physical Therapy data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Now, those categories may seem pretty broad – because they are pretty broad. For example, within “Hospitals,” a therapist may work in cardiac rehab, oncology, acute neurological rehab, lymphedema, or a burn unit, etc. And within each setting – be it outpatient, inpatient, or home health – you’ll have the opportunity to treat specific population groups such as pediatrics. Therapists can also choose a specific type of therapy, such as an  Orthopedic Clinic Specialty (OCS) or a Neurological Clinical Specialty (NCS).

Athletic Training: Job Settings

Okay, so how about an athletic trainer? If you’re like most people, you probably picture a man or woman in a windbreaker on the sidelines of a football game, waiting to run out onto the field and treat an injury. However, much like physical therapy, the reality is that athletic trainers work in varied and unexpected settings. Here is a breakdown from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA):

PERCENTAGE of ALL ATsJOB SETTINGS
19%College/University
18%Secondary Schools
17%Clinic and Hospital
27%AT Students
2%Professional Sports
2%Emerging Settings
Data from the National Athletic Trainer’s Association

If you’re wondering what “emerging settings” might include, athletic trainers work in branches of the military, cardiac rehab, police or fire departments, and in commercial settings for ergonomic consultation. 

Athletic Trainer vs. Physical Therapist: Salary and Career Growth

Let’s say you’ve read this far, but you’re still thinking, “Oh man…this hasn’t made my decision any easier! I could see myself pursuing either one of these careers.” Well, differences in salary and career growth potential may help you decide. 

Athletic Trainer: Salary and Earning Potential 

While it’s possible – albeit, rare – for an AT to earn over $100k, even an NFL AT earns only $71k, which is considerably higher than the average salaries of ATs in MLB (~$37k), NHL ($43k), or NBA ($55k). And if your first thought is, “Well then, I guess I’ll just have to work towards a career in the NFL,” consider: of the 35,000 members in NATA, fewer than 800 work in ANY major sports. According to the Job Settings table above, that means you have a 2% chance to find employment in any major sports leagues, let alone one that pays as high as the NFL.

Physical Therapy: Salary and Earning Potential 

Likewise, most physical therapists making over $100k are affiliated with a sports team, own their own clinic, or have climbed the corporate ladder to a clinic or regional manager’s position. No matter the career path, it takes time and effort to achieve such a relatively high salary. 

To compare these figures side-by-side, see the table below for the national averages in starting salary, median salary, and maximum earning potential:

Salaries for Athletic Trainer vs. Physical Therapist

StartingMedianHigh End
Physical Therapist$60-70,000$89,440$124,740+
Athletic Trainer$35-40,000$48,440$73,470+
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

While the earning potential for physical therapy is clearly higher, achieving the “high end” of salaries in either profession requires additional training, extensive experience, and no small amount of networking. 

As you compare salaries, you also should consider the costs of schooling. Physical Therapy school can be very expensive, so it’s important to weigh how much debt you’re willing to take on.

No matter which path you take, there’s good news. Both careers in physical therapy and athletic training are expected to grow by 22% and 19%, respectively, from 2018 to 2028. This projected growth is much higher than the average job growth of 5%. And, since both careers are in the medical field, job security isn’t usually something to worry about.

athletic trainer salary

Athletic Trainer vs. Physical Therapist: Which is Right For You?

To determine which career you might be interested in, let’s compare similarities and differences a little more directly.

Education

Both PTs and ATs must complete 4 years of undergraduate schooling, but PTs are required to complete the additional 3 years of PT school, while and ATs are encouraged to complete a 2-year master’s degree. 

Job Settings

Although both professions work in a wide variety of settings, a PT with advanced schooling is potentially qualified for more opportunities where a specific skill-set is needed (ie., burn unit, oncology, neurological rehab, etc). While PTs employ more autonomy in treatment decision-making, ATs administer more on-field diagnoses and emergent medical care.

Your choice between the two may just come down to a personal preference between working in a hospital/clinic vs. working “out in the field.”

Required Skills

Both professions require a similar set of skills: intelligence, clinical reasoning, dedication, communication skills, and the ability to collaborate well with others on a treatment plan.

Where these skills differ is in the application. Typically, athletic trainers must think quickly and under pressure more often than physical therapists, while physical therapists generally deal with longer-term treatment plans (with exceptions, of course). 

Salary / Career Growth

This comparison is a little more black-and-white. The median salary and overall earning potential of a PT is much higher than that of an AT. However, a PT career typically incurs greater amounts of student loan debt

Both careers offer considerable opportunity for growth within their field, but physical therapy offers more opportunities for growth within an organization. If you work for a major outpatient private practice as an AT, you’re less likely to advance into a management position without a PT or PTA degree. 

In Summary:

Physical therapy and athletic training are both excellent careers when chosen for the right reasons. After reading this, you should have a better sense of which reasons are the right ones for you!

Quick Note: It’s really not about “AT vs. PT”…

As a side note – a word to all of the physical therapists out there – it’s discouraging how often I hear therapists diminish an AT’s opinion by saying “he’s just an Athletic Trainer,” or something along those lines. In an outpatient setting, the athletic trainer probably will have had far more experience with the athlete or patient than you will as the PT, overseeing tests and evaluating injuries long before the patient/athlete ever comes to you. An AT offers invaluable expertise from which you would be wise to learn. The best therapists I know understand their own strengths and weaknesses and work efficiently with other healthcare professionals as a team.


Dan Murphy DPT OCS

This article was written by Dan Murphy DPT, OCS. Dan graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2016 and lives just outside of Chicago with his wife and 2 year old son; though he and his wife are expecting a daughter in a few months! He enjoys playing board games and any outdoor activities with friends and family.


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