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Careers after PT School: The Road Less Traveled

by C. Shante Cofield

young-woman-doctor-older-man-patient-smiling-2

This is the second time I'm writing this article. The first time I sat down to write about careers to pursue following graduation (and would have actually submitted the final draft by the deadline) I took a safer approach and wrote about how there are lots of different paths to take, and what mattered most was your courage to pick that path. Shortly after I finished writing that version of the article, I met up with Jen Esquer, a friend and new grad physical therapist in California that I met through the power of social media. She inadvertently, and unknowingly, convinced me to scrap that article and rewrite it completely...and keep it real. So here goes nothing.

The shortcomings of PT school

PT school prepares you to be safe. It caters to the hospital, high-volume clinic, or continue to make little to no money and go into a residency. While each path has its benefits and is far from a death sentence, there are other options.

After talking to numerous students, I’ve come to realize that one of the biggest shortcomings of physical therapy school is that it fails to instill confidence in its graduates. Chiropractors come out of school ready to start their own practice; meanwhile, physical therapists graduate and immediately look for more school, be it in the form of a mentorship or residency, or some sort of other closely-supervised position. While I do appreciate this calculated “see the path before you step” approach, I fear that some students may take it too far and pass up opportunities, or simply never even attempt to set out down a certain road out of fear.

PTs have endless potential careers

When I decided to go to PT school instead of medical school, I did so for a few reasons. One reason was the career flexibility afforded by physical therapy. I saw what Gray Cook and Sue Falsone were doing and thought to myself,  “Hey, maybe I can do that, too.” I realized then that becoming a physical therapist didn't mean I had to work in a clinic, wear a white jacket, and take orders from a doctor. We are the movement experts, and as such, our career potential is endless.

Now, this may be a bit off-topic, but in my opinion, our current healthcare model is broken. How we, as physical therapists, treat patients is dictated by insurance companies that consider "functional" to mean your pain isn't 10/10. Additionally, depending on the state, doctors serve as gatekeepers. This is despite the fact that they have no idea what we actually do, and that ultrasound is not some magical machine.

So what is a new grad to do? Based on what I've seen on social media, and what I’ve encountered teaching and connecting with students across the country, students are already taking it on themselves to learn more than just what their DPT programs are giving them. They want to explore different careers! Heck, if you're reading this article then you're one of those very students. For this new generation of motivated individuals to simply fall in line with the traditional model, seeing 20 patients a day only to burn out in a few years, or simply going to work in a hospital because that's what they think they're "supposed" to do, would be a HUGE disservice. Don't get me wrong, if your passion is to work in a SNF, or do rotations at a hospital, or work in a high-volume clinic, or do a residency, by all means, jump in headfirst and follow your dreams; I wholeheartedly support you. But if that doesn't appeal to you, if that doesn't sit well with you, I'm here to tell you that there are other options.

The NGPT website has a whole host of resources devoted to helping you develop your own brand, enhance your skillset, and market yourself. While I think the current model of PT school lends itself to new grads finding a mentor of sorts following grad school, you shouldn't be afraid to develop and promote yourself in the process. It's not humble bragging. Of course, be safe in your treatments and don't sell yourself as more than you are, but by all means go and make connections, take courses, design your own website, and let your presence be known.

Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.

The impossible is actually very possible

I have created a hybrid model where I treat, I teach, and also coach and correct movement. I have sessions where I don't even touch the person because they're not in pain, and have sought my services to either prevent injury or improve movement. I've done remote sessions via Skype where the goal was to assess movement patterns and offer suggestions. I've done one-on-one sessions where I've served as more of a tutor, simply explaining my method of treatment to the interested party. I travel the country and teach courses for RockTape. I give private courses. I work out for 2 hours every day, I set my own schedule, I go on vacation when I want. To put it simply, I do what makes me happy.

I, personally, was not ready to jump into such a position immediately out of PT school, but I do wish that someone had at least told me it was a legitimate possibility for my future. While I saw the likes of Gray Cook doing it, I kind of thought of it like a kid who was playing basketball in the schoolyard and watching the pros play on TV; it seemed like a pipe dream. Let me be that person for you. Let me tell you that it is possible. You can be a hybrid strength coach. You can be a consultant. You can be a traveling PT. You can start your own company. You don't have to take insurance! You can create whatever model you want, so long as you're willing to work for it.

So what now?

As for how long to wait to make your career move or when the time will be right, start thinking like a physical therapist and stop looking for absolute answers. Work with a mentor, reach out to people who are doing what you're doing, ask questions, but remember that your journey is unique to you. As Dan John would say “If someone prescribes a one-size-fits-all approach I can guarantee one thing: IT’S WRONG!”

At the end of the day, remember this: your first job will not be your last job. That in mind, try not to approach your first job as a life or death situation. If it’s a great fit, you can stay. If it isn’t, you can leave. To quote J.P. Morgan, “Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you will see farther.” The most important part is simply having the courage to take the first step.

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