Know the difference between an athletic trainer vs a physical therapist? In this article we’ll discuss the key differences and similarities of being an athletic trainer vs a physical therapist.
Physical therapy (PT) and athletic training (AT/ATC) are two professions that tend to attract people with similar personality traits. Most PTs/ATCs are intelligent, active, driven, and oftentimes former athletes. Both physical therapy and athletic training are medical professions that offer a variety of settings and allow you to practice in 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’m here to help you understand the basics of each profession, the schooling that is required, the settings each typically works in, and what to expect when it comes to salary and career advancement.
Career Overview: Physical Therapy
What does a physical therapist do exactly? Depending on the setting, which we will discuss below, physical therapists evaluate, diagnose, and treat a variety of injuries, conditions, and surgeries. This treatment is typically with the purpose of minimizing pain, restoring strength/range of motion, and improving overall function.
Physical therapists help patients achieve their short-term and long-term goals through the use of passive stretching, joint mobilizations/ manipulations, proper application of modalities (ice, heat, ultrasound, etc), proper prescription of assistive devices (crutches, braces, orthotics, etc), and development/implementation of strength/conditioning/balance training programs.
Career Overview: Athletic Training
Athletic training is recognized by the American Medical Association and Department of Health and Human services as an allied health profession. So what does an athletic trainer do exactly? Let’s dive into the career, athletic trainer salary and career below.
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 as it pertains to the rehabilitation program of an injured athlete.
These rehabilitation programs typically begin once the athletic trainer and physician have diagnosed a musculoskeletal injury through special testing and/or referral for necessary imaging. Once a diagnosis is made, athletic trainers manage acute pain and inflammation, provide guidance for performance of exercise programs, and eventually use injury-preventative devices like tape or braces if necessary.
Before we answer the question ‘how much do athletic trainers make compared to physical therapists”, let’s look at the schooling required to become an athletic trainer vs a physical therapist.
Physical Therapy Schooling
In 1993, Creighton University initiated the first doctoral level program for physical therapists, and since then the DPT has been adopted across the US and is the new requirement for incoming physical therapists.
After completing 4 years of undergraduate education consisting of prerequisites like 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). Although most programs are 3 years long, there are some that will admit college freshmen to a 6 year program with a PT focus from the first year. This option can save students a year of schooling and debt, but would require that you are sure of your career choice much earlier on…no coming in as “undecided” and making up your mind as you go.
After completing the 3 years of coursework and clinical rotations, in order to practice you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Board of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).
Athletic Training Certification / Schooling
Athletic trainers on the other hand only require a bachelor’s degree; although upwards of 70% of practicing athletic trainers have their master’s degree, which would be an additional 2 years beyond your bachelor’s degree. Like physical therapy, the course work consists of both classroom learning and clinical experience in health-related subjects such as biology, anatomy/physiology, nutrition, ATC specific courses, and internship programs.
Athletic trainers are board certified by the BOC (Board of Certification) in every state except California. You must complete a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) before you can sit for the exam. Similar to physical therapist, athletic trainers must complete continuing education courses, including BOC EBP CEUs in order to renew their certification.
What Does a Physical Therapist Do?
When you picture a physical therapist, what sorts of images come to mind? Likely, you see someone in khakis and a polo stretching a patient’s shoulder in an outpatient clinic or perhaps a therapist helping an elderly individual to walk with the use of a gait belt in a hospital setting. While those may very well be the most common settings, it’s important to know that those settings are just the tip of the iceberg.
Here is how the job settings of the ~250,000 working physical therapists breakdown:
|PERCENTAGE OF ALL PT’s||JOB SETTINGS|
|33%||Outpatient PT Clinics|
|11%||Home Health Care|
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, burns, etc. And mixed into just about every category would be the potential to work special populations such as pediatrics, as that is a patient population that can be seen in outpatient, inpatient, or home health settings. Within each category you can specialize as well. Examples of a specialization would include an Orthopedic Clinic Specialty (OCS) or a Neurological Clinical Specialty (NCS).
What Does an Athletic Trainer Do?
