Avoiding Bad Job Environments as a Travel Therapist

Combating the Stereotype

We often hear this idea from current therapists and students that travel therapists are expected to go into bad environments in their travel jobs. Have you heard this before? That all travel jobs are terrible clinics and work environments, and that “there’s a reason they need travelers”?

The thought process follows these lines: Since travelers make more money, then they should expect that the clinics they go into won’t be as good, or that the situation in the clinic will probably be less than ideal. A similar myth that is frequently told is that travel therapists are worked harder and given more difficult patients than the permanent staff at a facility. While there are certainly cases where these things are true, this has not at all been our experience as travel physical therapists over the past 4.5 years.

When we started traveling as new grad PTs in 2015, we heard all of these same stories and were warned to avoid traveling as new grads; but despite these warnings, we were confident in the path we had chosen. Now, years later, we couldn’t be happier that we made that decision. The vast majority of our contracts have been in clinics that we really enjoyed and have considered going back to in the future. Based on our experience interacting with well over a thousand other travel therapists over the years, we believe that travelers that get into those toxic situations have often not done their research or asked the right questions. We want to change this stereotype and give current and future travel therapists the tools to advocate for themselves and avoid those bad job environments!

Do Your Research

If you’ve read any of my prior articles here or any of my financial articles on FifthWheelPT, it’s probably pretty apparent that I thoroughly research things before making a decision. There are times when this is either good or bad, but in terms of our travel PT careers, this has certainly been a blessing. Before we had ever even graduated from PT school, I had already spent a lot of time researching about travel physical therapy to go into it as informed as I could possibly be. This included the basics, but also things like learning what a reasonable travel PT salary would be, what questions to ask during an interview with a facility, learning how to find a good recruiter and why it’s vital to work with more than one, learning how to solidify a tax home, and how best to approach getting licensed and finding jobs.

Researching these things may seem like common sense to some of you, but after conversations with many travelers in bad situations, I can assure you that it isn’t. In fact, it seems that a large proportion of travel therapists get all of their information from a single recruiter. This is a recipe for disaster, since often recruiters are trying to fill jobs as quickly as possible and not necessarily trying to find a job that is the best fit for the traveler. It may sound like they have your best interest in mind, and the good ones certainly do, but that’s not always the case. It’s extremely important to be informed and to get your information from sources that are as unbiased as possible.

Avoiding Bad Situations

We’ve talked to a number of travel PTs working in outpatient settings that have completely absurd schedules. One in particular we’ve talked to was having patients frequently triple booked throughout the day. That is not only very poor patient care, but also an extremely stressful environment for the therapist. This doesn’t just happen in outpatient though. In skilled nursing, I’ve heard of evaluating therapists that are expected to achieve 95%+ productivity. How?! Other settings can have equally ridiculous situations, but it doesn’t seem to be as common. The important thing to know is that these situations can be avoided, and we’ve had no issue finding good fitting assignments without unrealistic or unethical expectations.

The first step to finding a good clinic that fits you well as a traveler is having all the available options presented to you. This is where working with more than one company/recruiter comes into play. Many travel companies have contracts that are exclusive, meaning that no other travel company has access to those jobs. That’s important to know, because a certain travel company may have a perfect job for you in a great location, but if you aren’t actively job searching with them then you’d never even know it exists. While it’s unreasonable to try to work with a dozen or more companies, talking to 3-4 is reasonable and will ensure that you have an increased number of jobs available to you. On the other hand, many travelers that have a bad experience are working with only one recruiter and are likely only presented with a couple of different job options, and they’re told that if they don’t take one of those then they will probably have to go without work for a while. In some cases depending on your needs and preferences, that may be true, but often those are just the jobs that the recruiter needs to fill most quickly, or might be the only ones that company has, and that is why you’re being presented with only those few.

