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Advancing Your Clinical Skills in Your First Year as a Physical Therapist

by Steve Thompson, MPT

Now that you have graduated from PT school, or maybe you are nearing the end of your journey in PT school, it may seem that the education phase of your career is over and the work phase has begun.  I would counter that your education has only just begun.

Starting in your first job after graduation can be an exciting time and also an overwhelming time.  You will take off your student hat and put on your PT hat, the opportunities around you are abundant for educational opportunities.  I want to address how you can grow at an exponential rate within your first year.  A new grad should look both outside and inside their place of work for the opportunities to grow.

Learning as a new graduate

Many new graduates want to learn new things at such a rapid rate that may exceed the continuing education benefits that are offered by their first employer.  One example of a way to gain access to a plethora of continuing education information, and a possible benefit request for your new boss is a subscription to online CE portals such as MedBridge education (<-- $175 off discount code for new grads applied via link) and

I suggest to all of my PTs to pair with another PT and take a course together so you can talk about the techniques, practice on each other, and implement the material at a faster pace.  The best part of the MedBridge education is that most of the courses will apply for the continuing education requirements for state licensure.

Journal your way to growth

Another thing to think about for a potential source of education is the patients that you see every day.  Your patients are real-world classroom examples where you can practice your soft tissue techniques, try different mobilization methods and see how the results transform that person’s life.  Initially, a growing caseload can seem overwhelming and it may seem like you can’t remember anything about each patient from visit to visit.

I suggest that you keep a journal at your desk to jot down the successes, wins, and ”oopses” that you will inevitably make. This journaling can help you process the wins and stumbles of a day from which you can learn incredible lessons that will enhance your skills.

Learning from others

Finally, if you have colleagues around you, use them.  Many new graduates are either too timid to ask more experienced PTs for advice and learning or they are too “confident” in what they have learned in school to recognize when another PT could provide valuable insight.

When I suggested to one of the new graduates that she work with our seasoned manual therapists, she decided that that PT could not offer anything of value. She made an assumption that since the PT had his routine down to a very repeatable treatment plan, there would not be much for him to offer.

What she did not realize is this senior PT was one of the best manual therapists I have ever known and one of the best diagnosticians in our profession.  Moral of the story – don’t judge a book by its cover.

Consider residency

One opportunity that is available to many young and talented new graduates is a residency program.  More and more residency programs are coming into existence and while these residency programs are phenomenal learning experiences, they can often be in a very narrow field of practice and highly competitive to apply and be accepted into the program. 

My advice is to utilize the easy and obvious resources that are far cheaper and more available to you, first.  Exhaust the resources that can be obtained right under your noses and then pursue the higher degrees or the certifications.  The greatest students will find the opportunities around them.  There is a saying that the brain will hear and learn what it is looking for.  Be clear on what you want out of your first year of growth.  When you have that clarity, the opportunities will present themselves to you.

by Steve Thompson, MPT | Owner, CEO of Sport and Spine Therapy of Marin


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