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job interview curveball

How to Handle this Job Interview Curveball

A job interview curveball cost me a job.

One story I like to share is my first physical therapy job interview coming right out of school. I already had one interview with the hiring manager for a large hospital that had many different clinics in the area. I met the staff of their outpatient clinic and they were very friendly. I scheduled the follow up with just the staff of the clinic several days later.

I was excited for this second interview and was ready to start working as a real therapist.

I sat at a large table with the entire staff of the clinic, which included several therapists. I had rehearsed several questions that I thought I would be asked, so I felt ready, but I was not expecting to do this in front of a group of people.

I do remember the interview going rather well, and along the lines that I had expected, but then I got a question that I was not prepared for. The therapist sitting next to me looked at me and asked, “What are you going to bring to our clinic?”

I was speechless and I sat there, not saying a word, for what felt like an hour. I was running everything I could though my mind to try to figure out exactly what I could bring to this clinic.

I thought “what CAN I bring to this clinic?” I do not have any certifications or advanced skills, this was my first job, and all I really know is what I was taught in PT school and on my rotations. I fumbled along with some rambling answer about some of the skills I was taught and what I felt like I could do.

I do not remember much from the rest of the job interview because I was still stuck on that curveball question. I left the interview disheartened because I knew I was not going to get the job due to that one question. I drove home still thinking about that question and wondering what was going to happen next.

I did get a call a few days later and I was not surprised that I was not offered the job.

Now everything did turn out alright. I found another job not long after and was hired. I have since then grown tremendously in my career but I do find myself looking back to that interview and mulling over that question.

I did spend many years looking at it from all angles to see if at that time either I or some other new graduate could have actually answered that question precisely. The answer did eventually unfold but it was one that was quite unexpected. It was not actually an answer but rather another question.

What I could have responded to that question with “that I bring enthusiasm, passion, fresh knowledge and skills along with an eagerness that only a new graduate possesses. But I would also would like to ask YOU what can working here do for me in my professional growth?”

The second portion of that response may seem a tad strange but let us look a little further into that.

Once you graduate from school you are as green as green can be. The only real experience you have is maybe the volunteer hours or tech job that you had before school and the clinical internships you did while in school. Your head is full of knowledge from both your teachers and the many months you have put into studying for your license.

In all honestly, you are a general therapist; you have a little bit of knowledge across a wide area of subjects.

Do not think of this as a bad thing. This is how your schooling is laid out to allow you experience in as many areas as possible so you can find the area that you believe would fit you the best. Very few students leave school as “rock stars” in the job force that have a high degree of expertise in a certain area.

All students leaving school, however, have the basic knowledge but just not the experience. And this is where that employer comes into play.

When I meet a new graduate, sitting there with a degree in one hand and their license in the other, I can feel their anticipation. They have a hunger to start using everything they have been taught to change lives and make the world a better place. Some have an idea of how they want to do it while others are hoping to find that idea.

Now here is when that question gets answered, not by the interviewee but rather the interviewer. How can I, as an employer and manager, make this moldable, general therapist, into the absolute best therapist that I can?

A smart manager wants someone to come in who will work hard and do great work to get people better, rather than just someone who warms a seat and runs people through exercises. I have unfortunately met therapists who fall into the latter category.

I have watched as they sat in a chair and mindlessly go down a checklist of exercises. They did not check to see how the patient was responding during the treatment or adjust from the list. Some of their patients did get better but the majority showed little to no improvement.

I have no interest in this type of therapist because there is no drive in them and no desire to improve themselves.

On the other hand, I have met many more who fall into the former category. They came into the clinic with a fire and passion. It was passed on to each patient they saw. They were constantly monitoring the responses to the treatment and would adjust if the desired response was not happening.

These therapists would spend time in study either with courses, articles, books, or videos. They would engross themselves in conversations and discussions with other therapists through a multitude of avenues to gain new knowledge or discuss difficult patients.

These are the ones who employers want to have on their team and employers have several ways to develop this person.

So my advice to any new physical therapist asked what they will bring to the table is to answer honestly and passionately. Then, ask your own question. It doesn’t have to be direct, such as “what can you bring to me?” But you’ll want to ask something along the lines of “how do you invest in a new therapist like me, and ensure that I grow professionally while I give my most valuable years of passion and energy to a job?”

The answers you want to hear.

How the clinic responds can tell you volumes about how much they’ll value you as an employee. Here are some ways that an organization contributes to its employees’ growth.

Continuing education

Many employers will offer some sort of a continuing education incentive to bring on and retain therapists. A question that you can ask is if they offer courses in an area that you are particularly interested in developing.

Do not be afraid to ask about their continuing education policy but be aware that there are a variety of options on what will be offered. Some only offer a set dollar amount per year for courses and any other costs such as travel and lodging will be at your own expense. This can be a challenge if you work in a remote or rural area, because it makes con-ed onerous to attend. This can be due to the lack of coursework available in these areas.

Very large employers have the ability to offer internal courses to employees. These are usually free or at a reduced cost so the employer can fill up the class with more of their own employees. The drawback to this is that you may have to sign an agreement stating that you will work for the employer for a set period of time or refund any costs of the course.

A small private practice might not have a continuing education budget – or if they do, it might be very small. You will probably have to pay out of pocket for the course but you can write off the expenses on your taxes as professional development. If you do this make sure to keep all your receipts.


If there happens to be a therapist or another employee of a company who is an expert or is extremely knowledgeable in a subject, ask about doing some mentorship with that person.

Ask about spending a set amount of time each week or so with your mentor to talk. I would say an hour a week is a good starting point for negotiation since daily might be too much and if it is monthly then there may be too much to cram in a short period of time.

Of course, make sure the person you want to mentor you is on board with it too. An employer may say yes but the person may not have the availability to do so.
If this is something that is agreed upon with all parties make sure as well to get the agreement in writing. Too often verbal agreements fall apart after a period of time so having something in writing gives you leverage.

Fellowship or residency

An employer can also offer either a fellowship or residency to their employees, so ask how you can apply for it. Many of these are difficult to get into due to the competitive nature of the application policy.

These are a great way to continue right on in your education since you already have many of the study habits from school still fresh. You have the ability to get real world education while earning a paycheck. At completion you will have a much higher education level than many people at your same experience level.

Looking back on that interview, I think about what could have gone better for me. No one likes to be rejected, but it was a huge learning experience that I have not forgotten. I now know what to ask for if I am in an interview, so that I can determine how much that potential employer will value me as an employee and invest in my professional growth.

I can also answer the question “what can you bring to our practice” with more confidence, because I am now better prepared for it. I can speak about my outcomes, training, experience, and overall business knowledge if I am asked that question.

But the moral of the story is you should not fear this question as a new graduate. Make sure you are polite and respectful when you do answer, but keep in mind that they have the ability to make you much better as a therapist. So when you are preparing for your first interview or your twentieth interview, every physical therapist should be prepared to answer this question, and ask thoughtful questions of their own.

About Matt Huey

Matt Huey
Matt earned his Master's in Physical Therapy from California State University, Northridge in 2010. He is Certified in Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy and is a Certified Manual Trigger Point Therapist. He is currently working on his Diploma in Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy from the McKenzie Institute along with performing a Fellowship with the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists.

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