6 Ways to Ensure Success as a New Grad Travel Therapist

Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC

1. Do your research and maintain realistic expectations.

Travel therapy is amazing… most of the time. As with anything, it can have its pros and cons. While most parts of being a travel therapist are an incredible adventure, there are still parts that aren’t always fun. It’s important that you do your research to understand all the nuances that go into being a travel therapist before jumping in. This goes for anyone looking into travel therapy, but especially new grads. If you plan to take a travel job as your first position after graduation, you need to know what to expect.

We recommend going into travel therapy with an open and adventurous mind. Not every assignment will be perfect; not every city will be your favorite; you won’t always have the easiest time with housing; there’s always a chance your contract could get cancelled; and sometimes you may question your decision to take on the life of a travel therapist. But if you go into this journey of travel therapy knowing this up front and are willing to roll with the punches for the sake of traveling the country, earning more money, and having unforgettable adventures, you will be successful and join the thousands of other healthcare travelers out there living and loving this lifestyle!

2. Connect with great travel therapy companies and recruiters.

If you talk to any travel therapist, they’ll tell you that your recruiter and company can make or break your experience with traveling! This is of utmost importance for new grads, because you will want support and mentorship as you begin to look for your first few travel jobs. You need a recruiter who gets you, your wants, and your needs as a new grad therapist. You want a recruiter who will be in your corner, going to bat for you with your best interest in mind, not just the best interest of the travel company or the client (facility). Many travel therapy companies offer some form of new graduate mentorship program, whether in the form of a mentor by phone or by placing you at “new grad friendly” facilities. These are things you will want to consider when choosing a company.

For more information on how to best choose a travel therapy company and recruiter, check out this article, or send us a message and we can give you personalized company and recruiter recommendations for you based on your situation!

3. Find a great first travel therapy job.

Your first few travel therapy jobs (or in the case of a new grad, first jobs period) will be crucial in your success as both a clinician and as a travel therapist. Sadly, we have heard horror stories of people having one terrible experience with travel therapy that turned them away from traveling again, and pushed them to take a permanent position, even though they had planned to continue traveling. This is unfortunate, and usually the result of them not knowing exactly what they were getting into on their first assignment and/or having a bad recruiter.

For your first job (or first few jobs), we recommend you work closely with your recruiter(s) to find a facility that is going to provide a supportive environment for you as a new grad. This may include having another therapist of your same discipline on staff (another PT, OT, SLP, PTA, or COTA); having more of a ramp up period in your caseload with training provided; and making sure the productivity expectations are reasonable. These are all important things to find out during your phone interview. For specific questions to ask during an interview, check out this article.

As mentioned before, a great recruiter should be able to assist you in this process of identifying supportive facilities. They may even have prior experience with facilities where they have placed new grads before that have been successful. Most importantly, a good recruiter will support your decision to decline an offer if it doesn’t sound like a good fit for you, and they will not push you into taking a job that’s not right for you just to secure a placement for themselves.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and never stop learning.

As a new grad travel therapist, it is important that you are ready to be an independent clinician and not have your “hand held,” but at the same time you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and mentorship when you need it. This could be from your co-workers at your facility; through the clinical liaison provided by the travel company by phone; and even by reaching out to former professors, clinical instructors, and classmates for consultation when you encounter tough clinical situations.

Also don’t forget to utilize a variety of resources (textbooks, CEU courses, websites, blogs, podcasts, Facebook networking groups, etc.) to continue learning once you start practicing on your own. Being a student working under a clinical instructor is very different than being out on your own! There is a huge learning curve when you first get started. You don’t have to know it all when you first start practicing, regardless if you choose to take a travel or a perm job right out of school!

5. Stand up for yourself and your professional license.

New grad or not, you worked very hard to get to the point of being a licensed clinician! Regardless of whether you’re in a travel job or perm job, you need to maintain integrity, be ethical, and follow the law. If you are being asked to practice in an unethical or illegal manner, you must stand up for yourself and practice the way that you feel is best. You are ultimately responsible for your actions and your license. Do not be dragged down by poor management or not-so-great co-workers.

There are many examples of how you could be placed in a bad situation where your ethics and legality are tested. For example, starting at a new clinic where they want you to sign off on documentation for patients that you haven’t seen before, or for visits that occurred before your start date. This can be a common event when you’re filling in as a traveler. It’s important you do not sign off on anything for which you were not present, including co-signing assistant notes. Another example would be feeling pressured to work off the clock to get your documentation done, or add additional time to your evaluation codes to account for documentation time, which is sadly a very common practice in many Skilled Nursing Facilities. These things are illegal, and regardless of what the other staff “has always done,” if it doesn’t feel right to you, it’s probably not! We would encourage you to reach out to an unbiased third party to discuss any potential ethical or legal questions you may have. Again that could mean reaching out to the clinical liaison by phone or to a former professor or clinical instructor.