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 in the event of an injury. The reality however, much like physical therapy, is that athletic trainers work in many settings you may not expect. Here is a breakdown from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA1):
|PERCENTAGE of ALL ATs||JOB SETTINGS|
|17%||Clinic and Hospital|
If you’re wondering what “emerging settings” might include, athletic trainers have worked in branches of the military, in commercial settings for consultation on ergonomic set-ups, cardiac rehab, and in police or fire departments.
Salary and Professional Growth for PT vs. ATC
You’ve read this far and 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 potential for career growth may help you decide. Below are the national averages for starting salary, median salary, and what would be considered maximum earning potential
Athletic Trainer Salary vs Physical Therapist Salary
While the earning potential for physical therapy is clearly higher, it usually takes a lot of time, additional training, and no small amount of networking with the right people to be able to achieve the “high end” salaries in either profession.
Physical Therapy school can also be very expensive, so it’s important to weigh the costs of taking on so much debt.
How Much Do Athletic Trainers Make?
Now let’s talk about athletic trainer salary or overall earning potential. While it’s possible to earn over $100k, even the average salary of an NFL ATC is only $71k…which is considerably higher than the averages for 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 this first. The National Athletic Trainers’ Association has 35,000 members, and fewer than 800 work in ANY major sports. As it shows in the table above, that means you have a 2% chance to work in any major sports leagues, let alone one that pays as high as the NFL.
How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?
Likewise, in physical therapy those individuals making over $100k have likely climbed the corporate ladder to a clinic or regional manager’s position, own their own clinic, or are affiliated with a professional sports team themselves…all of which require varying degrees of time and effort to achieve.
What is comforting though, is that both physical therapy and athletic training are expected to grow by 22% and 19% respectively from 2018 to 2028; which is much higher than the average job growth of 5%. Being that they are both in the medical field, job security isn’t usually something you would need to worry about.
AT Vs PT: What is Right For You?
To see which career you might be interested in, let’s compare similarities and differences a little more directly.
While both PTs and ATCs must complete 4 years of undergraduate schooling, PT’s are required to complete the additional 3 years of PT school and ATCs are encouraged to complete the 2 years it takes to get your master’s degree.
Although both professions work in a wide variety of settings, the advanced schooling of a PT does open the possibility of working in certain settings where an ATCs skill would not be required (ie. burn unit, oncology, neurological rehab, etc). While PTs have more autonomy in treatment decision making and ATCs must operate under the supervision of a physician, ATCs are more frequently relied on for on-field diagnoses and emergent medical care.
As far as preference on working in a hospital or clinic vs “out in the field”, that comes down entirely to personal preference.
The vast majority of the skills required to be successful are shared by these two professions. Intelligence, clinical reasoning, dedication, communication skills, and the ability to collaborate well with others on a treatment plan are essential.
Where they differ is in the fact that typically athletic trainers are required to think quickly and perform under pressure more often than physical therapists, while physical therapists generally deal with longer-term treatment plans. Although obviously, there are exceptions to this generalization on both counts.
Salary/ Career Growth
This one is a little more black and white. The median salary and overall earning potential of physical therapists is much higher. However, along with that comes greater amounts of student loan debt.
Both careers offer considerable opportunity for growth within their field, physical therapy certainly offers more opportunity for growth within an organization. If you work for a major outpatient private practice as an ATC, it is unlikely that you will be afforded the same opportunities for career advancement, as most organizations require that those in a management position have a PT or PTA degree.
Physical therapy and athletic training are both excellent careers if chosen for the right reasons. After reading this, hopefully you have a better sense of which reasons may be the right ones for you!
Quick Note: It’s really not about “ATC versus PT”…
As a side note – a word to all of the physical therapists out there – it’s discouraging how often I hear things from therapists along the lines of, “he’s just an Athletic Trainer” or other comments meant to diminish the opinion or clinical reasoning of athletic trainers. Odds are if you work in an outpatient setting, an athletic trainer has had far more experience with seeing positive special tests and evaluating injuries before the patient/athlete has seen a physician. If you work with an ATC, you would be wise to utilize their expertise and learn from them. The best therapists I know are those who understand their own strengths and weaknesses and are able to function efficiently with other healthcare professionals as a team.
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.