Physical therapists are empathetic by nature. As such, most didn’t get into the PT profession to make bank. That being said, empathy doesn’t pay the bills. Luckily, the impact you make on your patients’ lives actually does. You get paid to treat patients. Now, how much you get paid—i.e., the salary you receive from your place of employment—to treat those patients depends on a lot of factors. Let’s examine:
1. Location, Location, Location
As expected, where you work factors into how much you make. After all, the cost of living is far higher in, say, New York and San Fransisco than El Paso and Des Moines. It isn’t just the cost of living, though, that influences salary rates in a particular location. Supply and demand also play a part. For example, according to this demand map, physical therapists are in higher demand in southern Nevada. Perhaps that’s why Las Vegas has one of the highest average annual salaries for PTs in the country ($124,060), according to a 2013 US News Salary Outlook. Conversely, according to Wanted Analytics, Missoula, Montana, has some of the “best overall conditions and [is] where you are likely to find candidates faster and more easily.” However, the state of Montana has the third lowest average annual salary in the country ($71,880), according to PhysicalTherapySalary.org, and the second lowest ($68,900), according to healthcarewages.org.
Curious as to salary rates by state? Check out this table, which provides hourly, weekly, monthly, and annual breakdowns.
2. Experience vs. Education
As with most professions, a person’s years of experience can influence his or her dollar value in the PT field. “Entry-level physical therapists made an average of $66,545 in 2011, whereas PTs with 16 or more years of experience earned an average salary of $84,656. A therapist who falls somewhere between these two extremes...should expect to earn a salary somewhere near the national median of $79,860,” explains Brooke Andrus in this 2013 blog post. This interactive chart on PayScale.com—which breaks down the median of all compensation (including tips, bonus, and overtime) by years of experience—shows that:
- Entry-level PTs (0-5 years experience) make a median salary of $65,000
- Mid-career PTs (5-10 years) make a median salary of $74,000
- Experienced PTs (10-20 years) make a median salary of $81,000
- Late-career PTs (>20 years) make a median salary of $83,000
Now, what about education? As detailed in this recent WebPT blog post, physical therapy students must now obtain doctorate-level degrees in order to practice, which essentially levels the playing field for all entry-level clinicians. Thus, education isn’t a significant factor when it comes to salary. But what about practicing therapists who have bachelor’s or master’s degrees? As this article explains, you shouldn’t let the potential for a higher salary be the determining factor as to whether you obtain a transitional DPT: “Insurers don’t adjust reimbursement rates according to the clinician’s educational level, which means PT practices have no concrete financial incentive to offer higher salaries to doctoral degree-holders. In fact, according to TherapyJobs.com, only 25% of therapists with DPTs believe ‘the advanced degree has increased their earnings.’” Moral of the story: Currently, years of experience trumps level of education.
3. Willingness to Travel
Want to get away for a while? Not the type to put down roots? Then traveling PT might be for you, and the pay is certainly tantalizing. According to Onward Healthcare, “travel therapy jobs pay higher salaries to professionals due to the elevated needs of the [hiring] facility.” How much higher? According to this chart, there are some instances where annual salaries for traveling therapists and assistants are nearly double those associated with permanent positions. Of course, PTs interested in travel work must take into account the cost of living in various locations. Furthermore, as this article explains, travel salaries also strongly depend on contract length, the number of contracts in a year, and the specific details of your individual contract. That being said, “Travel PTs that work with agencies enjoy many intangibles, including free private housing, medical, dental, and life insurance, malpractice insurance, travel & licensure reimbursement, a 401(k), and continued employment services,” explains Onward Healthcare.
4. Practice Setting
Another factor that contributes to salary rates for physical therapists: where you treat. According to PayScale.com, home health, long-term care, home care, and geriatric facilities are the highest paying PT areas. US News confirms this in its 2013 Salary Outlook: “The highest wages go to physical therapists working in schools, home health care or nursing care facilities.” And on average, those annual wages are $96,810, $94,600, and $88,890 respectively, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Keep in mind that the above list of factors isn’t inclusive. In fact, your salary outlook is a lot like a snowflake: wholly unique. After all, your application, interview skills, clinical style, networking abilities, and professional relationships all can influence whether you land a job and whether that job will pay higher or lower than the medians and averages for your experience level, location, and setting.
Now, if you’re wondering if you’re over- or underpaid in your current position, there are plenty of salary wizards and comparison calculators out there. But, again, all of those calculations are based on industry data and do not account for the snowflake nuances. Still, knowing industry averages for your level of education, experience, location, and setting certainly help during salary negotiations, so do your research and arm yourself with data appropriately. But remember, while money is nice, it isn’t everything. There are a lot of other benefits that can make or break an employment opportunity, so never discount the value of company culture, benefits packages, team fit, management, treatment setting and patient population, schedule flexibility, learning opportunities, and potential for career growth in lieu of dollar symbols.