If you’re facing ethical dilemmas or problems in your facility, don’t be afraid to talk to you director of rehabilitation or your recruiter if appropriate. You can’t always predict how a clinic will be before you start working there, but you can always get out of a bad situation if you are being asked to practice in an illegal or unethical way.

6. Work smarter, not harder.

There are some great ways you can optimize and be an efficient therapist, without always going over and beyond. This can be especially important when you’re starting out as a new grad travel therapist. Often when you start as a new grad, you want to do everything perfectly, including doing all the fancy treatment techniques and being extremely thorough in your documentation. But sometimes for the sake of time management and being successful at a new clinic, you need to go back to the basics.

Don’t overachieve on documentation so you can maintain good time management. Just make sure you document the appropriate amount, but don’t go over and beyond or be too wordy. Time management is going to be a huge key to success as a new grad travel therapist, and you definitely don’t want to be working off the clock to get notes done.

Focus on functional and effective treatments, while emphasizing building a strong patient rapport. Don’t worry too much at first about using every new fad treatment out there. Often times it’s your relationships and demeanor that matter the most to be successful and well-received, by both your patients and your co-workers, not how good you are at the latest manual therapy techniques and the coolest exercises.

Take advantage of co-treatments when applicable in an inpatient setting, to learn from your colleagues from other disciplines and get ideas. This can be extremely helpful as a new grad, especially in a travel therapy position where you’re not only learning how to be an independent practitioner, but you’re also having to learn a new location, staff, caseload, etc!

Last, do no harm! Focus on being the best therapist you can be, while ensuring you put patients’ health and safety first and foremost. It’s better to do a basic treatment, or do nothing at all, than to do something you’re uncertain about and cause harm to a patient.

Conclusion

Traveling as a new grad can be a wonderful experience and a great way to get ahead start on your finances, but it’s vital to go in well-informed and with realistic expectations about what the process will entail. Finding a great company and recruiter is paramount to your success and sanity as a travel therapist. Be picky about your first job to make sure that it’s a good fit for you and will provide you with the best opportunity to succeed. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other therapists both in person and online for help or ideas with regards to patient care, and spend some time continuing your education to be the best possible clinician. Always stand up for your ethics and protect your license. And finally, don’t burn yourself out by working long hours being a perfectionist with documentation and treatment. Of course, include the key components in your notes and provide sound treatment methods, but it’s important to be efficient with your time to have a good experience as a travel therapist.

If you have questions about anything regarding getting started with your travel therapy journey, feel free to contact us. If you need help finding a great recruiter and company to help make your travel therapy career a success, we can help you with that as well.

How Much Money Do Travel Therapists Make? The Comprehensive Guide to Travel Therapy Pay

Written by Jared Casazza, PT, DPT

Often the reason that people choose to pursue a career as a travel therapist, or even just decide to work a few travel therapy contracts, is to make more money. For people coming out of school with massive student loan debt, finding a way to deal with that debt is a primary concern, and travel therapy is a great way to make more money especially when starting out as a new grad. This leads to the most common question people have when first researching the pros and cons of travel therapy: How much money do travel therapists make?

Understanding Pay Differences for Travelers

Travel therapist pay is a little different from that of permanent full time positions, and therefore it commonly leads to some confusion for those first looking into pay differences between travel and permanent positions. Travel therapists’ compensation is made up of a combination of taxable pay and untaxed money (stipends for housing, meals, and incidentals) assuming that you meet the requirements for receiving the untaxed stipends. Since part of the money is untaxed, this leads to significantly higher net pay for a travel therapist. This is best illustrated through examples of each scenario.

Permanent Job Pay

First, let’s break down what a traditional pay package would look like at a permanent physical therapist job. This scenario would be comparable for an OT or SLP job as well. For PTA and COTA, the values would be lower, but the principle is the same.

