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!