A Look Back in Time
In some respects it feels like my physical therapy school graduation was very recent, while in other ways it feels like it was a lifetime ago. While in school, I always looked at graduation as the finish line, with little thought about what life afterward would look like. After putting so much work in during grad school, it seemed like starting my career would be a piece of cake. In some ways that was true, but in other ways I wasn’t at all prepared for beginning my professional career. Impostor Syndrome is real, and I had those feelings of uncertainty for quite a while following graduation. Education received in physical therapy school is only the tip of the iceberg with regard to the knowledge needed to thrive in the profession.
How I’ve Learned and Grown
The amount I’ve learned both about physical therapy and about various other topics including: the shortcomings of the current medical system, diet, health, fitness, personal finance, investing, financial independence, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and politics, is more than I would have thought I could ever learn in ten years time, much less three. Before grad school I never would have considered myself a “lifelong learner,” and I always looked at school as a necessary evil to get to where I wanted to go instead of an opportunity to learn and grow. Physical therapy school changed that and ignited a fire inside me which has led me to seek out constant sources of personal education and growth. In hindsight, that was probably the most valuable aspect of grad school for me, even more so than the Doctorate degree I received, which is something I never would have imagined before beginning.
The Significance of “Soft” Skills
I’ve had many epiphanies about my strengths as well as my flaws in my interactions with patients and coworkers. I always knew that I was an introvert and that my communication skills were inferior, but what I didn’t realize is how important that would be as a physical therapist. That may sound silly, but I assumed that when working with patients the most important aspects would be the knowledge and hands on skills, much more so than the “soft” skills of communicating and empathizing with patients. That was a vast oversight on my part. In reality, using communication skills to build trust, educate, and offer empathy is often the most important part of the job. Having the world’s best manual therapy skills and knowledge regarding exercise prescription means nothing if you can’t gain the trust and respect of the patients you’re working with, and communicating effectively is vital there. This realization was huge for me and many times made me consider that I may have chosen the wrong profession. Having to socialize constantly, making small talk to keep awkward silences at bay, for 8+ hours a day started out as a nightmare for me, but pushed me outside of my comfort zone and caused me to grow as a result.
My Choice to Travel
To this point in my career I have never had a permanent job. I began taking travel contracts less than a month after graduation and haven’t looked back. I was extremely nervous about this decision initially, especially being an introvert and knowing that I’m awkward in social situations, but it has been the best choice I’ve ever made. Changing locations and settings made me have to get used to learning and adapting quickly, as that is vital when taking short term contracts. It also allowed me to see areas of the country that I never would have otherwise, and it put me in a wonderful financial position that would have been impossible if I had taken a permanent job. After only three years, I’m in a position where I can take nine months per year off of work and still make more than enough to support my lifestyle when combined with investment returns. This is a situation that I’ve decided to take advantage of and plan to spend the next 4-5 years taking 5+ month long international trips each year to see as much of the world as possible before having kids. Travel therapy has allowed that to be a reality, and I’m very grateful for it.
Experience in Different Settings
While in school, I was completely set on being an outpatient orthopedic physical therapist and would have never imagined working in a SNF, acute care, home health, or wound care setting. Three years in, I have worked in all of those settings now and feel like a much more well rounded therapist because of it. I have a much broader perspective of the medical system and more understanding of where many patients that come into the outpatient clinic came from and what they experienced prior to arriving. This perspective goes right along with promoting the communication and empathy components of effective physical therapy I mentioned above. Most young therapists don’t get the opportunity to work in multiple settings, aside from clinical internships, but I think it is important thing to consider before settling into a long term position. It’s possible to find interests that one never knew they had without trying other settings.
Reflecting on My Experience
Physical therapy is a great career with so many different options for success and growth. Despite occasional doubts about my career choice over the past few years, I wouldn’t change my current situation and the growth I’ve experienced both professionally and personally for the world.
Despite rising tuition costs with subsequent increasing student debt, physical therapy is still a field that I believe has a bright future with inevitable coming changes in healthcare. It is a field that I recommend to prospective students who find this blog and ask me, “Is it worth it?” The amount of time that I’m able to spend with patients and the impact I’m able to have on them is unmatched with regard to other healthcare professions.
I can only hope that the next few decades provide me as much opportunity for personal and professional growth as I’ve experienced in these first three years!
If you’re a current physical therapy student, what are you expecting to encounter as a newly graduated physical therapist? If you’ve recently begun your career, how has it stacked up compared to your expectations? Let me know in the comments below!
