Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT
If you’re worried about making mistakes when trying to find your first travel therapy contract, you’re in good company. When Whitney and I first started working as travel PTs as new grads over 4 years ago, we certainly made more than our fair share of mistakes. Information on travel therapy was scarce at that time, with very few resources available to new and existing travel therapists. We created this website to help new travelers learn from our mistakes and to go into the process much better informed than we were when starting out.
No matter how well informed you are however, finding your first travel therapy contract can be intimidating to say the least. This is especially the case for new grad travelers. Between getting licensed in different states, trying to sort through seemingly endless numbers of travel companies and recruiters, trying to understand what reasonable pay is for your situation, and trying to find a facility that will help foster your clinical growth there’s a lot that can go wrong. Hopefully we can help you navigate these waters by helping you avoid some common mistakes. Here are 5 of the biggest mistakes that we and the travelers we’ve mentored over the years have made when searching for first contracts!
1. Getting low-balled on pay!
This is the most common issue we encounter with new travel therapists. If you’re unsure how travel pay works then check out this comprehensive guide to travel therapy pay that breaks everything down before continuing. New travelers are an easy target for travel companies looking to make higher profits and therefore pay the travelers less than they’re worth for a few different reasons. Usually new travelers are the least informed about the whole process and subsequently are most likely to take everything the recruiter says as gospel, whether it’s actually good advice or not. It’s vital to keep in mind that recruiters are paid by selling you on their company and on jobs first and foremost. Many times the recruiter will also have an incentive (bonuses monthly/yearly) for keeping higher margins, so they do their best to pay you as little as you’re willing to accept as a traveler. Of course many of them also want to do what’s best for the traveler as well in order to keep a good reputation and to ensure a contract with less issues, but that’s not always the case. Some companies seem to prey on new travelers and especially new grads by making huge profits off of them upfront with very low pay before they start to learn more about the industry and what’s reasonable. These companies are known to offer pay packages as low as $1,200/week after taxes to new travelers (PT/OT/SLP), and then suddenly be able to increase that pay by $300-$400/week or more once the traveler stands up for themselves. Dozens of people that we’ve mentored have gone through this exact situation. If you’re an informed traveler that is presented with a very low pay package, and you confront the recruiter about it, and then suddenly they’re able to offer a much higher pay package, that’s someone you want to get far away from. You won’t be able to trust any of their pay packages in the future!
New travelers are also an easy target for low balling because they’re often comparing their pay to prior permanent jobs they’ve had or friends that are working permanent jobs. That’s a mistake! When comparing to a permanent job, even the lowest travel pay packages will look amazing. There’s a reason that travel therapists should make significantly more (sometimes double or higher) than permanent jobs! Our benefits packages are far inferior to permanent positions (no vacation or sick time), we have much less job security (jobs can be cut short occasionally with little warning), we have to pack and move often (a hassle for even the most experienced and minimalist travelers), and we have to duplicate housing expenses (having a tax home). Those factors need to be offset with high pay for traveling to be a viable option.
2. Worrying more about the money than the job!
After that first mistake you may be thinking that pay is the most important thing to consider on your first contract, but that’s not the case. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the travelers that we’ve mentored in the past become become so fixated on getting the very best pay at their first travel job that they end up taking a job at a facility that isn’t the best just because it pays well. This is a big mistake!
You should ensure that you aren’t being significantly low balled, but aside from that, pay shouldn’t be your primary concern. It’s much more important to find a job that fits you well than it is to make an extra $100/week when you’re already being paid a reasonable amount. A contract with a supportive environment, some ramp up time, support from the manager/other staff, reasonable productivity or number of patient’s per day, and in a location that you are likely to enjoy will all have a much more profound impact on your experience and impression of travel therapy than the extra $100/week. Sometimes facilities will pay really high for a reason, which may be that they can’t get someone to stay there due to the situation inside the clinic. We’ve talked to and heard stories from dozens of travelers that quit traveling after their first contract due to being frustrated by a bad experience, and that’s a tragedy. This isn’t always because they were dead set on getting top dollar, but sometimes it is. It’s best to focus on putting yourself in a great spot than to get the highest pay possible.
3. Taking a job in a setting in which you aren’t familiar!
One of the things about traveling that appeals to new travel therapists is being able to try out new settings with only a 3 month commitment. If you’re someone that isn’t sure what setting fits you the best, then this experimentation can be a blessing. Even for those, like me, that are relatively certain which setting they like the most, getting out of the rut of practicing in one setting can be invigorating. I love outpatient and initially wanted all of my contracts to be in OP but was surprised to find that I also enjoy home health and will likely take some contracts in that setting in the future.