Many new grads PTs accept a job with hourly pay in the $30-$35/hour range, but of course this can vary depending on the setting and the area of the country as well as your negotiating skills. I’ve talked to physical therapists that have taken a permanent job as a new grad making as low as $20/hour and others that have negotiated $40/hour, so the true range is massive, but around $30-$35 seems to be the average. We’ll take the top of that average range and find the gross yearly pay for someone working a permanent full time job making $35/hour:

  • $35/hour X 40 hours per week X 52 weeks per year = $72,800 annual salary

Gross pay is pretty straight forward and simple to understand, but determining how much of that gross pay you actually get to keep (i.e. net pay) is harder to understand and often overlooked when therapists talk about their hourly compensation or salary. Let’s look at how much of that money is yours after Uncle Sam takes his cut. The total percentage will depend on where you live, but on average across the country, a person making $75k is going to have about 25% taken out for taxes.  Click here for more information on tax rates in major cities across the country.  Here’s a look at the permanent physical therapist’s net pay after taxes based on the average 25% tax rate:

  • $72,800 X .75= $54,600 annual salary
  • $54,600/52= $1,050/week (if divided out into weekly pay in order to better compare to travel jobs )

This is an approximate bring home pay per week based on a $35 per hour job working 40 hours per week.  If you have offers for higher salary positions than that, feel free to use the calculations above to estimate your pay.  Note that all 401k (traditional), HSA contributions as well as all medical, dental, life, disability costs will come out of the gross salary.

For a more specific example we’ll use Virginia’s state tax rate. Not only is this where Whitney and I live and maintain our tax home, but it’s also near the middle of the range as far as state income taxes go, which makes it closer to the average for everyone. Pay Check City has a great tool to use for your specific scenario and is the site I’ll use to calculate the take home pay below.

paycheckcity example.png

$1,024/week would be the weekly take home pay for a permanent physical therapist in the above scenario who lives in Virginia, which is pretty close to the $1,050/week using the 25% rule of thumb above. For quick calculations, multiplying your salary or hourly rate by .75 is a good way to get an estimate of how much of your gross pay you actually keep.

Travel Job Pay

Now let’s take a look at how travel therapist pay differs. Travel pay consists of a few different parts:

  1. Hourly Rate (taxable)
  2. Housing allowance (not taxed)
  3. Meal and incidental allowance (not taxed)

Travel pay will generally be presented in a total gross or net weekly amount. If a gross weekly pay number is presented, then that would include the hourly taxable rate x 40 hours, then adding in the housing, meals, and incidentals stipends. If the net pay number is given, then that is usually calculated using the 25% tax rule of thumb above, which as we saw with the specific example isn’t always accurate, but it’s a good estimate of what the traveler’s tax rate might be. This would be gross pay x .75 then adding in the housing, meals, and incidentals stipends. If you know that your tax rate is different, for example if you have a family, then when a recruiter presents you with a gross and/or net weekly pay number, you need to be sure to run the numbers based on your tax rate.

Here are examples of two potential travel PT pay packages that Travis recently received to further help illustrate how travel therapist pay actually works:

Position 1:

  • Hourly rate: $20/hour (taxed)
  • Housing allowance: $630/week (not taxed)
  • Meals and Incidentals allowance: $230/week (not taxed)

Total take home pay (net pay using 25% rule of thumb above for the hourly wage) per week before deductions for benefits: $1,460 per week

Position 2:

  • Hourly rate: $20/hour (taxed)
  • Housing allowance: $730/week (not taxed)
  • Meals and Incidentals allowance: $330/week (not taxed)

Total take home pay (net pay using 25% rule of thumb above for the hourly wage) per week before deductions for benefits: $1,660 per week

How are Hourly Rates and Stipend Amounts Determined?

You may be looking at the travel pay package examples above and thinking, “If the stipends aren’t taxed, then why not make them as high as possible with a lower hourly wage to maximize net pay?” That’s a great question and something that I wondered when first starting out, which led to me doing a lot of research on the topic. There are a couple of reasons why this is illegal based on IRS tax laws.

The taxable hourly rate should be a reasonable amount for the job position in order to avoid “wage recharacterization.” To read the IRS definition of wage recharacterization, check out this link, but basically it means avoiding taxes by changing compensation from a taxable hourly wage to a nontaxed stipend. There is debate about what a reasonable wage is for various therapist positions, and it’s always best to consult a tax expert if you’re in doubt, but us here at Travel Therapy Mentor (all of whom are travel physical therapists) choose to keep our taxable wages at $20/hour or above to be safe and not take any risks as far as wage recharacterization is concerned for a physical therapist. This number may be different based on your profession and comfort level with the IRS law interpretation.

The other reason it isn’t possible to have massive stipends and a very low taxable wage is due to the GSA guidelines. The GSA determines the maximum allowable stipends for housing, meals, and incidentals in different areas throughout the country, and it applies to anyone traveling for work, including travel therapists. These numbers vary drastically depending on the area of the country you’ll be working in due to variance in the cost of living in each location. Keep in mind that these are the maximum amounts and not necessarily how much you will receive in stipends for that area. Depending on how much the facility that you’ll be working at as a traveler is able to pay for the position, you may receive significantly less than the maximum amounts. We always consult the GSA website before accepting a job offer to make sure that the stipends we will be receiving are not above the maximum amounts for that particular area.

