I am not one of those people who bounded out of physical therapy school, brimming with confidence and ready to take on the world.
I didn’t lead any groups or clubs during school. I made absolutely no effort to network. And I wound up spending the first two years of my PT career bouncing around a bit, trying to find my footing in the physical therapy industry.
While I had a really solid clinical education in PT school, there are some things—including the five items I’ve listed below—that you simply cannot learn in a formal educational environment, because these lessons end up being pretty unique to you as an individual.
Sure, I wish I had learned these things in school, because I would have had an easier time with my career trajectory, but, as you’ll see, they can be a bit difficult to teach as part of a traditional curriculum.
1. Clinical expertise matters—but it’s not everything.
When I finished school, I was under the impression that clinical expertise was the be-all-end-all of PT practice. I wanted to try every single treatment I could, and I wanted to inform my patients of exactly what I was doing, how I was doing it, and how it would improve their lives.
As it turns out, most of them didn’t care.
Not every patient is looking for the same thing.
Many patients were coming to me for other reasons. In some cases, they were coming to physical therapy to figure out how to cope with a dysfunction—not fix it. In other cases, they simply wanted the encouragement and human touch that a PT provides.
The faster I talked and the more interventions I used in an attempt to simply “fix” my patients, the more uncomfortable they felt.
I started to notice a pattern. Patients responded better to me when I slowed down—choosing maybe one or two treatments to employ during a session—and took the time to explain how these treatments fit into their overall plan of care.
Soft skills are imperative.
Interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and customer service go a long way in physical therapy. You have your entire career to become an expert clinician. During those first few years of clinical care, focus on listening to your patients every bit as much as you focus on growing your own skillset.
You’ll get where you want to be, but only if you learn how to gain your patients’ trust along the way.
2. The sooner you start putting your name out there, the better.
Networking as a physical therapist can feel pretty creepy. For me, the word has always conjured up images of stale conference rooms, stiff handshakes, and plastic smiles.
The Internet is your networking oyster.
Luckily, that’s not how people have to network in this day and age! Nowadays, all you need is a computer and some communication skills. There are plenty of online communities—such as RehabEdge, Facebook groups (Physical Therapy: Practice and Networking is one of many), and NewGradPhysicalTherapy.com, to name a few—where you can connect with other clinicians, share ideas, collaborate, and celebrate each other’s wins.
If you create profiles on certain job sites, such as CovalentCareers.com, you can start networking with employers before you’re even finished with school! It’s never too early to start connecting with professionals you admire.
Fine-tuning your expertise can help you create a personal brand.
Want to become an expert on a certain topic? Take some con-ed classes, find a mentor, and start talking about what you’ve learned with others in the know. Then, write and publish an article summarizing what you learned in your education or consider submitting a poster presentation.
Once your name is out there, it is surprisingly easy to create opportunities for yourself. Speaking engagements, teaching opportunities, per diem gigs, and private pay jobs seem to land at your feet.
Be humble and receptive to feedback. Before you know it, you’ll become an expert in your own niche. And the more people who come to rely on you for your knowledge, the more doors will open for you.
Networking is all about reciprocity.
Don’t forget to help others as you carve your own name for yourself. There is plenty of room for success for all PTs. Despite the somewhat competitive nature of PT school, I have found the professional PT community to be generally supportive and welcoming. Once you become an expert in a certain area, help others who wish to do the same—even if there’s nothing in it for you.
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3. Your clinicals will not make or break you.
If you’re concerned because your clinicals didn’t provide the type of training you thought you needed, do not despair.
I cannot tell you how many new PTs I’ve encountered who were devastated because they wanted to pursue pediatrics (or outpatient ortho or sports therapy), but never had pediatric (or outpatient ortho or sports therapy) clinicals.
Somewhere along the road, our educational system tells us that our clinicals will essentially make or break us as PTs. This is nonsense! The beauty of physical therapy is that you can practice however you want, as long as you put yourself out there (you’re probably sensing a trend!).
It’s never too late to try a new niche.
Want to pursue pediatrics, but never treated a single child during your clinicals? That’s okay! When you’re done with PT school, simply reach out to local clinics. Ask if you can volunteer on your off hours or on weekends. Many pediatric clinics offer weekend hours to accommodate kids’ busy schedules.
