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updated 9/29/2009 3:46:11 PM ET 2009-09-29T19:46:11

Unemployed Americans who are scientifically and sympathetically inclined may want to think about getting, well, physical.

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In a new SimplyHired.com study that names the occupations in greatest demand in the U.S., physical therapist ranked in the Top 3 in 29 out of the 40 metro areas included in the research conducted by the Mountain View, Calif. job-search Web site, and physical therapist assistant made the Top 3 in 9 metro areas. Demand for physical therapists is expected to grow 27% between 2006 and 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"It's a profession recognized as having opportunity," says Julie Keysor, associate professor of physical therapy at Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences at Boston University. The large U.S. population of aging baby boomers ensures demand for physical therapists - who, through one-on-one interaction, help patients reclaim musculoskeletal abilities impeded by illness, surgery, or injury - will stay strong.

"Arthritis and cardiovascular disease are the two most common chronic conditions in older adults, and physical therapy can improve the outcomes of these conditions," according to Keysor, who also notes an increase in the need for physical therapy for mild to severe brain injuries, probably related to war activities.

The American Physical Therapy Assn., a 72,000-member professional organization based in Alexandria, Va., reports that between 2002 and 2008, median income of physical therapists increased by 29%.

According to 2008 data from the BLS, the mean annual salary for physical therapists is $74,000 and $46,300 for physical therapist assistants. Salaries appear to have nowhere to go but up. According to APTA research, 13% to 18% of physical therapy positions are open.

A science and an art
Jennifer Gamboa, owner of Body Dynamics, a physical therapy clinic in Arlington, Va., says she starts physical therapists at a base salary of $62,000. "They get additional pay based on performance and productivity," adds Gamboa, a former environmental-policy analyst who entered the physical therapy field after she sustained a dance injury and was impressed with the help she received from physical therapists.

What kind of person makes a good physical therapist? "You have to like to interact with people and have tolerance for those who are in discomfort and therefore unhappy. You need to reach out to people and form a relationship but keep a professional demeanor," says Gamboa. "Someone who doesn't tolerate ambiguity well is not going to do well in this field. Physical therapy is a science but also an art. You have to interview each patient, and when the patterns don't follow, you have to figure something out. You have to like puzzles."

Physical therapists work in hospitals, nursing homes, private clinics, or solo practices.

The bad news about this burgeoning field is that becoming a physical therapist takes roughly as much time as it does to become a lawyer (a job that pays a mean annual salary of $124,750).

While physical therapy assistants need only a two-year associates degree in the field, full-fledged physical therapists need a bachelor's degree and a doctoral degree. "It used to be you needed a master's degree, but now it's pretty much a matter of a doctoral degree," says Gamboa.

The typical path, according to Gamboa, starts with a bachelor of science degree with a typical pre-med major such as biology. (Those who already have bachelor of arts degrees and decide later to become physical therapists usually go back to school for supplemental science courses.) Next comes volunteer work, about 200 to 300 hours' worth, in physical therapy clinics and then a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, which takes three years.

APTA declines to rate physical therapy programs, but among the leading accredited ones include the University of Southern California, University of Pittsburgh, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Delaware Newark, and U.S. Army-Baylor University.

"There are many good physical therapy schools," says Gamboa, "but as a consumer, I would look for one that's been around for a long time."

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.All rights reserved.

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