These guidelines exist to keep people honest and not allow people to take advantage of the tax code, which is a good thing even though it’s a bummer that we can’t increase our pay more by paying even less in taxes as travel therapists. This leads to the next topic: what offers can you expect to receive as far as pay is concerned as a travel therapist?

Average Pay for Travel Therapists

Just as with permanent positions, travel pay can vary significantly depending on setting and location. I’ve talked to other physical therapists that make as low as $1,200/week take home pay and others that make as much as $2,200/week take home. That’s quite the range! And again, this will vary based on your specialty (PT, OT, SLP, PTA, COTA).

In general, the highest paying contracts are seen with home health and lowest paying are skilled nursing facilities, in our experience. Also in general, jobs on the west coast pay more than the east coast, and jobs in rural areas pay more than cities and urban areas. These observations were a surprise to us when starting out, since this is often different than the factors affecting pay in permanent positions. Taking the above into account, it’s easy to see why someone working a home health job in a rural location in California would make a lot more than someone working a skilled nursing job in Richmond, VA. Another factor that affects pay significantly is how desperate the facility is to fill the position quickly. Whitney and I once found contracts on the east coast at a wonderful outpatient facility in a great location that paid us very well because they needed the positions filled very quickly and we were ready to go!

With the above factors in mind, an average pay range for a traveling physical therapist is between $1,600-$1,800/week after taxes in our experience based on the US as a whole and all settings considered. Whitney and I have personally averaged around $1,650/week after taxes over the past three years while taking contracts exclusively on the east coast and almost always in outpatient facilities. The range has been between $1,500/week to $1,900/week.

We don’t recommend any traveling PT’s, OT’s and SLP’s, even new grads, take pay packages less than $1,500/week after taxes in any area. Some companies and recruiters will do their best to take advantage of new travelers, new grads especially, by offering them very low pay, knowing that they don’t really have a baseline of what pay should be yet as a traveler. This is why having a mentor in your corner as a new traveler is vital to keep from getting taken advantage of when starting out! Reach out to us with questions and for recruiter/company recommendations and we will be happy to help you!

How to Accurately Compare Pay for Travel Jobs to Permanent Positions

When comparing pay from a travel job to a permanent job, I often find that people get confused by the weekly take home amounts quoted for travel contracts. An individual that has never taken a travel contract will see $1,650/week take home, multiply that by 52 (weeks in a year) and then compare that to their permanent job gross salary and determine that travel isn’t worth it.

As we figured out above, that is no where near an accurate comparison. You have to either convert the gross permanent pay into a weekly take home amount (using the 25% rule of thumb above or the PayCheckCity site) as we did above, or convert the weekly take home pay of a travel therapist into an equivalent amount if it was a permanent position. The second is a more difficult calculation with no easy rule of thumb since tax rates increase significantly as pay gets higher, but luckily PayCheckCity makes it much easier using their “Gross Up” calculator. Let’s see what gross pay you’d have to make at a permanent job to equal the $1,650/week after taxes that Whitney and I have averaged while traveling.

Paycheckcity example2

We would have to make a staggering gross pay of $2,390/week at a permanent job to bring home the same $1,650/week take home pay that we have while traveling! That’s the equivalent of $60/hour or a salary of well over $120,000/year at a permanent job! When expressed in these terms, it’s easy to see how much more lucrative travel therapy is over a permanent job and how I was able to save over $100,000 in 1.5 years as a new grad travel therapist.

Based on our experiences and the hundreds of others travel therapists that we have talked to and mentored, it’s not unrealistic for a new grad travel therapist to make 1.5-2 times as much as they would if they took a full time permanent job right out of school.

The Bottom Line on Perm vs. Travel Jobs

It is important to remember that despite the significantly higher pay, there are some trade offs to traveling, which Whitney did a great job of outlining in her pros and cons article mentioned above. The big downsides to remember in terms of pay are that travel therapists don’t get paid time off for vacations like permanent therapists do, and it can be difficult to move from place to place in only a weekend, meaning that sometimes unwanted time off between contracts is inevitable. These factors eat into the pay of travelers, but even so, it is still significantly higher with all things considered.

I hope this helps clarify the differences in pay for permanent vs travel jobs. Please contact us or ask questions in the comments below if we can help you further understand pay, or if you have suggestions for travel topics for us to cover in the future.

What has your experience been as far as pay for permanent jobs or travel jobs? Do the numbers in the article match what you’ve seen? Let us know in the comments!