Starting a career in physical therapy is like climbing a tree. Everyone starts with the same trunk, but pretty quickly, you have to make some decisions about which way you’re going to go. What kind of people do you want to work with? Where do you want to practice? And how far up the tree do you want to climb? You’ll get to grow professionally – learning more, getting better clinically, and maybe even improving your sales and business skills, but that’s not all. Physical therapy gives you a chance to grow personally too.
You can pick the type of people you want to work with – sports physical therapists work with athletes, helping them recover from injuries and improve performance through exercise and hands-on techniques. Geriatric physical therapists work with elderly patients on mobility problems, pain or managing chronic conditions. Pediatric physical therapists work with infants and children providing developmental assessments and helping them improve their gross motor skills.
You can also pick where you work – there are physical therapy jobs in nursing homes, hospitals, outpatient clinics and schools. Physical therapists provide care wherever people need it. So far, we’ve only mentioned the more common places you’ll find PTs – if you want to specialize further, you may find yourself working only in the ICU with critical care patients, in a factory doing industrial rehabilitation and ergonomics, in a women’s health clinic, or even working in a preventative, public health role.
Most physical therapy careers start in a general role, working with all types of different patients. If you work in a large health system, you may even rotate between settings. But as you find the type of people you like to work with and the setting you prefer, you have the option to improve your skills and focus on a specialty area of practice. Again, you have lots of options on how to do this. You could:
- Take an internship position or join a fellowship program
- Attend workshops or conferences
- Read journals and textbooks
- Collaborate with your colleagues and mentors
- Take courses in other areas of medicine
- Study abroad or take courses online
Your clinical skills aren’t the only thing a career in physical therapy can grow though – you’ll grow personally as well. You have to learn to have compassion and empathy when you work with ill or injured people. You have to work as a part of a team. You need sales skills – most people aren’t going to want to make changes in their routines, or do the exercises you prescribe at home. You’ll learn to work with people who have different opinions and different viewpoints from all kinds of cultures and backgrounds.
You may also have a chance to improve your business skills. You could advance out of the clinical setting and into a management role. Some PTs start their own practices, or a company in a field related to physical therapy like wellness, performance, injury prevention or population health for large corporations.
Wherever you start in physical therapy, you’ll have a lot of options on where you end up. Chances are you’ll explore more than one branch of the physical therapy tree. That’s OK, having the chance to grow and change is part of what makes PT so exciting!