Nursing vs. Physical Therapy: What's the Difference?

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Two circles masking images of a nurse and a patient in physical therapy

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in healthcare, there are countless options to choose from. In this post, we’ll compare registered nursing vs. physical therapy. Why? U.S. News & World Report ranked these occupations among the top 10 best healthcare jobs for 2022, with nurses at No. 5 and physical therapists at No. 10. Let’s see if one of these direct patient care professions is for you.

Northeastern University’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program is committed to helping students achieve their goals of earning a BSN in as few as 16 months. First, though, it’s key to have a clear vision of which career path is best for you.

We’ll show you the differences between nursing vs. physical therapy so you can help make the decision about what your future holds.

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. They balance knowledge and expertise with care and compassion when tending to diverse patient populations in a variety of settings.

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. They often work in settings such as hospitals, clinics, military bases, private practices, and schools.

Nurses care for various patients depending on their specialty. For example, they care for patients recovering from surgery or with chronic illness. They also care for pregnant patients during birth, children with broken bones, and much more.

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. They provide therapy for injured athletes, stroke patients, and elderly people with mobility issues. They also work with those who have chronic pain caused by an injury or healthcare issue.

Physical therapists can work in a variety of settings, such as private practices, athletic facilities, hospitals, and schools. 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

FUNCTION Working 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 Mass.: Annual mean wage of $96,630* Annual mean wage of $91,840*
N.C.: Annual mean wage of $71,200* Annual mean wage of $85,750*
GROWTH Mass.: Between 2018 and 2028, RN jobs in Massachusetts are expected to grow by 8%. Between 2018 and 2028, PT jobs in Massachusetts are expected to grow by 10%.
N.C.: Between 2018 and 2028, RN jobs in North Carolina are expected to grow by 11%. Between 2018 and 2028, PT jobs in North Carolina are expected to grow by 15%.

*Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2021

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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.

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In 2021, an American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) survey on the Employment of New Nurse Graduates showed that 40.6% of employers require new hires to have a BSN while 77.4% 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

Pros and Cons Comparison Between RN and PT

There are advantages and challenges with careers in both nursing and physical therapy. A couple advantages both careers possess are the ability to help others, a high level of job security, and the ability to work in diverse settings. A few challenges shared between the two careers include physically demanding work and the management of difficult patients. Another shared challenge is the high tuition costs of both BSN and PT programs.

Now we’ll compare a few other factors to consider with registered nurses and physical therapists.

SalaryAverage $77,600 yearly in the U.S. (BLS)Average $95,620 yearly in the U.S. (BLS)
AutonomyWork within a larger healthcare teamHigh autonomy and ability to start a private practice
Specialty OptionsHigh career mobility (90+ specialty areas)Fewer options for specialties
ExposuresExposure to germs and bodily fluidsFewer environmental exposures
EducationAbility to earn a BSN in 16 monthsDPT programs take about 3 years
Work StressEmotionally demanding health situationsDiscouraging when patients don’t progress
ChartingContinuous charting in the electronic medical recordLots of paperwork and patient progress notes

*If you have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree or at least 60 non-nursing college credits 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 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 the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2021 nurse practitioners earn a median annual salary of $129,540 in Massachusetts and $112,730 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 Northeastern University’s Accelerated BSN program near Boston, Massachusetts, or in Charlotte, North Carolina, can help you make a 16-month transition into nursing possible.

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