7 Pieces of Advice For New PT Grads

With many PT students graduating this month, I wanted to drift off my normal blogging topics and give some advice to people who will be joining the field soon. Looking back to 3 years ago, there were a lot of things I would have differently when first starting off. I’m lucky to have a lot of positive influences who have helped me when first starting off, so I figured I would return the favor to others. Here are 7 tips of mine for everyone to think about.

1. Enjoy A Break, But You’re Not Done Yet

Following the end of school/passing boards, do whatever and enjoy your well earned vacation. Hit the reset button so to speak. It was a long road and you made it, congrats! However, the reality of the situation is that if you want to be a good PT, you’re really never done with pushing yourself to learn more and progress your skills.

If you want to move forward in your own knowledge, help people as much as you can, and be happy in the field, your going to have to work harder than you did in PT school. It’s challenging no doubt, as trying to push yourself to get better with the day to day life stressors of a full time job can be tough. But I promise you, it’s well worth it.  Many of my friends and myself included found a direct link between pushing to learn more, patients being happier with their service, and our overall happiness with our jobs. To be a great PT you will need to dig your heels in and straight up work harder than everyone else. There really isn’t any magic or secrets to it.

2. Listen Five Times More Than You Talk 

I put this out on Instagram a few weeks back. It seems the best PT’s, strength coaches, and elite athletes I have been lucky to learn from listen or study five times more than they talk. I don’t think there is a coincidence there. From the larger picture, there is so much to learn out there and a lot of different opinions that are worth considering. Everyone has a different background and approach to PT. Rather than jumping to argue with them (unfortunately very common with social media), take time to fully listen to their ideas and then you can professionally discuss differences should they exist. There are many ideas I was a firm believer in 3 years ago, that if I still did now I would laugh at myself. Understand it’s a fluid process you have to be open to, and that it’s all about being a life long learner.

On a client side, realize that we are in a business of customer service and relationships. If your new client comes in and you talk at them for 30 minutes, your doomed from the start. Let them tell their story. Then ask the right questions, and actively listen to what they are telling you in response. Now, that doesn’t mean let them ramble on for an hour giving their injury history starting from a tragic tricycle accident at age 4 (unless it’s relevant). With that said, actively listening and processing what they say makes them trust and feel comfortable with you from the start. It also may reveal a lot of information about what they feel is causing their pain, many times painting a clear picture for your evaluation and first treatment approach.

3. Find a Job With A Mentor and Knowledgeable Staff

I think my biggest regret when I first looked for a job is that I didn’t do enough research into all the facilities themselves, their staff, and what everyones background was. To be honest, I jumped on a job fast because I was scared my loans payments were starting and I didn’t have a ton of money to pay them. Thinking back I would have liked to spend more time researching and feeling out the different jobs available, primarily for a mentor and staff that could help teach me.  Similar to this, make sure the work environment is enjoyable and you feel comfortable. Life will get miserable quick if you are pushing yourself to be the best you can, but you feel like the daily 9-5 is painful to get through.

4. Network with Like Minded People 

Within the PT field itself, use social media and live networking to create a crew of people you like learning from and respect. There are certainly a ton out there that have influenced me and have pushed my knowledge more. Also, start to work for establishing a multidisciplinary team in your area to learn from and collaborate with. I have many good friends who are PTs, Chiros, AT’s, OT’s, strength coaches, gymnastics coaches, nutritionists, and more.

I always tell students I think I have learned more about gymnastics in the last 3 years from people not involved in gymnastics. If you only learn from people in your field, there tends to always be a blinders approach based on our background. Right out of school I tried to have hour coffee chats with some people I respected, or asked if I could shadow them to see how they go about business. Start working on reaching out to people and don’t be afraid to share ideas.

5. Get Your Feet Wet

Following the boards and as you start your first job, just get your feet wet. Figure out your daily routines, get used to the clinic and your staff, and learn their systems. Just getting acclimated and finding a rhythm can be tough. There is a ton that goes into a first job, and finally being the person in charge of your patient case load.  Obviously you want to do as best of a job as you can, but be okay with just letting things sink in the first few weeks. Don’t feel bad if you make mistakes (obviously not huge safety ones), can’t find things, and feel overwhelmed. We all were in the same overwhelmed position at one point, and it will iron itself out if you just keep chugging along for the first month or two.


6. Eventually Develop A Niche Your Passionate About

After you feel like you’re in a groove, take some time to really think about what you enjoy in the PT field. You have to be a generalist and be competent in the entire human movement system, but having areas of interest is really helpful. It can help drive you to be passionate and find more value in your work. The niche could be a certain population, an area of continuing education, certain areas of the body, anything. Pursue that area mapping out some goals and concrete action plan steps.

For example, it’s pretty well known that I have a niche in gymnastics, given my background as an athlete and coach. Knowing I wanted to push myself to change the sport and really help gymnasts, I started right out of grad school attacking continuing education for gymnastics sports medicine. For the first year of working, I forced myself to go to bed early so I could wake up at 5:30am and do some form of continuing education until 6:30. Then I would get to the clinic for for 7 and start treating. I had some tired days and wasn’t always perfectly consistent, but over a 12 month period I learned a ton. It was a cycle between the more I knew, the more the word got out, and then more gymnasts would seek my services out and it made work fun. Again, the kicker is it has to be something your really passionate about. If you don’t have projects your interested in to pursue, the snooze button looks better and better every morning.

7.  Find and Use a System’s Approach 

I think it’s really valuable that new grads find a way to systemize the crazy amount of information they have gotten, and put it into a reusable template based framwork.  There are a ton of different movement approaches out there from SFMA, to PRI, to McKenzie, Mulligan, and many more. My best suggestion would be to learn from all of them, blend what works for you, and create a general template based approach to use on each patient.

Knowing that that is both time and financially demanding, start with one that you feel fits your style and get on it. For me personally, I felt very frustrated 2 months out of school not having a solid movement system to go by, so I signed up for the SFMA I and II. I found it really helpful to organize my evaluations, but certainly didn’t swear by only the SFMA. I take pieces of different areas, match it to my unique population and my own ideas, then keep building as I go.

8. Bonus- Subscribe To Journals and Read at least 1 Article Weekly

I think this originally was a suggestion of Chris Johnson and Mike Reinold, but you have to be dedicated to staying up with new waves of research. Chances are there is a ton of research in areas your interested in that you may have not been able to tackle with the end of school and the boards being on the horizon. Although it’s hard to find time, carve out an hour in your schedule to get some new articles read. You can subscribe to popular journal table of contents, or you can just do a pub med search every once and a while and scan abstracts, booking them for later. I tend to mark the ones I like and then keep them in a folder on my desktop of “New and Unread Research”. Then I load them up on my ipad and keep them for whenever I’m traveling or have a spare 15 – 20 minutes.

These are just some tips I wish someone gave me 3 years ago when I graduated. For now, I hope it helps and best of luck to all the new PT grads out there!

Dave Tilley, DPT