10 thoughts on “Reflections on My First Three Years Working as a Physical Therapist”
I relate to so much of what you’ve shared here. I’m also a 2015 PT grad, and I can relate to being naturally introverted, the reality of imposter syndrome, and the importance of connecting with patients for improved patient outcomes (and how draining that can be over the course of a busy day being introverted). Though my journey to FI is moving more slowly than yours (super impressive, by the way–I’ve only saved 7x annual expenses!), I can agree that PT is a good profession and that the pros usually outweigh the cons. Compared to other healthcare professions, the time you get to spend with patients is impressive (though I’m mildly concerned how this might change over time). The flexibility in the profession to work part-time, PRN, or short-term contracts is also extremely FI-friendly! The versatility in practice settings is also a nice plus. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally feel burned out, especially when schedules get overwhelming, but there are a lot of options in the PT field–options that only seem to expand when at or near FI! I’ve greatly appreciated your blog and hope it continues for years to come.
Hey, Adam. Thanks for your comment and support! I’m glad to hear I’m not alone with my feelings. The first few years can definitely be difficult for an introvert in a profession with a lot of social interaction. The flexibility of both setting and amount of hours works is probably my favorite part of PT. I feel like if I ever got tired of one position it would be easy to switch to something different. 7x yearly expenses after only 3 years at a permanent job is very impressive, so congrats on that!
Thank you for the share! I am a new grad, graduated in June 2018 and looking to start traveling right away! I find at times that while it is good to seek advice and other people’s opinion on life choices, that can sometimes lead to people just bringing up the possible challenges of a chosen path. People have discouraged me from travel because I don’t have real work experience yet, it can be hard to adapt, less mentorship support etc. but I feel like it is right for me and I have also spoken to many PT’s who have found this lifestyle very rewarding. I appreciate hearing your thoughts and wish you continued success. Would love to be in touch!
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Thanks for reading Rafael! I agree, sometimes people can try to deter you from pursuing something such as this because of the perceived challenges. You really have to know yourself. Feel free to shoot me a message if you have any questions or need help!
Hi! Love the blog!
3rd year PT student here. Almost out in the real world haha.
What kinds of investments are you guys involved in? And how did you get educated on what to invest in? I’m sure you have written a blog post about this topic, but any information would greatly be appreciated!
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Hey, Christian! Thanks for reading the blog. Investing can be really simple or as complex as you want to make it. Luckily more effort usually doesn’t lead to better returns so I think a basic passive index fund investing strategy is the best way to go. Check out “The Bogleheads Guide to Investing” and “The Simple Path to Wealth” for a good intro!
Just out of curiosity, and if you don’t mind me asking, what percentage of your income is coming from your investments? (Non-PT salary)
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It’s tough to say because investment returns vary so much from month to month. Based on my current portfolio value and average market returns of around 8% per year, I’d make about 25% as much from investments as I do as a travel PT.
I love reading your blog, and find your posts so informative! My husband and I built a tiny house on wheels for traveling with the idea in mind that we’d see lots of the country and pay off my loans quickly by working travel jobs. It’s been great! I worked my first travel job this summer, and am currently looking for my next travel job. I’m curious about your thoughts on negotiating pay, and if you know how the payment contract between the facility and travel company typically works. When I negotiate pay, am I negotiating with the facility, or with the travel company? Or does the travel company usually get a set rate regardless of my pay? If that’s the case, it would reason that the recruiter is incentivized to negotiate a lower hourly rate with me, rather than simply being an intermediary between myself and the facility during pay discussions. I’m trying to figure out how to approach negotiations in the future – thanks for your thoughts and input!
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Thanks for reading, Claire! When you’re negotiating pay you’re always negotiating with the travel company not the facility. The travel company can submit you at a higher rate than what the facility is asking for but if they have any other applicants that are decent then they’ll almost certainly take them for a lower rate instead of you. Depending on that rate the travel company submits you at is how they determine your pay and pay structure. The recruiter almost always has a percentage range they need or work in but there’s usually some wiggle room with how much of the bill rate they keep for the company overhead and profit. That wiggle room is where the majority of negotiating pay takes place. Normally that range is only a few percentage points so it won’t be huge differences but if it means being able to place you in a job instead of you going with a different company then they’ll almost certainly offer you the highest pay possible by decreasing how much the company is keeping to the minimum acceptable amount. That minimal acceptable amount differs greatly from company to company based on their overhead and profit goals.
With all that being said, in my opinion the best way to negotiate is not to have to not negotiate and instead get the highest offer right off the bat. The best way to do that is to work with a few different reputable recruiters from different companies so that there’s an incentive for them to offer you the highest pay possible on each job so you don’t take a job with one of the other companies/recruiters. If you’re only working with one recruiter then there’s no way to know if they’re really offering you the highest pay for a given job or if they’re trying to low ball you to keep a higher margin on their end.
I hope that helps! I’ve written a few articles on bill rates and the importance of working with multiple companies/recruiters on traveltherapymentor.com as well that should be useful to you.