From New Grad to Traveling PT

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From New Grad to Traveling PT

This time last year, I was just about to graduate from PT school, soon to have an advanced degree, an excellent clinical education and some affiliation experience under my belt. I had one foot in class, striving to finish my education strong. The other foot was headed out the door to find a job, but where?

I knew only three things for sure. One, I wanted to pursue a career in outpatient orthopedics. Two, I still had a lot to learn. And three, I needed a solid income to offset my student loans. My career path had to address these three elements in order for me to achieve my longer-range goals of clinical excellence and private practice ownership.

At the time, my professors were bestowing upon our graduating class wise advice about the job market, the importance of continued education and job selection strategies. It was a therapist’s market, they said, and we should interview the interviewer just as they interviewed us. At the same time, graduating PT students still have a lot to learn. Therefore, professors encouraged us to find a strong mentor, an accomplished clinician willing to ease our transition to real-world PT.

On the Road to a Career

In a stroke of perfect timing, I registered to attend the APTA Student Conclave, which was packed full of companies recruiting new graduates. With our professors’ advice in mind and my personal objectives at heart, I worked with some classmates to devise a list of questions to ask potential employers.

I knew I wanted to talk to traditional companies. On the recommendation of a senior therapist I met during an affiliation, I also wanted to check out traveling PT options. According to my former colleague, traveling PTs’ benefits are particularly advantageous for new graduates.

While our professors praised our preparation, my interest in traveling therapy options was met with some skepticism. Some professors and classmates weren’t sure traveling assignments would provide the experience and environment they desired for new graduates. I listened intently to their concerns and decided to keep an open mind.

Hitting the pavement at the Conclave was exhausting, inspiring and exciting. I talked with a number of companies and went down my list of questions with just about all of them. I was professional, honest and unafraid to ask realistic questions. In return, I received grounded answers and a genuinely rewarding experience. Most importantly, I found my first career path–traveling therapy. After speaking with an array of organizations, the benefits of traveling therapy were simply too good to pass up.

During the past year, I’ve found that a career in traveling therapy allows me to control for all of the criteria my professors recommended for post-graduation employment. In addition, experience gained through traveling therapy has furthered my personal objectives more than a single, traditional job ever could. And, many of the risks sometimes associated with traveling therapy simply have not born out in my experience.

Journey Thus Far

Based on meetings at the Conclave, I initially chose to contract with a smaller staffing firm that responded exceedingly well to my top two requests: a strong on-site mentor and placement with a classmate. True to their word, I was placed in a clinic with a senior therapist who agreed beforehand to take me under his wing and show me the ropes of real-world PT. In addition, because I had some control over my schedule, I was able to take time to learn. In contrast, some of my colleagues who took traditional PT jobs were expected to see 20 patients per day right off the bat.

I’ve also learned to listen and observe. One of the major benefits of traveling has been the opportunity to see first hand many different management styles and clinical operation strategies. In addition, I have been exposed to an array of treatment styles and techniques. To the extent that I can internalize those experiences, they help me decide how I want to conduct myself and how I want to manage my career.

Another benefit to traveling therapy is compensation. The combination of a high starting salary, real hourly pay and tax-free housing and living allowances has meant a comfortable living while making significant progress paying back my education loans. The sooner I get these loans in check, the sooner I’ll be able to pursue the advanced education I seek.

In addition to higher general compensation and real hourly pay, both of which are taxable, traveling therapists receive a tax-free living and housing stipend. The staffing firms I’ve used have offered me the choice of choosing my own housing or having it taken care of by the company. Either way, the stipend is the same. If the firm chooses the housing, it’s always nice. When I choose housing, it may be less expensive, which leaves me the option to treat any remaining stipend as an extension of my salary to manage as I see fit.

I’ve also been fortunate to contract with a firm that offers healthcare, retirement and continuing education benefits. Being young and healthy, I initially felt invincible. However, it only took a couple of colds to realize the importance of my health insurance benefit. It has also been nice to start saving for the future at such an early age. And, I’ve used the provided continuing education benefit as a launching pad for an aggressive continuing education program to further advance my clinical skill set.

One of the natural results of traveling therapy assignments is the opportunity to take breaks in between 13-week assignments. For me, this has meant a week or two between contracts to either take a vacation or spend extra time moving and getting adjusted. The pay rate for travelers more than makes up for these breaks. By planning wisely, I’ve been fortunate to live and vacation in several desirable areas.

Full Circle

After a couple of assignments out west, I needed to return to the East Coast. Unfortunately, the small staffing firm I originally chose did not have any contracts in that area. After speaking with a trusted colleague, I chose a larger, reputable staffing firm. To my surprise, the firm took just as much time to learn about my preferences, and the company’s contracts offered many more opportunities in just about any area, including my home region. So, I was able to return home.

All in all, I believe my traveling PT experience has provided unparalleled professional exposure and insight, as well as a quality of life that otherwise would be unattainable. Although some professors and classmates initially met my career decision with some resistance, during the past year, I have accomplished more than I thought possible. I built mentor and professional relationships, greatly enhanced my clinical skill set, selected comfortable and challenging outpatient orthopedic assignments, earned a highly desirable income, gained exposure to a wide variety of PT operating systems, lived in places I otherwise could not have, and finally, returned home (with available employment) when my family needed me.


Questions to Ask a Staffing Firm

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be open about what you want. In my experience, staffing firms work hard to meet therapist requests. Consider asking:

How much control will I have in selecting the clinical setting?

Tip: Opportunities will depend on your interests, i.e., inpatient vs. outpatient preferences. Larger companies have a wider range of contracts and connections.

Where does the firm have contracts? Where will I work?

Tip: Use this to your advantage but realize that tight location parameters might restrict your options. I understand Hawaii and Alaska are especially popular.

What is the compensation breakdown?

Tip: Traveling therapists get a taxable, hourly salary that is usually significantly higher than permanent positions offer. We are paid real wages, rather than getting paid for 40 hours yet working 50. In addition, travelers get additional, tax-free payment for transportation, housing and food.

Does the staffing firm offer health or other benefits?

Tip: Typically larger staffing firms offer significant benefits that small companies cannot match.

What happens if I get somewhere and I’m not happy?

Tip: Don’t rush to judgment. I’ve been exposed to several settings and each experience has proven valuable. However, if you find yourself facing ethical or legal issues, ask to be removed immediately.

How long are the assignments?

Tip: Typically, my assignments have been 13 weeks long.

Can I speak to some therapists working for the firm?

Tip: I have found peers to be the most realistic and reliable information source.

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About Author

Leonard Somarriba, MPT

Leonard Somarriba is a traveling physical therapist with MDI Medical.

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