Written by Travis Kemper, PT, DPT with contributions by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC
Licensing and housing are probably the two most frustrating and challenging aspects of being a travel healthcare professional. We will cover housing in future articles, but let’s dig in to the current state of licensing, and I’ll give an overview of how my wife Julia and I, as well as Jared and Whitney, have attempted to navigate licensing as traveling physical therapists thus far.
How Does Licensing Work as a Travel Therapist?
In general, if you want to work in a different state as a travel therapist, you need to get licensed in each individual state where you plan to work. There is a “PT Compact” license that has begun for physical therapists, which makes the licensing process much easier for those who are eligible for the compact. Some type of compact license is also in the works for occupational therapists, but has not been passed yet. But, with the exception of the small percentage of therapists that can take advantage of a compact (or multi-state) license currently, the rest of us have to take care of licensing the old fashioned way.
What does licensing entail? Generally, an application, a fee, sometimes a jurisprudence/law exam (usually can be taken online or sent in on paper, but some states require you to test at a testing center), sometimes fingerprinting, and sending in a lot of verifications including: school transcripts, original board exam scores, and verifications that your license is in good standing from all other states in which you are licensed.
In some cases, travel therapy companies can help with the licensing process. Generally, this means they will reimburse you for a license once you’ve obtained it yourself and have accepted a contract with their company in that state. Sometimes, they can help you with the licensing process up front, including paying some of the costs and doing some of the leg work for you. But this is usually only once you are already a current traveler of theirs and are looking into your next contract with them in a new state.
Our Approach to Licensing Thus Far
We certainly don’t have all the answers, and like housing, there are multiple approaches and techniques to the licensing process that can all be successful for different travelers at different times. As a couple, finding positions has generally been time consuming and difficult, and starting contracts when we want has been challenging. Our friends who travel solo have found it much easier to find positions in the states in which they are interested and in a more timely manner than we have.
At first, we decided to only look at quick license states, meaning that we could look for jobs in states that would allow us time to find the job first and then get the license second. Therefore, we would ensure that we were only paying for the license once the job was already secured, instead of wasting time and money getting licensed in several states without knowing if we would actually take a job there. This tactic was primarily because we were broke after grad school (I’m sure most of you can relate) and couldn’t afford to pay for multiple licenses out of our own pocket up front, with the hopes of taking positions in those locations and then getting reimbursed.
We started with our first license and job in Arizona, because that is our home state, and we were getting that license no matter what. Next, we went to South Carolina, because it was a quick license state.
A note about “quick license” states: They are quick once they get all your paperwork, but most still require paper verifications from your current licensed states, and this can be a very timely process in itself. Licensing makes me speak very negatively about our state governments when they take two weeks to print out and send a piece of paper that I paid them $15-$25 to send! In the case of South Carolina, our start date was delayed two weeks because of the license verification from Arizona.
After that fiasco, we became more proactive and decided to get licenses up front in West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee while on contract in South Carolina, so we would not have a delay again in starting our next contracts. This seemed like a great idea at the time, and we figured a couple thousand dollars we spent on these licenses could be recouped fairly quickly.
This once again turned out to be a losing plan, after taking two extra weeks to find positions, we finally accepted positions in New Mexico (notice New Mexico was not on the list of licenses we had!) and started that licensing process there due to not being able to even interview for any positions in the other states. Again, the other states where we were already licensed made getting this license expensive and time consuming. New Mexico also lost half of the documents that were sent in. Luckily, the staff there was actually helpful unlike other states (cough West Virginia cough), and after 8 hours on the phone, we were able to get our licenses pushed through even though they did not have all the physical documents that were required.
What We’ve Learned About Licensing
So, where are we currently with licenses and what have we learned? Well, as of this point we are back working in Arizona, and seeing as that is our home state, we will be keeping that license. We still have New Mexico and Kentucky, but will be letting Kentucky expire in March 2019 instead of renewing. We already let the rest of them expire instead of paying to renew them.
Right now we are in the process of getting our California licenses, because California is reportedly a gold mine for travel therapy couples, and it is a gorgeous state. The current plan is to hang out in California and Arizona until our home state of Arizona starts issuing compact license privileges, and then use the compact to be able to move around the country again.
What About Jared and Whitney’s Experience?
So far, Whitney and Jared have had a little better go at licensing than us, for the most part. Similarly, they chose to start by working in their home state of Virginia. After that, they were methodical in their licensing choices, and chose to get licensed in advance in each state rather than wait until after they found jobs to get licensed. They always chose states based on trends of which states tended to have the most PT jobs, since they also travel as a couple.
They chose their next state, Massachusetts, based on seeing a lot of job options in that area, and that choice worked out well with them being able to find two jobs together for their desired start date after they were already licensed. Next, they chose North Carolina, for the same reason. They wanted to be in South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida ideally, but they were seeing a lot more jobs show up in pairs in North Carolina, so they went with that. And, that ended up being another good choice, with them able to start with two jobs in the same area right on time, after they were already licensed.
After North Carolina, they chose Illinois due to seeing a lot of jobs there in general, but this choice never quite panned out. They ended up letting this license lapse and never used it. For what ever reason, the timing wasn’t right and they weren’t able to nail down two jobs together in Illinois. Similarly, they got licensed in Arizona due to a high number of PT jobs, but so far the timing has not worked out for them to go to Arizona either. They plan to keep this license though and use it in the future.
So, their travels have been a little limited due to licensing restrictions, and they’ve only ended up working in Virginia, Massachusetts, and North Carolina so far in 3.5 years of being travel therapists. But, a big reason for this also is that they were risk averse, and did not want to waste a lot of money on licenses if they didn’t think they’d use them, so they’ve held off on some opportunities because of that.
They too are holding out for their home state of Virginia to start issuing compact license privileges, which will significantly open up their options. Otherwise, they plan to get one to two more licenses, including California and possibly Washington due to lots of PT opportunities in those states, making it more likely to find two jobs together as a pair.
Take Home Points
The licensing process can be challenging and frustrating as a travel therapist, especially when traveling as a pair. All of this is at least twice as easy if you are traveling as a solo healthcare professional, but you may still have some of the same challenges that we have faced.
In general, you have a few different strategies you can use to approach licensing, which include:
- Pick a state you think will have good job options, one at a time, and get licensed in advance. Have the license in hand, then start looking for jobs there.
- Look for jobs in quick license states, and then if you find a job, get the license there afterwards.
- Get a few different licenses up front to open up your options before starting to look for jobs.
Although this process can be cumbersome, it is still doable. Many therapists don’t have near the trouble Julia and I have had, especially those traveling by themselves. Jared and Whitney had a fairly easy time with licensing and job finding for the first 2+ years, and have only recently run into some hiccups. If you play your cards right, you’ll still have a great experience as a travel therapist, as long as you’re somewhat flexible and willing to go with the flow if setbacks do happen.
Let us know what strategies have worked or failed for you for licensing! We are always open to hearing ideas from fellow travelers. Have questions for us about licensing? Send us a message!