Take the Nursing vs. Physical Therapy Career Challenge

Which career feel right for you - Take the Nursing vs. Physical Therapy Career Challenge

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in healthcare, there are countless options to choose from. In this post, we’re going to juxtapose registered nursing vs. physical therapy. Why? U.S. News & World Report ranked these occupations among the top 20 best healthcare jobs for 2021, with nurses at #14 and physical therapists at #11. Let’s see if one of these direct patient care professions is for you.

First, it’s important to understand the roles registered nurses and physical therapists play within our healthcare system. Second, it helps to do a direct comparison between these two professions in terms of annual earnings, employer types, and future job growth. And third, you need to consider your personality and how it relates to the pros and cons of these professions.

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Generally speaking, registered nurses are part of a highly diverse profession that applies competence and compassion when caring for individuals across the lifespan. Nurses work in conjunction with doctors and other healthcare professionals to coordinate, plan, and deliver treatment to patients suffering from any number of medical conditions.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapists work with patients of all ages who have or may develop physical impairments, activity limitations, or participation restrictions due to a disease, disorder, or injury. By providing rehabilitation, performance enhancement, and prevention services, physical therapists help individuals achieve the best possible quality of life as it relates to body movement and health.

Physical Therapy - patient lifting weight

Career Comparison Chart

OVERVIEWRegistered nurses balance knowledge and expertise with care and compassion when tending to diverse patient populations in a variety of settings.Physical therapists work with patients of all ages who have physical impairments and/or chronic pain caused by an injury or healthcare issue.
TYPES OF PATIENTSA heart patient recovering from bypass surgery.An athlete recovering from a stress fracture.
A terminally ill patient with end-of-life care.An obese person becoming more active.
A pregnant patient during childbirth.A senior citizen managing arthritis pain.
A young patient with a broken arm.A stroke victim relearning a motor skill.
FUNCTIONWorking as part of an interprofessional healthcare team, RNs monitor patient conditions, perform medical procedures, and dispense medication.PTs diagnose movement restrictions in patients and create personalized wellness plans to enhance the physical and functional abilities of these individuals.
WAGES*Registered nurses in Massachusetts have an annual salary range of $61,660 to $146,480. Registered nurses in North Carolina have an annual salary range of $50,820 to $93,250.Physical therapists in Massachusetts have an annual salary range of $61,500 to $116,290. Physical therapists in North Carolina have an annual salary range of $63,270 to $113,230.
GROWTH*Between 2018 and 2028, RN jobs in Massachusetts are expected to grow by 8%. Between 2018 and 2028, RN jobs in North Carolina are expected to grow by 11%.Between 2018 and 2028, PT jobs in Massachusetts are expected to grow by 10%. Between 2018 and 2028, PT jobs in North Carolina are expected to grow by 15%.
Nursing homesNursing homes
Outpatient clinicsOutpatient clinics
Private practicesPrivate practices
Military basesSports and fitness facilities

*Source: CareerOneStop.org, 2021

Northeastern University - Nurse holding baby

Nursing Education and Licensure

To become a registered nurse and enter the profession at the entry-level, you need to have, at the very minimum, an associate degree in nursing from an accredited program, along with a passing score on the NCLEX-RN® exam.

However, there’s been an industry shift where more and more healthcare employers are requiring their new nurse hires to have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.

Northeastern University ABSN students

In 2019, an American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) survey on the Employment of New Nurse Graduates showed that 46% of employers require new hires to have a BSN while 88% strongly prefer BSN-prepared nurses.

But no matter the level of nursing degree you have, you must pass the NCLEX-RN and become licensed in the state for which you plan to practice.

Physical Therapy Education and Licensure

To become a physical therapist and enter the profession at the entry-level, you need to have a doctorate in physical therapy from an accredited program and pass a state licensure exam. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, the Master of Physical Therapy and Master of Science in Physical Therapy degrees are no longer offered to any new students in the United States.

Physical Therapy - Patient with leg brace

Professional Pros vs. Cons

Registered Nurse (RN)Physical Therapist (PT)
ProsHelps othersHelps others
Good incomeHigh income
Job securityJob security
Diverse work settingsHigh autonomy
Career mobility (90+ specialty areas)Diverse work settings
Ability to earn a BSN in 16 months*Ability to start a private practice
ConsExposure to germs and bodily fluidsRequires up to 8 years of schooling
Physically and emotionally demandingTuition costs
Constant chartingPhysically demanding
Difficult patientsConstant paperwork
Tuition costsDifficult patients

*If you have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 GPA, our ABSN program makes it possible to earn a quality BSN in as few as 16 months.

Bottom Line

When you compare registered nursing vs. physical therapy, it’s obvious you’ll have a great healthcare career no matter which occupation you choose. Both are rewarding from a personal and financial standpoint. Plus, the increased demand for healthcare services in this country means there’s going to be a lot of job security in these professions for years to come.

Physical therapists may earn higher salaries, but they spend a lot more time in school than registered nurses. Registered nurses can also go back to school at any time to pursue an advanced practice role that yields higher pay. Nurse practitioners, for example, are among the highest-paid professionals in nursing. According to CareerOneStop.org, nurse practitioners earn a median annual salary of $123,960 in Massachusetts and $106,770 in North Carolina.

So, it’s really up to you to decide which of these professions is best for you. If you’re leaning toward nursing, be sure to contact our admission team to see how our Accelerated BSN program in Massachusetts or North Carolina can build on your non-nursing bachelor’s degree to make a 16-month transition into nursing possible.

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