Nursing vs Physical Therapy vs PT Assistant vs Occupational Therapy. Which is Best for You?

Physical Therapy is Fun
These three fields are some of the most sought-after careers in healthcare. They are stable, have a good starting salary, and offer great benefits. But which one is right for you? We’ll go over the schooling, salaries, advantages, and disadvantages of each.

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Physical Therapy Assistant

Description

In physical therapy, the careers are pretty much divided into two levels: Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) and Physical Therapist (PT). We’ll first look at a PTA, a Physical Therapist Assistant.

Physical Therapy Assistants basically use body mechanics and rehab techniques to help patients “get back on their feet.” They work in Physical Therapy offices, hospitals, and nursing homes. They work one-on-one with each patient for a few hours each day or each week.

The scope of practice of a PTA is very different from a Physical Therapist’s. Physical Therapists are in charge of making a patient’s overall plan, while PTAs execute these plans with the patient. PTAs are more directly involved in a patient’s care. Although PTAs often have a lot of freedom, they always have to work under the supervision of a Physical Therapist.

PTAs can enter the job field with an Associate’s Degree, much like an RN. Also similar to the nursing program, PTA school usually takes 2 years, with one year of prerequisites for a total of three years.

Salary

Physical Therapy Assistants start out at about $52,160 (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Advantages:

  • It is the quickest degree (2-3 years)
  • You can become one for a great price at a Community Colleges
  • Positive job outlook
  • More direct patient contact

Disadvantages:

  • Less income than PT or OT
  • It might cost more money in the long run if you decide you want to advance further
  • May limit job opportunities, especially compared to nursing
  • Less independence: you must work under the supervision of a Physical Therapist
  • Less flexibility in job choices and schooling than nursing

Physical Therapy

Description

Physical Therapy school is quite a different ballgame from nursing. In nursing, getting your master’s degree is a natural progression. (RN to BSN to MSN etc.)(what are these?). Not so for physical therapy.

Physical Therapists have to get their doctorate’s degree in order to practice. The PTA career does NOT naturally convert to a PT career. Although it’s not impossible, it’s not ideal to get your PTA then bridge to a PT. You can think of the two as similar to Nursing vs Doctor. Nurses become nurses, and doctors become doctors. Nursing is not a stepping stone to a medical degree. Likewise, PTA is not meant as a stepping stone to a PT degree.

To become a Physical Therapist, you will need to get a doctorate. Usually, this means you get your bachelor’s, then join a three-year program to get your DPT degree (Doctor of Physical Therapy).

Physical Therapists are in charge of diagnosing a patient’s injury or illness, creating a plan, evaluating how the plan worked, and adjusting it accordingly. They essentially write orders for the PTAs to carry out, while supervising a lot of the activity.

PT Salary

A Physical Therapist’s salary starts at about $79,860, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Advantages:

  • A lot of independence and authority to diagnose, plan, and evaluate
  • High end salary
  • Positive job outlook
  • Great for starting right out of high school

Disadvantages:

  • Requires a large investment in schooling
  • Large amounts of paperwork and less direct patient contact than being a PTA
  • Less flexibility in job choices and schooling than nursing

Occupational Therapy

Description

Schooling and salary-wise, you can think of occupational therapy being a middle ground between PTA and PT.

Occupational Therapists can enter the field with a Master’s degree. This usually means getting a bachelor’s degree, then entering a two-year program to get your Master’s.

Occupational Therapists have a much greater degree of independence than PTAs. OTs can evaluate and assess, create treatment plans, and then carry those plans out.

The difference, though, is that occupational Therapists focus on helping patients with daily living activities and gaining independence, while physical therapy focuses on improving physical function and movement. For example, a PT would help a patient move and rotate their injured knee safely, while an OT will teach the patient how to get around the house using crutches. OTs will also more often work with patients with chronic illnesses and educate patients on the use of assistive devices and living with illness.

Occupational Therapist salaries start at about $75,400 (again, the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Advantages:

  • Independence to diagnose, plan, and evaluate
  • Mid-point salary between PTA, PT, and Nursing
  • Positive job outlook
  • Plenty of direct patient contact
  • Also good if you’re starting right from high school

Disadvantages:

  • Still requires a large investment in schooling (6 years, Master’s degree)
  • Less flexibility in job choices and schooling than nursing

Nursing (RN)

Description

Nursing is a wide and varied profession. There are literally millions of nurses. It’s highly sought after for being highly flexible, respected, and having a positive and direct impact on the lives of others.