Once you are presented with a job (or several) that sounds like a good fit for you, then the next critical step is the phone interview with the manager/rehab director. Phone interviews can be intimidating, but they are usually pretty laid back with minimal or no difficult questions like you might receive during a perm job interview. The important thing during the interview is to go into it with a list of questions that YOU need answered prior to determining if the job will work for you. Sometimes the interviewing manager will be trying to get a traveler in the position as quickly as possible, in which case it may turn into you interviewing the manager more than them interviewing you for the position. If you don’t ask the right questions, then you can easily accept a job and really have no idea what you’ll be walking into. This is where you’ll ask about things like productivity, other staff on site, documentation systems, schedule, and job expectations. At this point in our careers, if double booking is expected in the outpatient travel PT job we’re interviewing for, then we’re out. Plus a few other red flags we look out for during the interview, such as PT/PTA ratio, being the only PT (in some cases), and being expected to “take your laptop home to document” (off the clock).

What if the Job Isn’t What You Expected?

Even when you go into an interview as prepared as possible, you’ve done your research, and you ask all the right questions, it’s possible that you get to the clinic and the job isn’t what you were told it would be. This is pretty rare in our experience, because clinics don’t want to waste time training someone for them to just turn around and leave/quit early, but it does happen. This is the situation that the cancellation policy in your travel contract is for. It’s always best to inform your recruiter of the issues you’re having and to do your best to work out a compromise with the clinic director/manager that works for everyone if things aren’t going as expected; but if that isn’t possible, then there’s no shame in ending your contract early and finding something that fits you better, especially if you’re being faced with illegal or unethical situations. Putting in your cancellation notice isn’t something that should be taken lightly because the facility and the travel company will both likely be upset, but if it’s between you leaving early or staying at a job that you’re miserable in (or potentially breaking laws/ethics), then put in your notice!

Don’t Fear Traveling

Bad situations certainly come up as a travel therapist, but if you’re an informed traveler and do your best to ensure that each contract fits you well, then it should be no more common than bad situations at permanent jobs.

The keys to avoiding bad job situations as a traveler are:

  • do your research on travel therapy and the process beforehand
  • allow yourself the largest number of job options possible by working with multiple companies
  • ask the right questions and listen for inconsistencies when interviewing for a travel position

If you do those things then you’ll be well on your way to having a successful and prosperous travel career while avoiding the bad job environments!

If you need help getting started with travel therapy then check out the articles I linked to in this post as well as our Facebook Live videos covering many common questions we get. If you need help finding recruiters you can trust with good companies, fill out this short questionnaire and we’ll do our best to match you with a few great recruiters and companies that should work well for you!

 

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

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Reaching Semi-Retirement in Three Years as a Travel Therapist: Jared’s Story

Written by: Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

The Past

Education

I spent a total of 8 years in college (3 of which were in community college trying to decide my direction in life) which culminated in a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, earned in May of 2015. Even though I was very proud of this accomplishment and the incredible amount of work it took to achieve it, I knew that physical therapy was not something that I would spend the next 20-30 years of my life doing full time. I’ve had various interests throughout my life and knew myself well enough to know that eventually I would likely become bored with physical therapy like so many of my passions in the past.

My Personality

You see, I get consumed with an area of interest for a period of time, before eventually becoming mostly disinterested once I feel that I’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency in the area. I seem to find something I like and throw myself into being the best that I can be in that area, which ultimately leads to me burning out with the pursuit. In my 30 years, this has happened with basketball, chess, video games, diet/nutrition, powerlifting/bodybuilding, and now to some degree physical therapy and finance. I still enjoy all of these things, but I no longer feel an intense urge to learn everything or be “the best” at them anymore like I did with all of them at one point or another in my life. At some juncture, the return on invested time and energy in any area of interest leads to a point of diminishing returns, and this is always where I seem to gradually disengage. At 30 years of age, I still don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but I have accepted it as a part of my personality.

Knowing about this personality trait (flaw?), I was skeptical whether the time and money investment that is synonymous with 3 years of graduate school (after already completing 5 years of undergraduate work) would be worth it when I had no idea how long I would be passionate about the field. I ultimately decided that it was, and I am very happy with where I am now because of the choice. Although, I would be lying if I said I never questioned whether a DPT degree is worth it.

