9 Tips to Launch a Successful Career in Physical Therapy

Updated on December 16, 2020
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By Thomas P. Werner, PT, MA, PhD

New graduates may find that the physical therapy job market can be overwhelming. There are so many possibilities for beginning a career in physical therapy. The following tips can help recent graduates launch a successful physical therapy career that meets their interests, goals, and personality. 

1. Research career paths.

Start by thoroughly researching different settings where PTs work with patients, such as clinics, private practices, hospitals, fitness centers, sports facilities, home health settings, nursing homes, and even some corporations. Explore what’s available in your area and even farther away, if you’re willing to relocate. If you are interested in starting your own private practice, research the steps involved. 

2. Set goals. 

Do some soul-searching to clarify your goals. Write about where you see your career path going in six months, one year, five years, and ten years. Ask yourself: 

  • Which settings can I imagine myself working in such as clinics, private practices, hospitals, fitness centers, sports facilities, home health settings, nursing homes, and even some corporations?  
  • Which patient populations do I most want to help?
  • Which physical therapy specialties do I find interesting? 
  • How much do I care about job security vs. taking risks such as starting my own practice?
  • What is the lowest salary I would accept, and what is my target salary range? 
  • Do I want to start my own PT practice? If so, is now the right time, or should I get some clinical experience first? 

3. Network and build a professional support system.

Stay in touch with your classmates in your DPT program. Find out where they are working and get the lowdown on what they like and don’t enjoy about their new positions. Make a point to meet other practicing PTs in your area and join a professional organization with a local chapter. Share information with your peers about job openings, work expectations, salaries, entrepreneurship, and other resources. Over time, you can build a professional support system that will help you navigate challenges and transitions. 

4. Believe in your abilities.

Your first weeks as a “real” physical therapist may seem daunting. But know that you’ve learned a lot in your DPT classes, hands-on clinical labs, and internship—and you’re prepared to help patients. You have the patient insight, technical knowledge, and ability to perform at a high level. Even in moments when your confidence wanes, believe in yourself and in your abilities because with that attitude results will come.

5. Ask potential employers lots of questions.

When you start interviewing for jobs, don’t just jump on the first possibility that comes along. Take your time and be sure to get all your questions answered. Along with the obvious questions about hours per week, salary, vacation time, benefits, and start date, be sure to ask about: 

  • Area of practice: Who are the patients, and what are their PT needs?
  • Expectations: How many patients per hour and per day will I be seeing? Which therapies will I perform? What will my typical day look like? 
  • Services offered: Does the clinic offer any modalities besides traditional physical therapy? Which special equipment does it feature?
  • Learning and mentorship: Will I be able to learn and grow on the job? Does the clinic offer mentorship, and if so, how is it structured? Do you pay for CEUs?
  • Workplace culture: Does the employer create a positive workplace culture that motivates therapists to give their best work? 
  • Money: Is there a bonus structure? How can I position myself for a raise down the road? Does the clinic base raises on quality of work and patient satisfaction—or solely on the number of patients treated?

6. Spend a day observing at the clinic. 

Before you accept a position in a clinic or other setting, spend a day observing. People who have INFP personality are known for choosing a therapist career option, including being a physical therapist which you find more about it in this article this article. This is essential to making sure that the position is in line with your goals and that your personality fits with the workplace culture.Try to get to know the staff and your supervisor and feel into whether you would enjoy working with them. See how their systems and processes run, how coworkers get along with each other, and how they interact with patients. If you witness tension and drama, that’s a red flag. 

During your interview and observation day, be yourself. If you try to act like someone you’re not, you may end up trying to fake it in a situation that doesn’t suit you in the first place.

7. Go with your gut. 

After your observation day, sleep on your decision for at least one night. Check in with yourself and ask:

  • Can I picture myself in this workplace? 
  • Does the nature of the work and patient population align with my goals?
  • Would this position be sustainable for me? (If you’re already saying, “I can leave if I want to,” the place is probably not right for you. Don’t waste your time.) 
  • Am I the person this employer is looking for this role? (If you aren’t, the position will likely be short-lived.)
  • Would I be able to bring value to this setting and be appreciated for it?
  • Do the people seem open and honest? Does it feel like a positive experience?
  • Are the clinic’s values aligned with mine? Do they put money or patients first? 
  • Is anything about this position keeping me up at night? 

8. Find a mentor.

If your new job does not offer mentorship, look for it outside of work. You may be able to find a PT mentor through your professional organization or other networking connections. Also, check out online resources that enable you to learn from home. 

9. Try new things. 

During your job search and beyond, be willing to expand outside of your comfort zone. As a new grad, you’re well positioned to jump in and try new ways of working with patients and even different job settings as a way to learn more and find your true passion in your career. 

The largest PT school in the United States,* the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a hands-on Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Practice with mock and real patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with a wide range of patients, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and Flex (online/weekend) paths are available.

*Based on total DPT degrees conferred, as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Data is captured by IPEDS through interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/

Dr. Werner joined USAHS in Fall 2012 and has over two decades of experience in private practice. He completed a BS in Physical Therapy and a BS in Psychology in the School of Arts, Letters, and Science at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. He earned an MA and PhD in Human and Organizational Systems in the School of Human and Organization Development at Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA. After earning his PhD, Werner embarked on a 3-year Fellow position, as a theoretician, with the Institute of Social Innovation, Santa Barbara, CA. In addition, he completed a yearlong evidence-based, accredited executive coach-training program by the International Coach Federation. Werner’s areas of clinical specialization are in the fields of orthopedic & sports injury care, the management of chronic postural dysfunction, and the use of Pilates and Gyrotonics for sport specific training.

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