Travel physical therapy has a certain allure.
From experiencing unique locations to living a true vagabond existence, travel physical therapy affords an enjoyable lifestyle that few can attain. Not to mention the fact that the pay is some of the best in the field.
At the same time, quite a few new graduates are advised not to start out as travel physical therapists. Some of the reasons cited include lack of mentorship and high stress levels.
Here's the deal.
Quite a few of my classmates jumped straight into travel physical therapy, and every one of them had a good experience. Not to mention, one of them landed herself a role as the director of rehab within 2 years out of school. The foundations you can build during your travel assignments quickly add up. Before you know it, you can confidently treat in multiple settings. If you decide you're ready to plant roots, you will likely enjoy the luxury of being able to easily land a job, literally anywhere you go.
Let's tackle both questions.
1. Should YOU, as a new grad physical therapist, start out with travel physical therapy?
Do you like to travel? Does travel stress you out? Do you have pets? Do you have children? Are you in a relationship? Are you
healthy physically? Are you healthy mentally? All of these questions are vital considerations before you hit the road. I love the idea of travel physical therapy, but I also have a husband and 3 cats, so it's not practical.
If you're single, or quite independent, or have a partner who can travel with you (or cope with you being away for months at a time), you're already in a better position to be a successful traveler than I would be.
Do moving and traveling stress you out?
You may love getting away, going on trips, taking pictures, and having new adventures. But if you like returning to your home life and your friends and your bed, travel physical therapy may be a rude awakening. While you'll likely have your weekends, you're not signing up for an endless vacation. There will stress every time you interview for a new assignment. You'll have to juggle your preferences with the agency's assignments. You're going to be a new grad, with the typical nerves and "room to grow" that any newbie in a career has. Can you handle moving every few months on top of kick starting a brand new career?
Do you need a dedicated mentor?
One of the reasons that I took my first PT job is that I got a dedicated mentor for 3 months. I loved her. She was kind and helpful, and I could ask her anything. In fact, for the entire year I stayed at that job, I asked my mentor for her advice and guidance with tough cases. If you're a traveler, you may very well receive mentorship. But if you only stay at your site for 3 months, you may not build the same rapport with that person. It's all about perspective; with each new site, you have new opportunities to find new mentorship. Signing up with a company with an actual new grad mentor program will help ensure you get the guidance you want.
Are you healthy physically and mentally?
This is an important one, as the stress of constantly moving, meeting new people, and learning new clinic cultures can wear on you. If you get sick easily, each new environment provides a new set of germs to consider. If you're from a sunny and warm state, moving to a cold or wet environment may take an unexpected toll on your mental health. Realize that moving is considered one of the most stressful life events, and you'll be moving a lot with travel physical therapy. It can take its toll.
Are you a good therapist?
I'm not trying to insult you. I'm going to call a spade a spade and admit that I was a much better therapist 3-4 years into clinical care than I was on day one. I'm also going to admit that some of my classmates (namely the ones who traveled) were much better therapists than I was from the beginning. They were the most calm, collected, confident, and analytical ones of the class, so traveling worked for them. They also had a ton of aide experience and excellent clinicals, while I had the bare minimum aide experience and lackluster clinical experiences.
If you're not a good therapist, traveling can either jet-propel you into therapist awesomeness, or it can quickly dash your confidence. A frank discussion with an experienced colleague or professor may be able to help you decide if your skills are sharp enough to make this bold move. Which leads us to...
Are you confident?
You may be a much more awesome therapist than you even realize! Maybe you're not super aggressive with treatments, but you're a whiz with vitals and have incredible motivational skills and compassion. Knowing your strengths and having confidence in what you have to offer is very important.
Are you willing to ask uncomfortable questions?
As a new grad, YOU WILL HAVE QUESTIONS. Many sites where you'll be placed will already be short-staffed. Asking a bunch of clinical questions may get you some serious side-eye. But you need to ask questions. If you can't look them up and a patient's safety is on the line, you need to ask. Do you have the guts to approach a snotty therapist and ignore the attitude to get the info you need? If so, you'll be just fine!
Are you flexible?
A good friend of mine had travel contracts fall through right before they started. She had already gotten there and settled in. How annoying! That didn't faze her, and probably wouldn't faze me, but some therapists (especially those with spouses/kids/medical needs, etc) would be none too pleased to deal with that scenario.
2. You've decided you're going to be a travel PT. How can you ensure you get the support you need?
Congrats! You're braver and more adventurous than I ever was (and probably ever will be)! Let's talk about the special considerations a new graduate needs when choosing a travel physical therapy company.
Company and culture
Some companies promise top pay and some promise top support. Some offer other selling points. It's your job to do your homework and determine which companies deliver on their promises, and which companies' selling points speak to your needs.
This is one area you absolutely must not skip. Every new grad needs a mentor. Many travel companies realize this and gladly provide mentorship; it behooves them, as well as you, to have supported and confident therapists in their talent pools. And even if you've been working for a few years, take note.
Even if you're super experienced, consider companies with mentorship programs. An experienced physical therapist can mean several things. Someone may have 10 years of experience in ortho but, zero experience in other settings. As a traveler, there's no guarantee they'll ever see an ortho clinic, especially if they're picky about locations. Throw that PT into an LTAC, and they probably won't feel too comfortable or experienced. If you like having guidance, make sure you choose a company that focuses on mentorship for its travelers.
A good recruiter is worth his or her weight in gold. Someone who listens and goes to bat on your behalf is vital. If you're tempted to dismiss this section or go with a recruiter because they eagerly promise to get you a slope side assignment in Mammoth, CA, think again. If you ever get the sense that your recruiter isn't in your corner, or isn't listening to your concerns, try working with someone else.
You may really want to jump right in and work in Kauai. There's nothing wrong with that, but just realize that the more desirable a city is, the fewer spots there are for travelers. You're not the first PT who thought working on a tropical island sounded pretty sweet. That means that you may not be able to get all your other needs met if you go to that site. You may sacrifice pay or mentorship, or you may have to work in a setting that you don't want. That's not always the case, but be ready to make some sacrifices if you need to.
If you felt strongest in geriatrics, you'll probably want to start you first few assignments in SNFs. Unless you truly thrive on stress, the last thing you want to do is move to a new city, where you know nobody, and get thrown into a sports clinic, where you'll be frantically researching patients every night while you work on setting up your cable bill.
Straight up Cash Money.