Life as a traveling therapist has numerous perks: the freedom to live in various places across the country, multiple clinic settings to choose from, and of course, higher pay. But the most exciting benefit is the ability to take full control over your career and design the work-life balance you’ve always hoped for.
Over the last few years, my wife and I (both therapists) have made it our goal to live in places others only visit on vacation. Not only have we succeeded in that pursuit, but we’ve also been able to pay off our student loans only five years post-graduation—all because we decided to take more control over the direction of our lives (you can follow some of our adventures on our blog: PTAdventures.com). It’s a career choice that I believe would be fitting for many therapists, but too often, I think my peers are scared away by the complexities of travel PT. For many therapists, the most daunting aspects of life as a traveler are not clinic-related, but contract-related (e.g., finding job openings, dealing with recruiters, and ultimately signing a contract). These are all intimidating tasks for travel therapists, and when executed poorly, they can leave clinicians feeling worn down and taken advantage of. But, this does not have to be the case!
The following five tips will help you confidently take hold of your career and steer it down whichever path you choose.
1. Become Valuable
The simple fact that you have a degree and a license will provide a base level of value to potential employers, but employers are never looking for the candidate with the minimum required skill. Employers want the best bang for their buck. Many times, the clinician who wins the position is not the one with more years of experience, but the one who shows more potential value to the company. And while advanced clinical skills certainly provide value, there are many non-clinical ways to create value as well.
Play Up Non-Clinical Talents
We all have skills outside of the physical therapy niche. For me, some of those skills came from my brief career as an educator and high-level coach. Perhaps you have marketing or social media experience that you can lean on. Learning how to spotlight your abilities in non-therapy realms can help you showcase the extra value you provide that other, less-savvy PTs do not.
Pursue Clinical Specialization
There’s no better way to demonstrate clinical excellence than by tossing on a few more letters after your name. Adding OCS, NCS, GCS, SCS, or even CSCS after your name is a fantastic way to leapfrog other clinicians who are vying for the same position you are.
Give Community Presentations
Being an efficient communicator can go a long way toward helping you win the job you desire. Public speaking, in particular, shows that you have the courage and confidence to take on the nerve-wracking challenge of presenting to large groups of people. Not sure where to find an opportunity to present? Senior centers, libraries, and recreation centers are always looking for health professionals to share their expertise.
2. Seek Multiple Recruiters
One of the worst-kept secrets in the travel therapy industry is that recruiters share about 80% of the same jobs. The problem this presents is that clinics are fielding potential candidates from many different recruiting agencies—ultimately making the chances of your resume seeing the light of day quite slim. This is why the final 20% is so important.
Working with three or more recruiting agencies will diversify the job pool you can choose from as well as allow you more flexibility and options for work. My wife and I contacted five different recruiting companies before we found a single one with work in the Anchorage, Alaska area—and that agency had three positions to choose from. Cast a wide net, and your odds of finding the perfect place will increase greatly.
3. Take the Full Housing Stipend
Housing stipends are tremendously valuable for two reasons:
- If you opt to have your recruiter find housing for you, he or she has very little motivation to find you an arrangement that truly fits your needs and/or style. It is not uncommon for travelers to complain about being “stuck” at an extended stay hotel for 13 weeks.
- If you allow your recruiting agency find housing for you, it’ll keep all of your stipend. And remember, housing stipends are tax-free and often make up the lion’s share of your weekly paycheck.
If you surrender your housing stipend, you not only relinquish your control over where you live, but also stunt your earning potential. It’s always best to take the full stipend and do the leg work required to find housing on your own. Invariably, making your own living arrangements will be more cost-effective and will allow you to use that extra cash to explore your new city.
4. Be Prepared to Walk Away
Creating the illusion of scarcity is one of the oldest marketing tricks in the book, and even though you’ve probably built a good relationship with your recruiter by the time you receive an offer, he or she still has a business to run. A frequent recruiter tactic is to try and rush you into accepting a position—and a contract—under the guise that it will mysteriously disappear should you take too long to consider it.
However, as with any important life decision, you need to do your due diligence and consider every line. Write down a list of essentials (e.g., total pay, days off, and start and end dates), and stick to the list as you consider whether or not the position is right for you. There’s a tremendous supply of therapy travel jobs on the market currently; it’s definitely not the end of the world if you pass on this position and need to start over interviewing elsewhere. You are the one in demand—and don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise.
5. Always Negotiate
Besides improving your value as a therapist, this is the top tip for creating the lifestyle you want. Being comfortable with negotiating—and improving your skill in doing so—will benefit you at every stage of your career.
Don’t Let Small Numbers Trick You
The vast majority of travel contracts are discussed and negotiated in terms of weekly take-home pay. That’s the after-tax amount, so there’s no need to whip out a calculator and figure out what your check will look like each week. The only danger with using these terms is that often, deals will come down to a “measly” $50. But, 50 bucks each week after tax is roughly $200 per month and $2,600 a year—that’s some serious scratch!
Ask for More
The initial offer you receive is nearly always a low-ball amount. While securing a raise of $200 a week after tax is not always possible (although you can learn how we did it here), there’s always wiggle-room in travel contracts for increasing your pay to some degree.
Avoid “Yes/No” Statements
If you receive an offer that is too low, avoid responding with questions like, “Can you go any higher?” It’s easy for the employer to answer “no” to this type of inquiry. Instead, keep your follow-up question open-ended. For example: “What else can you do to make this contract work for both of us?” That way, you place the onus back on your recruiter—and such questions do not lend themselves to default one-word responses. It takes some practice, but learning to rephrase your negotiations will take some of the sense of confrontation out of the discussion and ultimately lead to a better outcome for you.
As a traveler, one of the most liberating experiences is being able to take control over your career path. If you can make yourself a “must-have” clinician, you’ll open up job opportunities all across this great country of ours. You can put some of the tips I shared into place today; others may take some time to develop—and that’s okay. Curating the career-life balance you’ve always wanted does not happen overnight—but the sooner you start, the sooner it will happen.
Dr. Stephen Stockhausen, PT, OCS, is the primary author of PTAdventures.com, a travel blog chronicling his adventures and providing advice to therapists who are passionate about their profession.