Most Doctor of Physical Therapy students tend to be goal-driven people. Many are former student-athletes who grew accustomed to incessantly training and to working toward the next meet, competition, or championship game. All have set and met their objectives to be accepted into a DPT program. As we must do for our patients, we write both short and long term goals for ourselves. Early on in our education, that attempt may go something like this:
Short Term Goal: Successfully complete (and survive) my next practical exam.
Long Term Goal: Get a job…of some kind…somewhere…anywhere?
Something about this ambiguity churns your stomach. What can you do to manage this uncertainty? You want to see the forest but all you can see are the trees. How can you navigate the crowded woods, that is PT school early on in your education, without too much unease? Here are a few tips and tricks to remain cool and composed along your journey.
1. Your faculty are more than lecturers
When you are feeling glum about your career path, there is no one better to turn to for reassurance than your educators. You likely will not receive the same kind of TLC you get from your mom, but you will get a figurative pat on the back via an individual perspective from a successful PT. Ask to know more about who they are outside of PT, how they got to where they are in their careers, and what their first jobs were like. You may be surprised to find out that certain professors did not delve into their primary research interests right away or maybe even became a PT as a second career! Peep into a faculty member’s office, enjoy a piece of hard candy off of his or her desk, and start a conversation. You will have the opportunity to learn more about the various constituents of PT and more importantly, a chance to develop a meaningful relationship that will endure both throughout PT school and beyond.
Just because you completed all of those shadowing hours to get into PT school does not mean that you should be finished. As aspects of every practice setting may spark some interest as you move through your curriculum, find time to immerse yourself in those varied interests outside of the classroom. By observing patients with injuries, illnesses, and conditions with a newly increased bank of knowledge, you may more effortlessly solidify or dispel these interests as you spend more time around them first hand. Which patients or settings leave you with feelings of fullness as opposed to feelings of energy store depletion? Which diagnoses leave your mental cogwheels turning at the end of the day?
3. Residency: an option, not a requirement
With the growing number of post-professional physical therapy residency and fellowship programs, the option to apply and to complete a residency has become evermore appealing to new graduates. A residency is a terrific way to learn and to grow as a clinician by continuing your education and having further mentorship in 1 particular practice setting. However, residency is not the be-all and end-all of a successful PT career. The proportion of students that enter a residency directly after graduating remains the minority and the option to enroll in a program remains a possibility after a few years of practice. Furthermore, after completing a more specialized training program, some of the versatility of your DPT degree may be lost, as it may become increasingly difficult or illogical to switch practice settings if your interests should morph over time. As a DPT student, inquire more about residencies and ask questions to current and past residents, but be wary in thinking that it is a necessity or the norm.
4. Find the balance
Wake up. Study for quiz. Attend 4-hour lecture. Go to research meeting at lunch. Attend afternoon lab. Go home to make dinner. Study for upcoming exam. Sleep. Repeat.
However, the attempt to plan out every detail of your future while managing the demanding life of a graduate student will only exacerbate your feelings of anxiety. Think about this 1 major piece of advice in navigating the grayness of PT school: .
Join an intramural team. Find a musical ensemble to join. Read a book, aside from Gray’s Anatomy. Explore the right side of your brain. Whatever your other interests or passions may be, take advantage of the resources your university has to offer to continue doing what makes you, you. You will be more likely to discover the career path that is right for you if you maintain a happy, healthy, and balanced lifestyle throughout the course.
5. Repeat after me: it is all going to be okay
In discussions with PTs and faculty members about my own uncertainty with regards to my career path, nearly all of my superiors have shared a similar response to my concerns:
“It’s going to be okay, you’ve got plenty of time.”
Now that I am halfway finished with DPT school, my reaction is still, “How is it possibly okay to still not know what I want to do with my life?!” This is where the versatility of the DPT degree can act like a warm blanket for the shuddering, worrisome PT student. Regardless of where you think you want to practice or what your interests are during school, those will change once you become a practicing clinician and will continue to do so throughout your career. You may attempt to commit to a path early on but such determination may lead to feelings of emotional distress similar to those evoked in Robert Frost’s illustrious poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
In reality, physical therapy offers many roads: accept that and choose the path that feels the most natural for you. Do not spend too much time stopped at the forks. If you lose your way or do not like where one path has led you, there is no harm in turning around to give another a try because PT is not a one-way street. Trust that your journey through the forest will be the one that is right for you and take the time to stop and smell the roses along the way.