How much can a new grad physical therapist expect to make in their first year out of PT school? It depends on the type of physical therapy job you take and other factors we’ll discuss in this article.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median salary for all physical therapists is $89,440 annually. (A “median” salary means that 50% of therapists make more than this figure and 50% make less.)
As with any career, the starting salary for physical therapists is considerably less, however. Data from PayScale, Inc. indicates that an entry-level physical therapist can expect to bring in $66,935 on average each year. This figure might be higher or lower depending on a few key factors, some of which you control.
Three Factors Affecting a Physical Therapist Starting Salary
1. Location, location, location
Real estate has taught us that location plays an important role in many decisions, not least of which is cost of living and expected wages. The average physical therapy salary varies widely across the country, from $45,120 to $108,550, as evident in the figure below.
With such a wide range in average wages, it’s safe to assume that a starting salary is similarly contingent on location. And we’re not just talking state-by-state; salaries fluctuate depending on whether you’re in a metropolitan area. Not only is the cost of living typically higher in metro areas, the starting salaries for physical therapists are often lower in metro areas because of the high saturation of PTs and a widespread desire to live in the city.
You may be able to rake in considerably more money if you’re willing to relocate. The states that pay therapists the most are Alaska, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Nevada. Each state pays an average wage well above the national mean of $90,000.
Before booking your moving truck to move out west, however, be sure to investigate why the wage is so much higher there. What’s the cost of living? A $100k salary won’t do as much good in Oakland, California, as it will in Dayton, Ohio. Be sure to calculate whether a starting salary is worth the move before accepting the job.
2. Job Type and Setting
Your starting salary will also vary based on the setting in which you practice. About one-third of all employed physical therapists practice in an outpatient clinic, while 26% work in hospitals and 6% in nursing and residential facilities. Compensation varies widely among these types of clinics, but the lowest-paid setting is a private outpatient clinic. You could easily make 18% more on your annual salary by working in a skilled nursing facility.
Believe it or not, providing physical therapy in the patient’s home results in the most lucrative of physical therapy starting salaries. Home health PTs make more money per hour than PTs in a clinic or hospital, and about 11% of all working physical therapists provide home healthcare through an agency. Working as a home health therapist might be a great option for you if you enjoy working independently and don’t mind driving. I have more tips for PTs who want to get started in home health in this post.
Of course, there’s more to consider than the salary alone when appraising a job. If you have your heart set on working in a particular setting, there are ways to negotiate a higher wage. (More on that later.)
3. Flexibility and Willingness to Travel
The factor you control the most in determining your annual starting salary is your flexibility. A willingness to work in a different setting, such as home health or a skilled nursing facility, will open up higher-paid opportunities.
As a new grad, you cannot control how many years of experience you offer, but you can seek out jobs that reward PTs regardless of their years of experience. For example, switching from an outpatient setting to a home health setting could bump your pay by $20-30k annually.
Another way to land a high-paying job as a new PT graduate is by becoming a travel PT. Through an agency like MedTravelers, you can work short-term contracts at clinics throughout the county and earn $50/hour or more. In order to do this, however, you need to have the utmost flexibility, willing to travel for job stints as long as 13 weeks.
Factors that Won’t Affect a Physical Therapist Starting Salary
Many new graduates experience a gap in expectations between PT school and the PT job universe. Just because you spent a small fortune to attend a highly-ranked PT school doesn’t mean you’ll fetch a higher salary. Employers don’t care much which school you attended, and frankly, school rankings are mostly meaningless (see my video below).
As a new PT grad, you also don’t need to obsess over your GPA score; this number won’t affect your starting salary. Neither will the score you got on the NPTE boards exam. Your grades and test score are accomplishments worth putting on your resume, but don’t expect them to have any sort of pull on your base pay.
Tips for Landing the Best Physical Therapist Starting Salary
Know the numbers.
What’s the going rate for entry-level physical therapists in your area? Do your research. Browse through job listings online as well as data reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Having an idea of what a decent starting salary looks like in your area will give you a framework for assessing whether a particular job is worth taking on.
Know your worth.
What can you bring to the table? Just because you have limited experience as a new grad doesn’t mean you have to sell yourself short. Think about the experiences you have gained outside of your DPT that will add value to your future employer. These skills, experiences, and assets will play to your advantage in your job interview and help strengthen the dollar amount you put in your self-worth.
To expand your expertise, you could seek specialist certifications, such as an Orthopedic Clinical Specialist or a Neurological Specialist. Typically, certification requires passing a specialist exam after logging long hours of grueling work in a year-long residency program.
A specialist certification will add letters after your name, but don’t do it just for the alphabet soup; specialization doesn’t necessarily lead to a substantial increase in pay. It might give you an edge over other applicants for a particular job, and it will certainly show that you’re a dedicated learner and hard worker, but don’t expect a pay bump.
Know basic negotiation skills.
You don’t have to be a hostage negotiator for the FBI to be good at negotiating. But negotiating well can pay big dividends throughout your career, and especially as you start out.
For new PT grads, I recommend checking out Chris Voss’s book Never Split the Difference. With personal stories and illustrations, Voss shares excellent advice on negotiation strategies that will shape the way you approach your next job interview.
When you do get offered a job, there are ways to boost the offer – if not monetarily, then with other benefits and adjustments. Remember, it doesn’t hurt to ask, and even if your request is declined, you will have shown your future employer exemplary confidence and assertion – characteristics they need in a good PT.