Note: I have included a lot of links in this piece and there is a ton of information beyond this article through those links. If you are a new grad therapist looking into travel, take the time to explore these links. Some are other pieces about new grads traveling, some are about professional development, and some are conversations on the discussion board that are pertinent. Note 2: I’m going to write this post using “Physical Therapist” language, but I believe this topic applies to speech and occupational therapists as well. I feel passionately about this particular post and found myself getting bogged down in language trying to be more inclusive of all therapists – so, forgive me, I really mean all therapists, but as a PT, I just write more gooder when I can write in the terms most familiar to me.
In the last couple months, I have written and spoken with quite a few new grad physical therapists who are going straight to traveling after graduation. With several of these new grads, I have had the opportunity to give my typical schpeel:
I do not believe you should travel as an immediate new grad therapist. I believe you need at least a brief experience as a PT with your own patients and own license alongside other experienced therapists to get to know yourself as a clinician and what life as a professional in a good clinical setting is like. That way, when you run into employment, management, or ethical red flags on assignment, you can recognize them and react appropriately. As a student PT, you have gained great knowledge that is more up to date and in depth than many currently practicing clinicians. You have also likely managed your own patient case load and treated a wide variety of cases. But, you have never done this without a safety net – with everyone expecting you to be the person with the answers. Do you need to be an expert clinician to be a successful traveler? Absolutely not, but I recommend you have some sort of professional experience, because there is frequently less support around you as a traveler than there would be in a more stable environment. I do not think you should travel right out of school, but if you are determined to, I would like to help you down the path to a better traveling experience.
So, in summary: Don’t travel immediately out of school, but if you do, I’d like to help you along the way.
What has my experience with giving this advice been? Failure. Despite my advice, just about every new grad physical therapist I talked to this summer is already working in a travel job or currently traveling to their first assignment. I have lost them to the awesome, kick-ass world of traveling therapy. Can I really blame them? No, being a traveling PT has a lot of benefits and upside, but I hope I can still save a few of you who haven’t signed travel contracts yet. I plead with you, just get a brief stretch of experience as a therapist before you travel.
I’ve written a lot on this topic in years past. I’ll try not to be redundant and instead, as mentioned above, link out to the things I have written in the past. If you are a new grad considering travel PT, earnestly consider whether traveling therapy is the best thing for you right now. Maybe it is, life changes fast and your window to travel may be closing soon, but if you can delay travel for 6 to 12 months, it will improve your experience. What follows is a mixture of “why you shouldn’t” and “if you do” advice.
With the new grad therapists I have been talking to, the most prevalent challenge I have been finding is predatory recruiters who don’t care who you are and who you want to be as a professional. These recruiters are only motivated by the fact that they get paid if they place you in a job. I’m generalizing, but the more predatory recruiters tend to be in the really big recruiting agencies that are staffing-factories. Finding a recruiter as your “employer” is the same as if you were looking for a permanent employer. You would want a clinical employer that allows you to spend solid one-on-one time with each of your patients. Likewise, you want to find a recruiter who has the time to get to know you and give you some personal attention. When working with a recruiter (and I recommend you work with 2 or 3), ask yourself these questions:
1. Does this recruiter know or remember anything about me personally or professionally?
2. Does this recruiter care if I get placed in a good job?
3. Am I steering the conversation of where I am going to work? (or is the recruiter?)
If the answer to any 1 of these 3 questions is “No,” find another recruiter. Don’t worry, there are over 300 Joint Commission accredited recruiting agencies, you’ll find another recruiter. Your recruiter should be WORKING FOR YOU to put you in a situation that best fits your needs and sets you up to grow as a professional. The predictable next-step with any predatory recruiter is a low-ball offer to work at a facility with no other PTs but likely an ungodly number of support staff for you to supervise. In this conversation going on at the discussion board (which I highly recommend you read), one new grad mentions a job offer where he would be the only PT at the facility with 3 PTAs. Which brings another three questions to my mind:
1. If the facility needs a traveler, who is supervising the PTAs now?
2. Does a therapist supervising 3 assistants actually get to treat any patients of their own?
3. How unbelievably bad is this facility that they are willing to hire a new grad they have never met in person to be their only therapist?
