PT Month: 3 Things You Didn't Learn in PT School
Successful Physical Therapy programs nationwide are awarding over 13,000 degrees to new PTs every year. Doubtless, each of these professionals will be well-versed in human anatomy, exercise physiology, kinesiology, and more. But there are 3 things I’m willing to bet new grads won’t know from PT school—lessons we’ve all had to learn the hard way.
3 Skills You Didn’t Learn in PT School
If you’re a new PT, student, or otherwise, give yourself a head start on your career by checking out these 3 things you didn’t learn in PT school.
1. How to Manage Money
When you were considering PT school, what factors influenced your decision? School ranking, prestige, or notoriety? Proximity and convenience? How about the cost?
The cost of DPT programs has risen by 30% over the last decade, with the average cost of a public school program at $66k (or $112k for private schools). Maybe the high price tag didn’t bother you so much when you applied. After all, doesn’t everyone go neck-deep into debt? Won’t the salary afterward be worth it?
Frankly, the starting PT salary is well below the average PT’s burden of debt, and it could take you a decade or two to shovel yourself out from under it. That’s why money management is a crucial skill to learn as you start your PT career.
I’ve been there. I owed a total of $187,000 in school loans when I graduated in 2016. In order to resurface from under that mountain of debt, my money management strategy consisted of 1) watching my debt-to-income ratio and 2) resolving to earn more and spend less.
Firstly, your debt-to-income ratio is a simple metric for determining if you’re making enough money to take on more debt. A good ratio is less than 1:1, meaning, you earn more than you owe. If your debt-to-income ratio is imbalanced in the wrong way, you should do whatever you can to increase your income and avoid taking out any more loans.
What I Recommend:
If you’re not interested in hustling for every dollar by working weekends and putting in long hours at a facility you don’t like, then go to an affordable school.
If it’s too late to switch schools—or you’re already burdened with debt—then don’t wait to get your finances in order. Organize a cash flow statement, set up a personal balance sheet, use a realistic budget, and discover creative ways to earn passive income.
The metrics of personal money management are a lot simpler than what you learned in neuroscience class, but understanding it may play a far bigger role in your work satisfaction.
2. How to Win Friends…and Generally Interact with People
We all know someone who is a mastermind in their field but a misfit in their social circles. Just because you’re intelligent (you must be, as a PT student!) doesn’t mean you’re emotionally attuned to others—or what many call “emotionally intelligent.”
Besides an intelligence quotient, each of us has an Emotional Intelligence Quotient, or EIQ, that measures degrees of social awareness, self-awareness, emotion management, and relationship management. For some PTs, these interpersonal skills come fairly naturally. But for many others, emotional intelligence is something to be learned, an invaluable skill overlooked by their PT program.
What makes EIQ so important? Principally, because Physical Therapists work directly with people. We can’t be anti-social. Personal interaction begins with PT school interviews and continues through coursework and clinical rotations to job applications and onboarding.
If you lack emotional intelligence, you may have a hard time managing stress in class or at work. You may frequently find yourself in personal conflict with peers, mentors, assistants, supervisors—even patients.
Truthfully, emotional intelligence—or lack of it—will affect every area of your life, professional and otherwise.
What I Recommend:
While you’re in school, focus on working hard—not on comparing your grades or performance against others. As you perform clinical rotations, strive to be teachable, and maintain a discreet and respectful demeanor around patients.
Once you begin working, emotional intelligence will help you learn to reframe your attitude when a situation becomes stressful. You’ll understand how to handle conflict using honest, direct, and appropriate communication at every level of the hierarchy.
Finally, just like financial freedom, emotional intelligence isn’t acquired overnight. However, a few resources may help you get started. First, consider taking an EQ assessment to see where you stand, then check out these two essential reads on the topic: Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry.
3. How to Write Well
You probably expected you’d have to bang out a few papers while you’re in PT school; after all, writing and learning are practically bedfellows. But now that you’ve graduated, landed a job, and started working, you find yourself writing again. A lot. More than you bargained for.
The reason why a PT job requires so much writing is because it’s the only way to properly document our work. Our patients, their physicians, and their insurance companies, all need to be able to review our evaluation conclusions, treatment choices, and skills provided.
Besides the “what,” good writing also explains the “why”—the reason behind our decisions. Why did you lead with this specific treatment? Why did you choose this CPT code? What’s the goal or plan for this patient’s progress? It all has to be in the record, clear and concise. And that takes skill—a skill you didn’t hone in PT school.
Now an avid blogger, I’m not totally allergic to writing. But coming up with accurate and consistent documentation phrases hasn’t always been easy, especially after a long day and an endless stream of patients. We PTs work hard, and sometimes even the best writers among us are too tired to dodge writer’s block.
What I Recommend:
To remedy this, I created cheat sheets: documentation templates and stock phrases I regularly use for common exercises and treatments. I recommend doing the same for yourself. Initially, it’ll require a small investment of your time as you craft concise, modular phrases and save them in a separate document. If you use a tablet, an application like hotkeys can help you retrieve your stored phrases with a simple keyword.
Since I started using my documentation templates, I’ve saved precious time writing—as much as 30-60 minutes every day. I’ve made these savings available for you too through my published documentation templates. Feel free to use mine instead of making your own!
And if you’re still in school, don’t wait to get good at writing. Work at it now. After each clinical, go home and practice documenting your treatments, so that when you start your first job, writing will feel like second nature. Or, more so.
What I Didn’t Learn in PT School, You Can Now
Undoubtedly, I wouldn’t be who I am today without PT school. I don’t regret becoming a PT, but there are a few things about the career I wish I could change. The issues that go unaddressed in DPT programs are oftentimes crucial to our career, and it behooves PT schools to train the next wave of PTs in money management, interpersonal communication, and documentation skills.
Looking to put your physical therapy skills to practice while exploring the country? Learn more about choosing a PT career with Med Travelers.
Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™, and founder of PTProgress.com. He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your physical and financial health.