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Physical Therapy Specialization: When is the time right?

by Kevin Prue


Some of us apply to PT school knowing exactly what area of practice we want to enter, others develop a passion for certain areas while we are in school, and some of us have no idea what we want to do when we graduate. These are all normal feelings to have, but at NewGradPT we are here to help.

Sometimes this movement is out of necessity (you are a new grad and you are going to jump on the first job offer that comes your way regardless of setting), or because your situation has changed. However, times are changing slightly in the field of physical therapy, as residencies, fellowships, and specializations are becoming much more prominent. Certain clinics are now looking to hire individuals who fill a direct need, like an orthopedically trained resident who specializes in back pain. While these circumstances are certainly not the norm now, I could easily see a scenario where this becomes much more common in the future. So where does this leave us as new grads?

Areas of Physical Therapy Specialization

There are many ways for a physical therapist to specialize in their practice. Physical therapists can go through residency or fellowship training, they can build up years of experience in one area of practice, they can take continuing education courses, or they can become a researcher. All of the following practice areas offer residency programs that allow a physical therapist to specialize in a particular area of practice.

• Acute Care

• Cardiovascular and Pulmonary

• Geriatrics

• Neurology

• Orthopedics

• Pediatrics

• Sports

• Women’s Health (and Men’s)

• Wound Care

Benefits of Specializing

Specializing in an area of practice can be very rewarding. First and foremost, if you are specializing in an area of practice, it’s probably because you enjoy working with that population and find it rewarding. Another benefit of specializing is that it allows you to excel in your area of practice. By being exposed to a specific patient population, pathologies, and dysfunctions on a regular basis, your clinical reasoning, diagnosis, and ability to provide the best interventions for that population should improve as well.

Negatives with Specializing

As new grads, we may shy away from specializing too soon, because we don’t know exactly what we want to do with our careers. The fear of backing ourselves into a corner can be terrifying. While you can always change the path your career is on if you choose to specialize in a specific practice area, the transition can be difficult. Some clinicians may argue that no matter what population you work with, every patient has bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons, so as long as you have a basic understanding of all practice areas, you should be able to transition from setting to setting and hold your own. While I agree with this statement somewhat, I think the reality is if you have been primarily handling a caseload that consists of pediatric patients with an emphasis on neurological disorders for the last 5 years, stepping into a sports or orthopedics setting to evaluate the running mechanics of a competitive marathon runner can be very intimidating (and personally speaking the reverse of that scenario applies as well). Other negatives with specializing within a particular field are that the repetitiveness can be a little boring. They say variety is the spice of life, and there is nothing wrong with getting a little variation in your daily routine.

Should New Grads Specialize?

The correct answer is….well it depends. What works for me as a clinician may not necessarily work for you. Do you have a strong passion for one area of practice within the field of physical therapy? If you answered yes, then specialization may be right for you. If you aren’t sure what you want to do, or the answer to the 5 years from now question is still a little blurry, then there is no rush to specialize; test the waters and see what you like. Most importantly, remember that this is your career, so you should do what makes you happy and fulfills your career aspirations.

Still not sure? Make sure to check back for more content regarding specialization. The writers at NGPT will delve deeper into each specialty and provide you with a clinician's perspective.

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