If you’re training to become a physical therapist, this is probably one of the best questions to ask the PT you shadow: “If you could do it all over again, would you go into physical therapy or a different field?” Someone asked me that recently, and it made me wonder how to respond.
I started my career outside of PT; right out of college I worked in finance for 5 years before starting PT school. If this person had asked me “Why did you become a physical therapist,” I could have just shared the video below.
Instead, I was asked a slightly different, but in my opinion, smarter question: If you could do it all over again, would you go into physical therapy?
If I’m honest with you, I wish I had considered a different route than the one I actually took.
While I don’t regret becoming a PT, there are some choices I made that I wish I had done differently. Were I to counsel a younger version of myself, or even a prospective PT-school student, I’d try to help them avoid the following regrets.
What I Regret About Becoming a Physical Therapist
#1. I Should Have Paid Less for School
If I could start my career over again, I would have made it a priority to go to an affordable state school. I touch on this a lot, but physical therapists do themselves a grave disservice by taking on student debt that’s more than 1x their potential starting salary. For most PTs, the starting salary is less than $80,000.
If I had thought about this tradeoff, maybe I would have re-considered the career. However, if you’re dead set on this path, my advice is to keep your debt-to-income ratio less than 1:1.
Everybody’s story is unique, and my path to PT school won’t look the same as yours. For instance, I started PT school with too much debt to begin with; I had undergrad as well as grad school debt, since I finished an MBA right out of my undergrad.
By going to a highly-ranked, private PT school, I added over $100,000 to my total balance. I don’t recommend this. If you’re a new student interested in physical therapy, pay attention to how much debt you’re taking on or adding to your overall debt.
From a cost standpoint, I would absolutely become a PT again so long as I kept the total costs under $80,000 – which is totally possible.
#2. I Should Have Shadowed More PTs – and Health Professionals in General
Let’s say I had all the money in the world, and the cost of PT school was no longer an issue. Knowing what I know now, would I pick a different career in healthcare – or an entirely different field?
Physical therapy is a great career, but it can get dark – or dull – depending on the situation of the practice itself and your personal engagement with it.
Find a Good Work Environment
When it comes to the actual day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of a physical therapist, there’s a wide range, and honestly, there are some jobs you could not pay me enough to do. Some private physical therapy clinics maintain absolutely awful work environments and ethical practices.
On the other hand, there are aspects of PT that I really enjoy and would even do for free – were it not for my student loans and bills. (Debt isn’t paid with warm fuzzy feelings, so it’s important to get paid a fair wage to do physical therapy.)
All that aside, however, it’s important to feel satisfied in your job, to come home feeling like you made a difference in people’s lives. You want to sleep at night knowing you didn’t just pad the pockets of an unethical clinic owner. It’s not ok to have to see 2 or 3 patients at a time, bouncing them between therapy aides, so that the sleazy owner can maximize profits.
By shadowing more PTs in more clinics, younger me might have been able to catch a glimpse of this “dark side” of the physical therapy profession before I finished my schooling.
Consider Other Specialties or Professions in Healthcare
At this point in my career, I feel fortunate to say that I enjoy the work I do in physical therapy. My preferred choices for PT work is as a home health physical therapist, which I’ve been for several years, and in a hospital outpatient orthopedic clinic, the setting in which I shadowed as a DPT candidate.
Within a 6-month timeframe towards the end of my schooling, I spent 200 hours shadowing a physical therapist in an outpatient orthopedic clinic. That experience gave me crucial, realistic expectations for the type of work I do now.
As you discern whether a career in physical therapy is right for you, keep an open mind about other types of clinic settings, therapy specialities, and work environments.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of shadowing multiple physical therapists, and I’d even recommend shadowing other healthcare professionals like PAs, nurses, and physicians. You might discover that you like the work of a sports medicine physician, but you won’t really know until you shadow one.
If I could do it again, I would shadow a few more healthcare professionals. I don’t say this because I regret my choice to become a physical therapist, but I honestly don’t feel like I gave myself the opportunity to explore. Who knows? I might have found something that I enjoy better.
#3. I Would Have Prepared for Burnout
I want to address the underlying fear that all twenty-somethings face as they carve out a new career, no less budding PTs: The fear that you might regret your choice to become a physical therapist.
I’d be lying if I said that every physical therapist was happy with their job.
In fact, many PTs experience drastic burnout, as do countless physicians and other healthcare professionals. There are hundreds of therapists each month looking for non-clinical jobs because they don’t want to practice in the clinic anymore.
Shoot, within two months of my first job as a PT, I quit. I disagreed with what was going on in the clinic, ethically and professionally. The distaste left me wondering, “Did I just make a giant mistake getting into this profession?”
Had I understood the reality of clinician burnout, I think I still would have chosen the career. I just would have been more prepared for the disappointments and disenchantments that come from poor work environments. Perhaps I would have handled them better, or avoided the burnout in the first place.
There Are Different Reasons for Burnout
There’s a risk of burnout in almost any career, but it’s especially prevalent in healthcare. Burnout can be caused by several factors, one of which is the mismatched ethical practices I mentioned before. As a PT, you may encounter situations that don’t align with your personal ethics, and those mismatches can make you want to quit.
However, burnout can also just be a result of boredom. If you stop pushing yourself to improve your skills, you’ll fall into a spiral of boredom and monotony that leaves you wondering if the grass is greener in a different career.
I Would Do It Again, Just Differently
Here’s what I don’t regret about my path to becoming a PT: I don’t regret my commitment to study things that interest me. Early in my career those interests were business and finance, and they are still primary pursuits.
My path to become a physical therapist wasn’t without its regrets, but it was nevertheless an avenue I followed out of intrinsic interest – one of the best, most sustainable reasons to pursue a career.
I don’t regret how I pursued new challenges and explored opportunities by shadowing a physical therapist. I’m glad I spent months learning more about this area of healthcare and weighing whether it was something I was personally interested in doing.
Most of all, I don’t regret the different work experiences I’ve had, from carving out a career in finance to becoming a physical therapist and building multiple businesses along the way. When I look back, I can see how all of those experiences have shaped my skill set, my interests, and my unique way to make a difference through the work I enjoy.
Although I admit I would have done some things a little differently if I could rewind the clock, the truth is that I don’t regret any of my work or continuing education experiences. They’ve all played a part, good or bad, in shaping where I am today.
Whether or not you decide to become a physical therapist or a physician – or a nurse, a banker, or an engineer for that matter – the important thing is to realize that all of your experiences and interests shape the work you end up doing.
Your career may not turn out exactly as you envisioned. Don’t be so quick to call a career choice a regret just because it looks a little different than what you expected.