Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC
The Big Debate
So we’ve all heard the varying opinions. You’re a student studying to become a therapist (PT, OT, SLP, PTA, COTA). You’ve heard of this thing called Travel Therapy, that it’s awesome, and that you make more money! So you really want to explore the country, have flexibility, try out different settings, earn more cash, and pay off student loans quicker, right? But then you hear from professors and other therapists that you shouldn’t start out as a traveler right out of school; that you won’t have enough experience and won’t get any mentorship! So what do you do?
All of us who are part of this site started working as traveling physical therapists right out of the gate as new grads, and none of us regret our decision! For us, this has been the best path and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But, it may not be right for everyone.
Things to Consider
There are a few key factors in determining if you’re cut out for starting as a traveler right out of school:
- Confidence in your skill set:
- It was very important for me that I felt confident in my independence as a therapist during my last couple of clinical internships before graduation before I set out to take my first job as a traveler. If you get to your last internship, and you really feel like you need additional mentorship, it may not be right for you to take your first job as a traveler. But, it may not be a complete deal breaker. Keep reading…
- Sense of adventure:
- Are you going to feel comfortable moving from place to place and being in a new area all the time? You have to know yourself here.
- Ability to adapt quickly:
- This is a big one as a traveler! You are going to have to learn quickly and adapt to a new setting, new coworkers, new patients, new EMR all the time! If you struggled with this during internships, travel therapy might not be right for you.
What to Look For in Your First Contract
If you’re still a little uncertain and want to make sure to have the most success during your first contract, there are several things to make sure to ask for. Going from being a student/intern to an independent practitioner is going to be eye-opening, no matter if it’s a permanent job or a travel job. Of course we all want some mentorship at our first job or two to make sure we are being the best practitioners possible. Who says you can’t find mentorship at a travel job too?
Here are some things to ask about for your first couple of contracts:
- What other healthcare professionals are at the facility?
- Is there another person of your same specialty that can help you? This is ideal. For example, as a PT, I really did not feel comfortable being the only PT at my first couple jobs, especially since I knew I would be the only one doing evaluations, progress reports, and discharges, while also overseeing PTA’s. Unfortunately, I did have a couple jobs where I was the only PT. In those situations, it was surprisingly helpful to have knowledgeable and experienced OT’s and SLP’s there. Even though they weren’t from the same discipline, they were able to help me during occasional co-treats and co-evals in the inpatient setting, as well as understanding things like documentation, billing, the EMR, and productivity for the facility. Also, some of the experienced PTA’s helped me with some physical therapy related things. Overall, I was able to find a lot of “informal” mentorship at my first few travel jobs.
- Is there a mentor available by phone through the travel company?
- This can be surprisingly helpful, especially for an unbiased opinion. My very first travel contract I had to utilize my travel company’s mentor by phone for some ethical billing and productivity questions I had. It was nice to have an experienced and unbiased PT to talk to.
- At another contract, the travel company had their clinical liaison contact Jared and I because the facility was expressing concerns about our productivity. This was due to us billing 100% ethically and accounting for all of our time at a very disorganized SNF, which led to our numbers not meeting the facility’s expectations. We were thankful to be able to talk to someone with clinical and managerial background to help diffuse the situation.
- What are the productivity expectations?
- As mentioned above, this can become a real issue at a lot of facilities, particularly SNFs. Knowing what the expectations are going into a contract is helpful, as well as being realistic and upfront with the fact you are a new grad. If they’re asking for 90+% productivity at a SNF as an evaluating therapist (PT, OT, SLP), that’s not realistic no matter who you are, especially as a new grad. You need to know your limits and be honest about them, or you’re going to get yourself into some bad situations.
- What is mentorship, really?
- Remember that in today’s times, there is a ton of information available at our fingertips: through the internet, consulting textbooks, or contacting colleagues, professors and former clinical mentors. In my opinion, starting your career as a traveling therapist instead of a permanent therapist isn’t much different clinically as far as building your skills and growing as a clinician. Not all permanent jobs have clearly defined “mentorship” roles either. Mentoring can be found in many ways, shapes and forms.
- Do No Harm
- Additionally, I always tell myself when working as a physical therapist, there are only a few life or death situations I might face while in the workplace. For most other things as a clinician, if I can at least get through the evaluation, I can always go look something up or ask someone if I need help thereafter. And in many situations even during an initial evaluation, I can stop and go consult a colleague in the building or look something up quickly. As long as you have a good grasp on what you’re doing (and you should after finishing your rigorous academic and clinical curriculum), and you follow the golden rule Do No Harm, you will be fine!
- What are you giving up… or putting on hold?
- Of course there are some other things to consider with travel vs. permanent jobs. In travel therapy, you may not know completely what environment you’re getting yourself into at each new contract, and in most cases you won’t see the facility until your first day of work. This means you have to rely on asking the right questions before your interview.
- Additionally, you are changing facilities and moving around often, so you will not be growing a patient following or building rapport in your community like you would as a permanent therapist.
- You may miss out on some of the things that are important to you, like being close to family and friends, buying a house, or starting a family. But then again, you may not have to “give up” these things. There are many therapists that have homes, see their friends and family just as often, or have children and spouses on the road with them. You may still be able to pursue some or all of them while also working as a traveler, or maybe you choose to just put them on hold temporarily while you give traveling a shot.
One of the most amazing things about being a therapist or therapist’s assistant is the flexibility in career paths. Pursuing travel therapy can lead you down some incredible roads if you so choose.
It’s important to weigh all of your options and determine if travel therapy is the right choice for you straight out of school. If you choose this path, you won’t be the first and you certainly won’t be the last. And the best part is, choosing to take a travel contract only locks you in for +/- 13 weeks, not the rest of your career, unless you want it to!
Feel free to contact us if you want to know more about our journeys as travel physical therapists starting as new grads. We would be happy to mentor you as you consider the path to being a travel therapist too!