Because of the wide range of responsibilities nurses have every day, their day-to-day shifts can be pretty arduous. Nursing school can be very stressful as well because of the accelerated pace of learning. Bedside nurses are in the thick of things medically, meaning they are exposed to unpleasant aspects of patient care.

Your choices when it comes to nursing school is actually very flexible. There are many paths to becoming a nurse.

Here’s what I mean: you can opt to get an LPN which takes two years, an RN that takes about 3 years, or a BSN that takes 4-5 years. Each of those degrees enables you to get a good, reliable job and sets you up for a nursing career. (Learn more about nursing degrees)

Nursing Salary

A nursing salary starts at about $40,000-50,000 per year. As you gain experience, or pursue advanced nursing degrees, a starting salary can be as high as $90,000 for a Nurse Practitioner with a Master’s degree according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012 Report.

Advantages:

  • Opportunity to advance at your own pace, completing education in stages
  • A wide range of salary according to your level of education
  • Large variety of job types (management, bedside, research and more.)
  • Plenty of direct patient contact
  • Job market is much larger compared to PTA, PT, OT

Disadvantages:

  • More exposure to blood, body fluids, and excrement
  • Nurses have multiple patients at once, instead of one-on-one
  • Can be more overwhelming on the job, as well as in nursing school
  • Usually requires off-hour shifts (evenings, weekends, holidays)

What do you think?

Comment below and tell me your opinion. Which career choice would you choose? Are you trying to decide right now?Was this article helpful?

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Tweetable Takeaways and Post-able Phrases

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21 Comments

  • Roobok says:

    What about Occupational Therapy Assistant

    • PTA jet says:

      COTA is not a bad field. I am a PTA who has been working outpatient and acute care for 8 yrs now. I’m in a large hospital with outpt, acute, inpatient, LTAC, and home health rehab facilities. Out of all the different options I believe we only have one COTA on staff in acute. There just doesn’t seem to be a big enough job market for them, IMO. I’m actually in the process of going from PTA to RN. I like the different options and career advancement possibilities. PTA to PT is quite the ridiculous stepping stone. There is no easy way. It basically starting over from square one. The only advantage is the knowledge you’ve acquired will make the classes easier to understand.

  • Cherrie says:

    this still left me confuse it helped a little but not alot I wanted to be a massage therapy but they don’t make any money so physical therapy was the next best thing i deal with muscles and work with patient’s but this is telling me that I don’t have direct contact with patient’s and I can’t be a pta I can have someone looking over my shoulder telling me what to do am currently a PCT and I can’t stand it.

  • Alice says:

    Physical therapist assistants don’t have a ton of immediate supervision from PTs all the time. The PT has too much going on doing their own work. The PT might see a patient once, then write up a detailed plan of instructions for what the PTA would do with the patient for the next 10 sessions.

    The description of Occupational Therapists above is way too brief and narrow to cover the wide variety of things that they do. Its too late to write a detailed response, but OTs deal with a lot more of evaluating the cognitive and psychological function of a patient. They also tend to deal much more with fine motor skills, things you do with your hands. So its pretty unlikely that an OT would teach you how to use crutches. More likely how you can safely adapt to cooking dinner with a toddler underfoot when you are on crutches, or if you had half of your body paralyzed.

    • Gena says:

      I agree with you Alice, I’ve been working as a PTA for nearly three years now and get a very limited amount of supervision. I normally get clear instructions as to my duties the next 5 – 20 sessions.

      • Kate says:

        Hello Gena. I’m currently deciding between SPL and a
        an OTA. My concern for the OTA or OT was how physically engaging or demanding is the job? I’ve often heard stories about restroom routines like you toiliting elders and such. Is that often?

        • Amanda says:

          Kate,

          If you were to work in a long-term care facility, especially one with higher functioning adults, toileting and showering could be often. From what I have seen, OTA and PTA overlap a lot in long-term care facilities, but PTs/PTAs seem to do more lifting/transferring than OTs/OTAs. OT is not AS physically engaging.

          • Kate says:

            Amanda, what age group do OT’s usually work with? Would they be more children or adult oriented?

        • quest says:

          I am currently a OTA student and i love all of the opportunities, the classes are a lot easier than PTA as well. Everyone is having fun. The work setting I have chosen would be a skilled nursing facility, because everyone apart of the rehab team works together. It is a great field and it is growing! so do what you can to find out as much information. The pay is great and you meet wonderful people. email if you have any questions..