Student Loan Debt

Upon graduation in 2015, I had about $95,000 in student debt from grad school alone, and that included trying my best to be frugal by living at home and commuting to classes. Even though this is a massive sum, it is generally on the low end of the debt range of what many physical therapists graduate with. Terrified by this student debt, I became engrossed by the idea of increasing my income and decreasing my expenses to pay down the loans as quickly as possible.

After hundreds of hours of research and performing my own calculations and projections for the future, I ultimately decided that it would be in my best interest to pay the minimum on my loans while investing heavily in retirement and brokerage accounts. This has turned out to be a very good choice so far, with my student debt growing at an effective rate of about 3.2% per year while on the REPAYE plan, and my investment portfolio growing at a rate of around 9% since I started heavily investing (this was closer to 11% before the big drop in December 2018)… and this isn’t even accounting for the tax savings from utilizing the retirement accounts. This plan isn’t for everyone, of course, but I do think it should be a consideration for those trying to reach financial Independence as soon as possible with a lot of student debt.

Financial Independence

As for financial independence, while researching what to do with my student loans in late 2014, I stumbled upon a couple of blogs talking about saving heavily and retiring early, and I was immediately sold. Once I knew the math behind achieving financial independence and calculated “my FI number,” I knew that was the goal I needed to reach as soon as possible. My main motivation for pursuing financial independence so aggressively was to have as many options as possible for the future in case my interests shifted again and I became passionate about something different and wanted to pursue that.

Traveling Physical Therapy

In my first year of physical therapy school, I researched the options and found that the easiest way to make the most money as a physical therapist, in order to reach my financial independence goal, is by taking travel contracts. In some cases a travel physical therapist can make twice as much or more when compared to a therapist taking a permanent full time job in one location, especially as a new grad.

Whitney, my significant other of over 5 years and also a physical therapist who graduated at the same time as me, also liked the idea of making extra money while going on adventures, moving to and working in new places around the country together. Without a doubt, this was one of the best decisions that either of us have ever made.

Living in a Camper

Finding affordable short term housing at each assignment location can be the biggest difficulty of being a travel therapist, and to combat that we saved our money and paid cash for a fifth wheel camper and truck to haul it after our first 6 months of working and saving aggressively. For the majority of our travel careers, we have lived and traveled in the camper. Whether or not we have come out ahead financially with this decision is still up for debate, but we did enjoy the simplicity of finding somewhere to live while traveling in the fifth wheel and also the consistency of our living arrangement. There have been many pros and cons to traveling in a fifth wheel, but overall we wouldn’t change our decision.

Maximizing My Income and Savings Rate

After having a goal of financial independence in my cross-hairs, I wasn’t content with just making more money as a traveling therapist, so I did everything feasible to minimize my expenses while simultaneously finding ways to make more money along the way. This led to working as many hours as my travel assignments would allow with hundreds of hours of overtime in total over three years, taking part time jobs when available, creating this blog (just as a hobby initially with hopes to eventually generate some income), and going a little overboard with credit card rewards.

In reality, I hustled so much and minimized my expenses to a point that I have been able to save 100% of my income earned from my regular 9-5 travel physical therapy jobs, and even extra on top of that some months. The first two years, I was able to live on just the money earned from credit card/bank account sign up bonus combined with overtime hours and part time work. The last year, to my surprise, the FifthWheelPT blog actually started consistently bringing in enough money to cover all of my living expenses most months.

The Present

After 3 years of living frugally and saving my entire full time paycheck as a travel therapist (each year with a savings rate of between 85-90% of my total income), combined with the investment returns I mentioned above, I officially “semi-retired” in July 2018 at 29 years old. I tracked my progress to financial independence with my monthly “Path to 4%” posts each month for the past 2.5 years along the way, and will continue to do so until I fully reach my “FI number.” Even though I haven’t fully reached that number yet, there were various reasons that I went ahead and transitioned into semi-retirement when I did, with a primary one being our desire to travel internationally.

