Physical Therapy School – Is It For You?

Who better to answer this question than someone who is in the midst of it himself.  I asked a former student, Leonard Van Gelder, if he would be willing to put a piece together for those who might be considering physical therapy as a profession.  Over the course of my professional career, I have seen this go from a Bachelor of Science program to a Masters of Science program, and now have former students who I call “Dr.” because they have received a doctoral degree in physical therapy.  It’s no joke, so you better make sure you know it’s for you.  Read Leonard’s piece and see if it’s helpful.  Additional information for prospective students can be found on the American Physical Therapy Association website.

Is Physical Therapy School For You?
– by Leonard Van Gelder

I think it is important to realize the scope of physical therapy before you decide to apply for physical therapy school. Many people (myself included) focus primarily on the musculoskeletal domain of physical therapy. Most often, those interested in physical therapy do not realize that our scope of practice encompasses musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, integumentary, and cardiopulmonary systems. Therefore, you need to be open to the idea of wound care, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, neurological rehabilitation, geriatrics, and pediatrics, because they all make up a large part of your education, not just orthopedics. You are being prepared to be an autonomous entry point to the healthcare system and a part of the allied health system where you must know the importance of timely and appropriate referral to other healthcare providers. This is very challenging course work and if you are not open to areas outside of your immediate interest, think very hard about your motivation to pursue this profession!

Tips for the Application Process   

Start planning the process at least 1 year, but ideally 2 years before you officially apply. Be really diverse with your observation hours; try not to be too heavy in one specialty of physical therapy. Get as much exposure to physical therapy as you can by volunteering in the field and learning about current issues facing the physical therapy profession. Get hands-on experience whenever possible! Get involved in research early in your undergraduate career, either through assisting a professor with an existing study, or proposing your own for independent study. During your application to graduate school, don’t depend on any one source for guidance: actively inquire and follow-up with physical therapy schools throughout the process. (Note: The Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) is a service of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). PTCAS allows applicants to use a single application and one set of materials to apply to multiple PT programs).  Every school has slight differences in the application process, although PTCAS is bringing some uniformity to the picture. There are a number of schools beginning to accept upwards of 20 students by direct admit based on the application process and GPA alone, so be aware of this change. For those schools which still do interviews, get to know the faculty from the school website. Often, they are the ones interviewing you. Knowing something about their interest areas and/or research can really help show your engagement in the process. Practice interviews are one of the most important methods you can use to prepare for your interview!

Developing Your Professional Skill and Philosophy

I think this is universal with any professional program, but often times it does not get reinforced enough. Do not depend on someone else to teach you everything that you need to know. You may be attending the best physical therapy school on the planet, but the reality is, it is up to you to become the practitioner you need to be. Your professors are amazing resources; they will do their best to teach you basic concepts, but don’t depend on them to make you a professional. Draw on them frequently, don’t depend on your syllabus for telling you what you need to know, follow your interests and ask professors for their perspectives on these interests.  At the same time, be open to everything you are required to learn, even if you believe you will never need to know certain things; sometimes you will find a pearl of knowledge specific to your specialty interest in the place you least expect it! Be critical, but recognize your own biases and also the biases of others.  Start developing YOUR treatment philosophy by observing the treatment philosophy of successful practitioners.

I am a strong believer in early mentorship; seek out highly successful physical therapists and ask to observe them whenever possible. Have multiple mentors with opposing perspectives to keep you in check!  Learn that two dramatically different philosophies can be highly successful; don’t fall into the “perfect system” philosophy. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more likely you will have the right tool for the right patient! At the same time, have some structure in using those tools; you can’t use everything on everyone! Ask your mentors everything you can about their treatment philosophies: why they do what they do, what resources have they found helpful over the years, see if they are willing to teach you some hands-on skills, ask them for guidance (“What would you do if you started over in physical therapy school?”).

Keeping safety and liability in mind buy a massage table and practice your skills at home with willing victims… I mean classmates, friends, and family.  Maximize your hands-on experience through your clinical experiences, observations, and any opportunity you have! Buy books that your mentors recommend and books you frequently find mentioned on the Internet from respected practitioners in your field. Go to seminars, real seminars, not the ones labeled or targeted for students, but the ones targeted to practitioners in the field. Why sell yourself short with getting a watered down student version when your goal is to come out as a professional? This is the one time in your professional career you are going to get discounted seminars, take advantage of it before you have to pay full price!! If you do not understand words or concepts in those seminars, write them down, and go learn about them yourself. Take as many notes as you can and don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if the seminar was way over your head initially.

Some Words About the Internet

Take advantage of your unlimited access to scholarly journals while you are in college. Build a library of research that is within your interest areas for future use. Once you get out, besides the journals that come with your professional memberships, much of the research is now behind a pay wall. Beyond access to scholarly literature, some of the most highly respected practitioners in the field have been posting on websites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter for many years now. There are numerous “gurus” in the field. Historically, we think about free information like this as being poor quality information. However, you are now an educated individual, once you understand the basic sciences of your profession, you can critically analyze the information presented to you and decide what is valuable and what is not. You can learn a tremendous amount from the theories, case studies, and techniques presented on these sites. At the same time, realize that because much of this work is not peer-reviewed, not everything an expert or “guru” says is correct or without flaw. Sometimes people you might otherwise respect say some very stupid things. That’s ok; don’t throw everything out just because the individual makes some logical errors, it does not take anything away from them, nor does it take away from previous and future information that these individuals offer. The point is, there is a great deal of knowledge out there, for free! Draw from it, be critical about it, use it to develop your philosophy. Stand upon the shoulders of giants!

Other Suggestions

While it is important to know when it is appropriate to just be quiet and listen, don’t be afraid to be wrong. Professional learning is an active process; you have to make yourself vulnerable at times. It is ok to look dumb as long as you are humble about it and it does not put someone at risk. Give answers you know might be incorrect and be ready to be corrected.  Finally, make peace with ambiguity; the entire field of medicine is continually changing. Sometimes it is ok that nothing makes sense. Accept it for what it is and make the best of it.

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