Volunteer for children’s organizations. Take con-ed on pediatric topics. Show that you’re interested. Call clinics to see if you can shadow.
The same goes for outpatient orthopedics. Just because your “ortho” clinicals were at old-school hot pack/ultrasound/exercise clinics that seem frozen in the year 1987, that does not relegate you to spending your career in lowest echelon of lazy PT practitioners.
Mentorship is key.
Put yourself out there. Start reaching out to master clinicians. You can contact them online or offer to drive to a clinic and shadow them. In most cases, they’ll be happy to help. There are plenty of people out there who are itching to mentor young, hungry PTs—even if they’re already licensed. All you have to do is put yourself out there.
4. It’s okay to do your own thing.
In school, we’re taught that you have a clinical path that you can follow, and that you’ll spend your entire career working toward becoming the best possible clinician or director, racking up certifications and achievements along the way.
This is fantastic if you’re achievement-driven and want to stay in a traditional patient care model.
But you might be motivated by work-life balance, or you might prefer to explore telehealth, travel physical therapy, or even cash-pay practice. You might even prefer a career in advocacy, education, or media.
None of these non-clinical routes makes you less of a physical therapist. You still worked hard to earn your degree!
Some of my colleagues and former classmates thought I was insane when I launched NewGradPhysicalTherapy.com (NGPT). Others thought I was a fool for ultimately stepping away from patient care to focus on the site and, eventually, its parent company, CovalentCareers.com.
But I’m at my best when I’m writing, and I feel that when I’m helping new PTs find their own versions of a happy career, I’m being the best PT I can be. My work with NGPT and CovalentCareers has enabled me to work with new physical therapists and help them build careers they love. There is nothing more gratifying to me than helping others succeed.
There are plenty of admirable non-clinical career paths.
If you’re thinking of leveraging your degree in a unique way, and you can make that a viable path for yourself financially, go for it! The standard clinical excellence path is fantastic. So are many other routes.
Now that physical therapy is a doctoral-level profession, we owe it to ourselves to embrace the DPTs forge their own non-clinical PT paths, whether those paths lead them to leadership, innovation, technology, publishing, or education.
Doing some serious introspection and discovering your primary motivation as a physical therapist is a great way to start carving out the right career path for you.
5. Struggling in school does not reflect your clinical abilities.
I remember walking out of my first exam, fighting back tears. A girl from my class was waiting by the door of the room, asking everyone how they thought they did. When we all filed past her and glumly answered with comments about how difficult the exam was, she simpered, “Oh, reeeeeeally? That’s too baaaaaad!”
She did that after every exam our entire first year!
PT school is surprisingly competitive at times, and it was easy to slip into that “impostor syndrome” way of thinking, where you think that a C or a B—or even an F—means that you’ll be an abject failure as a PT. Luckily, this simply isn’t the case.
In fact, one of my classmates failed several exams and practicals throughout school, and she failed her NPTE on her first try. She’s now one of the best clinicians I know. She is constantly attending con-ed courses, her patients love her, and she has a career that I truly admire.
Conversely, one of the top graduates from our program (academically speaking) never even practiced PT. It simply wasn’t for her, and didn’t fit into her life goals. Other top academic performers have left patient care or treat part-time.
This isn’t to say that good grades mean you’ll be a crummy therapist, or that leaving patient care means you were never a good clinician. It simply means that you shouldn’t fret over grades, because they aren’t a good predictor of your future career success.
Physical therapy school is a time for immense clinical and didactic education, but you can only learn so much during school. The first few years of your career are a wonderful time for personal and professional growth. Embrace your life as a new grad, and set forth to create your dream career!
Meredith Castin, PT, DPT, is the founder of The Non-Clinical PT, a site designed to help physical therapy professionals leverage their degrees in creative ways. She is also the co-founder of NewGradPhysicalTherapy.com, and she works full-time as a senior copywriter at a marketing agency in San Diego, California. Originally from Tyler, Texas, she attended the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad, before graduating with her DPT from the University of St. Augustine (San Diego) in 2010. She has worked in outpatient ortho, inpatient rehab, acute care, and home health physical therapy.