I refer to what I’m currently doing as “semi-retirement” because I still plan to write on this website, write on the FifthWheelPT blog, andhelp those interested in travel therapy get started, which takes up about 5-10 hours per week, and I will also likely continue to work one travel assignment (3 months) per year to keep my physical therapy skills from getting rusty. I still enjoy the job and helping patients, but I no longer wish to do it full time for the entire year.

We celebrated this semi-retirement with a 5 month trip around the world at the end of 2018, which was a wonderful and eye opening experience. By utilizing credit card points to keep expenses lower while traveling, I was able to spend less than an average of $37/day on the trip, all of which was able to be covered by money brought in from this blog. This meant that I didn’t even have to start withdrawing money from my investment accounts, which was a blessing with the market taking such a hit at the end of 2018! This trip really made us realize that life is short and there is so much that we want to see and do before settling down and having kids. We plan to take several more 3-6 month long trips all over the world for the next few years before deciding what’s next for us. We’re currently planning a 15 week trip to Europe in May, which we are extremely excited about.

The Future

Right now, we still own our fifth wheel and truck, but we are considering selling them between now and May when we leave on our next trip, so that we don’t have to pay personal property taxes, insurance, storage fees, and deal with further depreciation while taking these long trips and not using the truck and camper. I have to admit that this has led to a bit of an identity crisis for me, since many people know me as the “Fifth Wheel PT” now… if we sell it do I have to rename the blog?!

We haven’t worked as physical therapists in 7 months since leaving for our Around the World Trip, but after searching for jobs since we returned to the US in December, Whitney finally found a Travel PT contract about 3 hours from home. She started work this week, however I still don’t have a job lined up as of now. I’m working on trying to set up a short term contract or PRN work in the same area as Whitney. But, if I don’t end up working before leaving on our next trip to Europe in May, then I will most likely find a travel contract in September when we get back from the trip. Although that will mean I will have a 15 month gap in my work history, which I’m a little concerned about.

We plan to go to a few physical therapy conferences each year to network with other therapists and students and talk about travel therapy as well as finances and how these things have so positively impacted our lives. I may not be as ravenous with learning new things about personal finance and investing as I once was, but I still enjoy writing and talking about it. I’m also not nearly as involved with travel therapy as I once was, but I have learned a ton and want to spread the knowledge and let others know that an exciting and lucrative adventure is possible.

I’m considering writing a book in the future about personal finance and investing from the perspective of a physical therapist, and possibly even more specifically from the perspective of a travel therapist, but I don’t know that I have the motivation required to do that right now. Nonetheless, I plan to continue to write about whatever interests me on the FifthWheelPT website and to write articles about travel therapy on this website.

Ultimately I’m grappling with the realization that financial independence and retiring early is really just the beginning, not the end of the journey. With time and brain power freed up to a large extent, I’m not sure where I’ll go from here, but I’m okay with that uncertainty.

Conclusion

It has been a wild ride for both Whitney and me since graduation in 2015. I would have never anticipated doing what I am now back then, but I’m very grateful that things have turned out the way that they have.

I undoubtedly sacrificed on some things to reach semi-retirement so quickly, but by no means was I a “miser,” living an unfulfilling life in those 3 years of saving aggressively. We took dozens of weekend trips all over the east coast (Whitney has written all about those trips here); spent a few days in Canada; stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica for a week; I took my brother to Aruba for his high school graduation; Whitney and I went on a cruise to the Bahamas; and we bought plenty of stuff that we really didn’t need (you know, the American way).

I really didn’t do anything special to get in the position I’m in besides looking for ways to maximize my income and minimize my spending while still having a good time. This combined with a cultivated urge to learn as much as possible in my areas of interest have paid dividends. No two paths are the same, but I feel that just about everyone has room to make headway on these fronts.

Thank you for reading this. If you’re a regular reader, then I hope that you have a little better insight into who I am, and if you’re a new reader, then this should be a good introduction to me and my life. Feel free to reach out to me with questions or comments!

 

This article was originally published on our personal blog. You can learn more about Jared’s story by visiting our blog at FifthWheelPT.com.