The end of graduate school is an exciting time. For newly minted clinicians, the lure of treating patients with a greater sense of ownership and autonomy is empowering and liberating. Caught up in the rush of that newfound freedom, though, it’s easy to forget about some of the crucial steps we must take to set our careers in the right direction.

Never fear! Even if you’re still busy sipping cocktails on the beach and celebrating, we’ve got your back. Here’s a checklist with everything a new-grad PT, OT, or SLP could possibly need to be successful.

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1. Your License

First off, you’ll need a professional license to practice. It might sound obvious, but we have to mention it. Sure, you worked your tail off during grad school—and you have the degree to prove it—but you can’t legally practice as a PT, OT, or SLP without obtaining your professional license.

That means passing your national certification exam, obtaining all fingerprinting and background check materials, and completing an application for licensure to practice in your state(s) of choice. You also may need to pass additional state-specific exams to practice in your state.

For speech-language pathologists, specifically, completing a clinical fellowship is not always required—though it can be in some states if you want to practice without supervision—but it is strongly recommended.

Whether you’re a PT, OT, or SLP, always check with your state licensing board—as well as your national professional body—to see what your unique licensing requirements are.

2. Salary Research

As you set out in search of your first job, you’ll want to be armed with reliable salary information. Chances are, recruiters and interviewers will ask you about salary expectations at some point during your job search, and while you certainly don’t want to undercut yourself, you also don’t want to ask for a number so high that it’s offensive.

While many websites provide averages and medians for clinicians’ salaries, these numbers account for a wide array of experience levels and may reflect both hourly and salary rates. Being a new grad, you’ll want to determine what therapists in your geographic region—with your level of experience—tend to make, on average. For trustworthy information that can help you confidently negotiate a rate that feels right to you, be sure to check out WebPT’s salary guides:

3. A Polished Resume and Cover Letter

There’s no worse feeling than reading the description of your dream job, and then realizing that you’re not prepared to apply because you have a sloppy cover letter and resume. If your application materials are riddled with typos and spelling errors—or are bland and forgettable—you can pretty much kiss that dream job goodbye (unless you have some seriously sweet connections with the hiring manager).

Here are some tips for spiffing up your resume:

  • Use action words. Think words like “create, implement, lead, and manage.” Try to vary your word choice for each of your past roles.
  • List your clinical rotations on your resume, as well as any other industry-related work experience.
  • Have a friend or family member read over your resume to look for typos. A second set of eyes is invaluable.
  • Include any volunteer work and/or personality typing you’ve had done. These make for excellent talking points, and they might resonate with a potential manager.

Here are some tips for polishing up that cover letter:

  • Be sure to mention why you’re applying to each specific role and company.
  • Try to incorporate words from the company’s mission statement into your letter.
  • Explain why your own experience and personal traits would make you a good fit for the role.
  • Note where you saw the job posting or how you heard about the job.
  • Thank the employer for considering you for the position.

4. A Mentor

In graduate school, you learned how to treat patients without harming them—but you can learn so much more than that from a good mentor. Once you’ve landed that dream job, don’t put your career on autopilot! Whether you’re looking for help with honing your clinical skills or negotiating confusing employment contracts, having an experienced, supportive person in your corner is invaluable.

As you look for a mentor, think about which traits are most important to you. And keep in mind that you may want to find more than one! The mentor who can help you become the best possible clinician will have very different pearls of wisdom than the one who can help you discern what a non-compete is—and how it will affect your employment opportunities.

5. A 5-Year and 10-Year Plan

Making a long-term plan will help you craft your career plans with intention. Now, don’t panic if you’ve given zero thought to your future. It’s okay; school is stressful, and most of us spent the majority of our time and energy studying and trying to stay above water. Making a plan does not mean you need to have a perfectly painted picture of exactly where you want to be or what you want to be doing, down to your title and the color of the walls of your office.

But the more you can hone in on what you really want to do, the more it will help you make decisions that support those long-term goals. For example, if your goal is to become a keynote speaker on the topic of sports rehab within five years, then you might want to resist the temptation to work in registry or travel physical therapy. While the high pay and flexibility are appealing, there’s no guarantee you’ll land sports rehab roles or get the experience necessary to become a thought leader within such a short amount of time.

However, if your five-year goal is to become financially independent and be able to work on your own flexible terms, travel or registry PT might be just what you need. By doing some introspection and goal-setting early in your career, you’ll have a north star to guide you as you make important career decisions.

6. The Willingness to Say “Yes”

During my time as a physical therapist-turned writer and entrepreneur, I have learned a few things about pushing outside of my comfort zone. Many opportunities will come your way during your career. Some of them will drop into your lap, while others will come as a result of hustling hard to get your name out there.

These opportunities might challenge you, and some of them definitely make you uncomfortable—and that’s okay. You might receive an opportunities to coordinate health fairs, speak at events, write blog posts for your clinic, and lead marketing initiatives—just to name a few. Some pretty impressive people might also be willing to sit with you for an informational interview about how they got to where they are today.  

My advice is to say “yes” whenever possible, as long as the opportunity at hand aligns with those five-year and 10-year plans we discussed. The obvious caveat is that you should always consider your health, relationships, and existing work commitments before overextending yourself.

Whether you’re about to graduate, have already walked across the stage, or are anywhere else in your career, the above checklist can help you get where you’d like to be. Happy career-building!

Meredith Castin, PT, DPT, is the founder of The Non-Clinical PT, a career development resource designed to help physical, occupational, and speech therapy professionals leverage their degrees in non-clinical ways.

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