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Prior to physical therapy school and definitely during, 3 years seemed like eternity. Looking back, I am now thinking “it was ONLY 3 years.” As a PT who has been out almost 4 years, I am now meeting PT students and I am learning things I wish I would have done differently.
Going into physical therapy school, I didn’t have a lot of mentorship. I knew it was something I wanted to do but was basically applying and going through the process on my own. I also didn’t have any expectations and just thought that the purpose of the next 3 years was to help me to pass the boards so I could have a license to practice. Right? WRONG! I didn’t know then that you can audit courses as a student, lacked motivation to reach out to PTs so that I could continue observing/shadowing, and just took every lecture/slide without ever questioning my professors.
Find a Mentor
As a new PT, at first I felt like I was going to “kill it” as a PT my first year. It wasn’t until I was in a clinic seeing 50+ patient visits per week that I realized I had so much more to learn. I was also surrounded by extremely motivated PTs whom I have to thank for their support/guidance. Which brings me to a tip for new grads: do not work in a clinic alone. Find a clinic that provides mentorship and a team of many PTs with different strengths. Most of you probably think that is a given, but I have learned of companies that will hire new grads just to “fill a spot” in a clinic by themselves. This is what I like to refer to as a “PT Mill” but I will save that for another rant, another day.
Back to my point – as a student in school, seek out courses to audit. You are surrounded by physical therapists with whom you can network. Also, get hands-on experience and learn/apply knowledge. I even had some students in a dry needling course I took a couple of years ago. They didn’t needle but got great experience and one even landed a potential job from a clinic director taking the course.
Build a Tool Box
Try several courses to see what kind of PT you want to be. Take Maitland, Mckenzie, AND Great Lakes (GASP!). Not specifically those, but my point is, do not become a Maitland-ite/Mckenzie-ite/Great Laker. Be eclectic. Build your tool box with tools to use for those patients who do not respond in the way the text book tells you.
I went to a physical therapy school that was in a busy city which, fortunately, brings lots of shadowing/observing opportunities to students. Even if it was just an hour or two every other week, I wish I had observed and shadowed PTs to get more insight on the setting I wanted to be in, develop mentors and ask questions, and again, network for potential jobs. Most of the time these will not be paid but the value, depending on how you use it, can be very beneficial. Of course, you will go through clinicals, but they are usually in different settings and one ortho setting can be far different than another.
We learn at a young age in school not to question teachers/authority but I think in grad school, as long as it is done respectfully, it’s imperative – especially in a field that is fortunately and unfortunately very grey and subjective. Ask your teachers the “whys” and “how’s.” They may tell you how to treat a patient with back pain, but as experienced PTs, we know it looks very differently from patient to patient. You will have many failures as a new grad, but rest assured, this is what makes you better.
Not to knock physical therapy school because, after all, I wouldn’t be here without it but you will learn so much in your first year of being a new grad PT, in my opinion. Don’t settle to JUST have a license, but be a kick ass PT. The world of physical therapy is always changing. You are starting to see more and more PTs “brand” themselves, go into private practice, SUCCEED in cash-based PT, etc. This is not the cookie-cutter, khaki and polo-wearing clinics we once knew (which is just fine, if that works for you). Study hard, network, ask questions, and you will be just fine.
Gena Thurston is a physical therapist and Clinic Director with NeuroSport out of Chicago, IL. Follow her on Instagram at @bodybosspt.