  • KeV says:

    Although we are under the supervision of a PT don’t allow that to deject your decision in making PTA a career for you. Direction and Supervision for a PTA isn’t what it seems. The physical therapist assistant may perform selected physical therapy interventions under the direction and at least general supervision of the physical therapist. In general supervision, the physical therapist is not required to be onsite for direction and supervision, but must be available at least by telecommunications.

    Even RNs, OTs, PTs and etc have to take direction and sometimes supervision from the same person: the MD/DO. So don’t think we are consistently watched over… that’s not the teamwork frame for a PT/PTA we BOTH are therapist.

  • Heather says:

    Alice is right that the description of occupational therapy is too narrow and brief. If anything, occupational therapy has a very wide domain of service provision. Occupational Therapists work with individuals throughout the lifespan from birth to hospice care. The focus of care is on empowering individuals to be independent in their daily occupations. Occupations in this sense is not simply a job, instead it stands for any unique activities an individual engages in. This includes activities of daily living (toileting, bathing, eating, functional movement throughout a home), instrumental activities of daily living (cooking, laundry, paying bills, using a telephone), education and participation in school, participation in a job/work force, and play/hobbies. An occupational therapist might help a young child meet their developmental milestones or manage sensory processing disorders, or assist a student to develop their fine motor skills for handwriting and participation in the classroom. The same therapist would then be qualified to assist an adult with returning to work after an injury, or teaching an individual with a spinal cord injury or traumatic brain injury strategies to engage in daily activities again, or assist an older adult with completing daily activities after a hip replacement.

    Comparing an occupational therapist to a physical therapist is like comparing apples to oranges: they are both fruits but that is where the similarities end. An occupational therapist works with clients to increase their independence and safety with everyday activities whereas a physical therapist will work with a client to improve their strength and mobility safely. Because they are different professions, a physical therapist cannot supervise an occupational therapist and vise-versa. Both professions provide very important, but different components to helping a person live a holistic life.

  • Precious says:

    I am currently in nursing school for LPN and I really want to be a PTA but if I cant really advance in it then I don’t know if I really want to be that. I need help lol, I don’t know if I should switch to PTA or stay in nursing.

    • MEGAN says:

      I FEEL THE SAME BUT JUST GO WITH WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY JUST REMEMBER YOU WANT A JOB THAT YOU WOULD LOVE TO GO TO

    • questley smith says:

      PTA is less stressful and you can make alot more money, what area are you from?

      • Jalseen says:

        Can u guys just tell me which is better PT or nursing …m confused

        • Amanda says:

          It depends on what you want and how your personality is.

          As a nurse, you have the ability to advance your career easier, work multiple shifts. Depending on the setting, nurses spend a lot of time passing out medications, charting and taking vital signs.

          As a PT or PTA, you have more time with patients, get to know patients, and you get to be creative with treatments (balance activities, transfers, exercises). the work schedule is also flexible. 7-3, 8-5 and you can PRN. I’m a PTA. 🙂

  • Allie says:

    This was much helpful for people who are just starting to look into career options in this field. Nicely organized- Thanks a lot!

  • Shabel says:

    RN and PT which requires much school work ,or which is difficult to learn

  • Daniel Timon says:

    Hi there, I’m Daniel Timon, I’m doing my first year in studying physiotherapy which is 4 years bachelor course offered here in Papua new guinea( Divine Word University). The units that I am studying is very tough unlike the other courses.
    Why should physiotherapists get less wages than doctors. The salaries when compared to nurses, its similar..
    Please any comment about my point of view?? droop it below and let’s discuss.

  • Jessica Kroese says:

    Hello, new reader here, I have some questions for the group.
    I want to explore the PT Assistant field. I have finished my Associates Degree in Science, and am volunteering at a hospital with a part time job at a retirement home. I am looking into PT Assistant training programs.
    I would like to do a part time PTA program. I do better with the science courses if I can focus on one or two at a time. But my local community college has only a full time PTA program. I also like online courses. I see some schools with online courses, but I don’t see any that have a complete program.
    I read in a blog that most PTA students do their training part time after they finish their general education courses but I am not sure if I am seeing a good part time program.
    What did people in this blog do? Did you do PTA training part time, and if so where? Did you get an internship or job at a PT office first, and then do training after?
    I appreciate insights people have, thanks.

  • Pt melike says:

    Hey. I m a Pt from Turkey. If you have some questions or problems about this programme, job, salary etc. i can help everyone.

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