Despite this wonderful flexibility that comes along with traveling, I’d advise against jumping into a brand new setting as your first travel job, especially as a new grad! Ideally your first travel job should be in the setting that you’re most comfortable with, the reason for this being that it will make the transition into travel therapy much more comfortable. Keep in mind that as a traveler, EVERYTHING will be brand new to you. New city, new living situation, new patients, new coworkers (accompanied by the possibility of new work drama), new documentation system, new commute, new gym, new grocery store… you get the point. For some travelers this can be overwhelming, and adding a brand new setting to the mix can easily make things more difficult than they need to be.
After the first contract, even though everything will still be new on the next contract, you’ll be more prepared and more confident in your ability to handle it. Once the nerves from all the newness start to wear off a couple of contracts into your travel therapy career, that’s a great time to start experimenting with different settings. But we recommend getting a couple travel contracts under your belt first!
4. Not asking the right questions on your interview with the facility!
An interview for a travel contract may sound scary to you. I know that it certainly did for me when starting out, and I still get a little nervous for them even over 4 years later. The good news is that these interviews are often nothing like any interview you’ve had for a job in the past. Out of dozens of travel therapy interviews, only ONE of them has been what I would consider a “real interview” with questions about my strengths and weaknesses as well as other typical interview questions. Many times, this conversation with the manager will be less about them asking you about your qualifications as a therapist and more about them trying to sell you on the facility and the location. Often the manager is eager to get a travel therapist in the facility to fill a position that is vacant and causing other staff members to be overworked. They’re motivated to get someone in there as quickly as possible, and usually that means they’ve gotten just about all the info they need to know about you from your resume and are now just trying to see when you can start.
In some ways this is great, but in other ways it can lead to some less than ideal situations. On one hand it’s a huge relief to not be badgered by tough interview questions, but on the other hand it means that the ball is firmly in your court in regards to making sure the facility is a good fit and that you ask all the relevant questions. Usually this interview will be your only contact with the facility before the first day when you show up for work… assuming you accept the position. Be sure to go into the phone interview with a list of questions written down and take notes on the answer you’re given. I’ve learned from experience that I can’t be trusted to remember everything I need to ask (especially in the heat of the moment) so having a written list is vital for me. If you’re unsure of what questions you should be asking, here’s a list of what we ask for all our of contracts.
5. Not having another therapist of your discipline at the facility!
This applies to all new travel therapists but is especially important for new grads. No matter how experienced or confident you are in a setting, when you go to a brand new facility you’re going to have questions. For me these questions usually involve things like the documentation system, post surgical protocols for the surgeons sending patients, where equipment is, how discharges are handled, scheduling patients, and how best to manage support staff at the facility. Having another therapist there of your discipline is the ideal person to go to for all of these questions because they can relate to exactly the position you’re in. Many times things will pop up that you wouldn’t have anticipated you’d be unsure about, but nonetheless checking with someone else to put your mind at ease is nice. It’s true that sometimes support staff or therapists/assistants of other disciplines can answer these questions, but sometimes they can’t or their answers don’t apply to your situation.
As a new grad, in addition to everything mentioned above, you’ll undoubtedly run into clinical situations where getting some feedback or bouncing ideas off another therapist is extremely helpful. Even as a relatively experienced clinician, I still run into situations where I think I have a good handle on a patient situation but still want input from someone else to check my biases.
The longer you practice as a therapist, the less importance this is likely to have for you, but I can guarantee that even the most experienced clinicians will have situations where they wish there was someone else there of the same discipline to consult with. On your first contract, it’s a great idea to ensure another therapist of your discipline will be there to make things easier on you.
There are many other mistakes made by travelers when looking for their first contracts, but in our opinion these are the big ones to watch out for and avoid. No matter how well you prepare and inform yourself before starting your first travel contract, you will almost certainly make some mistakes and that’s okay! Travel therapy is a seemingly never ending process of learning and growing, so just take the mistakes and learn from them for next time.
If you’ve gotten value from this article, please comment and let us know as well as share with fellow therapists interested in traveling so that they can avoid as many mistakes as possible as well! If you need help getting in touch with recruiters that will have your back, then fill out this form and we’ll help you out! If you have questions about these mistakes or anything else travel therapy related, feel free to send us a message.
You can also follow along with our travels on Instagram @TravelTherapyMentor (with occasional giveaways!) and tune into our weekly Facebook Live videos on the Travel Therapy Mentor Facebook page to learn more about travel therapy. We did a live video on this exact topic a couple weeks ago that goes a little more in-depth than this article!