Forgive me, I’m just a worried big-brother-PT trying to keep his siblings out of trouble. I know you guys are all (mostly) super-intelligent people and see the red lights flashing on this job offer, but I want to assure you that you have choices and should never-ever under any circumstances work for a recruiter who offers you a job like the one described above – pass on it, this job can be somebody else’s nightmare. I got really lucky with my first assignment, but took time looking for a recruiter that was willing to hold my hand throughout the process. Because I was working at a permanent job, I had the luxury of taking my time to research staffing agencies and search for a job. When I found the recruiter I would eventually take my first assignment with, we searched together for a job that would allow me to work in outpatient and would have other PTs around for my mentoring and growth. It took a few weeks of patience, but that assignment eventually came up. I interviewed and accepted the job, and I extended my contract there twice to ultimately stay 10 months because it was such a great fit for me and satisfied my need for growth as a new therapist – this, ideally, is what your experience should be as a new grad exploring travel therapy. Your recruiter should be some sort of a cross between a teacher and companion who can appreciate what you need in a job and what strengths you have to offer a potential employer. Here’s an older discussion board thread discussing travel as a new grad and selecting your first job.
Let’s talk about why a facility needs to hire a traveler, because I think it is central to why some travel assignments are better than others and why you should have some experience before you travel. A facility hires travelers because they are understaffed. A facility can be understaffed for a number of very benign reasons – an employee is out temporarily for illness or maternity leave, the geographic location is difficult to attract highly educated professionals to, the business has recently expanded or gone through a structural change and is spread thin on staffing, or the area doesn’t have any PT programs nearby so there is a chronic shortage. If you’re discerning, patient, and lucky enough, these are the jobs you will take consistently as a traveler. These facilities generally care about their patients, and, because they care, they will be expecting you to bring a certain established skill-set with you to hit the floor running and start treating patients confidently soon after you start. If you approach the job selection process with little care of where you work and no experience to demonstrate any specific skill set, you’re more likely to find yourself in the facilities that have staffing issues for the other, more sinister reasons – these places are willing to hire any warm body with a license. Facilities can have staffing issues because management is awful, productivity expectations are too high, or the business is unethical. The therapists that put themselves in the situation of working for the clinics with the worse kind of staffing issues are not going to have a good professional life. They will experience stress and burnout, and these are the people you will meet who are cynical about therapy and healthcare business in general. With a little bit of effort and patience, you can dodge lousy assignments – when the red flags go up, pay attention to your gut. If it sounds like a lousy situation, it is. If you can get yourself a year or even just a few months of experience before traveling, your marketability improves dramatically and the quality of jobs available to you will grow.
The reason I feel the need to warn you all about the dark side of traveling as a new grad is because I care greatly about our profession. We are uniquely situated to do great things in healthcare. We are primed to heal patients conservatively without medication or surgery, to heal and promote health in many different venues, and to prevent pain and disease in the first place. All of these things save patients and insurance companies a great deal of money versus other treatment options and will ultimately be our golden ticket as everyone continues to age. In order for our profession to best seize these opportunities, we need to cultivate the best clinicians, and I don’t think starting out as a traveler with zero professional experience will make you the best clinician and ambassador of our profession that you have the potential to be. Just a little time before you travel will get you grounded and set a baseline for your future experiences. There are great advantages professionally and clinically to being a traveler – if you travel for multiple years, you will eventually work in more settings than you ever dreamed of. You will treat patients of more different backgrounds and cultures than you could never imagine, and you will be one of the most well-rounded clinicians with more diverse clinical and world experiences than any of your non-traveler colleagues. Without experience in the setting you would ultimately like to work in, you are more likely to aimless drift from lousy assignment to lousy assignment without gaining a good foothold on who you are as a clinician when you are at your best. As a traveler, professional growth is a solitary experience, you really need to be on the right path when you start. Please, I beg you, travel, it is a fantastic experience, but get just a tiny bit of professional experience first – in the long run, you will be more successful in your travels and you will be a better representative of our profession to your patients and co-workers.