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The PT’s Guide to Setting Career Goals

To get to where you want to be as a physical therapy professional, you first must know where you're going. Here's how to nail down your career destination.

Meredith Castin
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5 min read
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January 25, 2021
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With a new year comes a new opportunity to step back and take a big-picture look at your physical therapy career. Whether you’re a student, a new grad, or a seasoned clinician, setting career goals is an important way to reconnect with what drew you to the profession in the first place. I was lucky enough to sit down with licensed professional counselor and career coach Melissa Victor Totah, MA, LPC-S, of Enteave Counseling in Austin, Texas. She shares some tactics to help all PTs—regardless of experience and interests—set effective career goals. 

1. Set goals for you.

Just as we often must remind ourselves to set patient-centric goals, it’s important to remember that your career goals should be you-centric. In other words, they should cater to your own needs, desires, and aspirations. For example, you may dream of making an impact on a specific population or speaking at a major conference. Perhaps you want to pay off your loans and start building a financial empire. Consider what matters to you, and create your goals accordingly.

Resist the temptation to fall into step with classmates and colleagues when setting your professional goals. Finding inspiration from others’ dreams is great—but your career can take so many directions, and if you’re working toward someone else’s goals, it can dampen your enthusiasm for your entire career trajectory.

Totah recommends using a mind map for inspiration. A mind map is a diagram that enables you to organize your thoughts as bubbles linked to a central concept. For example, if you dream of holding a tenured PT professor role within five years, that might be the central hub of your mind map. But the smaller bubbles around it might represent the steps to get there, including a possible clinical specialization, a PhD, a fellowship, or designated certified clinical instructor (CCI) status.

Pro Tip: If you’re having trouble getting excited about any clinical career paths, explore the idea of a non-clinical career. You can start with clinical work in the short term, but by knowing where you want to go in the non-clinical world, you can strategically take on clinical positions that give you the right experience to get where you want to be in the long run.

2. Create both short-term and long-term goals.

This brings us to the importance of setting both long-term and short-term goals. Totah points out that a lofty goal, while inspiring, can also seem daunting. “Don’t try to tackle everything at once,” she urges. “Be realistic about what you can accomplish by when.” 

Totah recommends using your mind map, which represents your long-term goal, and reverse-engineering it into smaller, more manageable pieces—which then become your short-term goals. She probes, “What’s one area you can focus on first, and how can you structure your schedule in a way that prioritizes it?” Perhaps it’s working toward the hours you need to sit for the orthopedic clinical specialist (OCS) exam. Maybe it’s taking on your first student.

Whatever you decide to work toward—whether it’s becoming the best pelvic floor PT in the world or a leader of the clinical informatics PT movement, write it down. Putting goals onto paper has a powerful effect on our minds, and having a visualization of a commitment you made to yourself can serve as a “north star” to help guide you when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Pro Tip: Consider teaming up with someone you trust and admire, and keeping each other accountable as you work toward your goals. Whether you’re pursuing a certification, trying to reach a certain financial goal, or studying for an exam, having a “goal buddy” with whom you can check in and trade motivation is extremely helpful. 

3. Seek mentorship.

Do you have a mentor? If not, consider finding one. A good mentor will guide you through tough times and help provide answers to burning questions you have about your career. 

I want to stop here, though, and point something out. There are paid programs offering formal mentorship, and there are people who are open to informally mentoring others. You can pay a lot of money or absolutely nothing (or something in between), but it’s important to understand that mentorship can mean many things—and unpaid mentorship relationships must develop organically. Furthermore, an unpaid mentorship arrangement should somehow benefit both the mentor and the mentee.

On that somewhat vague note, you might be wondering where to find mentorship—and this is where creativity comes into play. Some clinics offer mentorship as part of their hiring package. There are formalized, “pay-to-play” career mentorship programs. Groups like C Sweetener actually cater specifically to women seeking healthcare leadership positions. 

Pro Tip: Look for mentorship opportunities outside of the obvious places. It’s easy to focus on finding mentorship from a PT if you’re also a PT, but that can perpetuate the already-problematic siloing we see in the healthcare world. Keep an open mind about working with a different type of clinician—or even someone outside of the healthcare space, depending on your career goals. 

4. Look beyond your current workplace.

Speaking of going beyond the world of PT, there are plenty of ways to grow your career that have nothing to do with your “day job.” Let’s face it: many facilities are struggling with reimbursement cuts, COVID-related dips in patient volume, and other financial issues. Employee career growth might not be top-of-mind for many clinic owners—even those who usually have the best intentions.

That’s why it’s important to know that you can find career growth in many places. There are tons of non-profit organizations out there, many of which operate on volunteers’ time. When you step up and offer your services free of charge, it’s a great way to make connections (maybe even with that mentor you’re seeking) and build transferable non-clinical skills

Pro Tip: Choose organizations that align with your passions. Eager to present at APTA’s Combined Sections Meeting (CSM)? Consider joining a public speaking group, like Toastmasters. Working toward a career serving older patients with dementia? Volunteer with your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter. 

5. Aim for career-life integration, rather than work-life balance.

Haven’t we all been urged to prioritize work-life balance since we started grad school? Well, how’s that going so far? (Cue “womp, womp” noise.)

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. “While lots of people talk about work-life balance, it’s nearly impossible to achieve and maintain in reality,” explains Totah. She urges professionals to seek “career-life integration” rather than work-life balance, as that allows for more flexibility. 

Work-life balance may seem very black and white. You either leave at 5:00 PM sharp and have the rest of the day to blissfully enjoy your life—or you have failed and you’re doomed to cry into a pile of notes after work each night, never again taking a real lunch break. You’re either confidently scaling the career ladder, rung by rung—or you’re flailing awkwardly as you plummet downward, unceremoniously hitting your forehead on each rung. The truth is that all careers have ups and downs. All jobs have the potential to eat into your personal life from time to time. “When you approach things with the mentality of seeking career-life integration, the expectation is that you will get off track periodically—it’s all part of the process,” Totah points out. However, she adds that, in the long run, you will figure out how your career puzzle pieces fit together in a meaningful way—and this is a much more sustainable career strategy.  

Pro Tip: Don’t beat yourself up for working when your friends, colleagues, or classmates are out playing. Remember: “Comparison is the thief of joy,” as the great Teddy Roosevelt once said. As long as you’re not feeling fried, frazzled, or overwhelmed, it’s okay to work toward your goals when others are having fun. After all, working toward your goals should be fun! 

6. Celebrate the small wins.

Totah offers an important reminder to all physical therapy professionals, regardless of where they are in their careers: “Celebrate the small achievements along the way!”

Physical therapists are a bit competitive by nature, and it can be easy to forget how far you’ve come. Totah recommends bookending chunks of time—whether it’s a week, or a month, or even a year—and prioritizing celebrations for all you have accomplished.

Pro Tip: Totah suggests making celebration part of your daily habits. “It can be helpful to end the day with a list of things you’re proud of accomplishing (no matter how small they seem),” she says.

How have you gone about setting career goals? Please share your thoughts and tips in the comment section below!

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