As with any job, there are going to be days you love your job and days that make you wonder why you chose the profession you did. That is why it is important to shadow and talk with physical therapists before getting into physical therapy school so you have a clear understanding of the advantages and disadvantages.
One major advantage of becoming a physical therapist is the salary. According to salary.com, the median annual salary for a licensed physical therapist in the United States is $74,618. This means that some make less, but it also means that other physical therapists make more than that.
Physical therapists that specialize in a field will often make more because they are seeing high-risk, complex cases that require more evaluation, testing, and management.
Physical therapy can be very rewarding because you help people with limited mobility regain some level of independence. To watch someone who could not walk regain some or all of their mobility is very rewarding. You may help an elderly person live on their own longer, an athlete play their sport again, or a person in a car accident walk again because of your role in their recovery. In general practice, you will meet people with different needs. Every patient will need an exercise regimen that works for him or her. For example, you will not be giving a ninety-year-old with a bad knee the same exercises as a fifteen-year-old basketball player with an injured knee.
Just like any profession, there are disadvantages to the field of physical therapy. Extensive postsecondary education is required, and that may cause you to put off other things in life (marriage, children, etc.). You might also continue to go on to internships, residencies, and fellowships, and if you want to specialize in one area you will have to continue on even further in your education, which will take more time. Also, most institutions have only a handful of spots open for internships, residencies, and fellowships each year, and you will be competing with many other successful people.
You will probably have to defer your loans as internships, residencies, and fellowships do not always pay very well. They might also limit where you can work. Most specialists work in a referral center where people come after they have been seen by many doctors. These patients may have a history of multiple problems that need to be considered when designing a plan for them.
Being a physical therapist can be very physically demanding. When a person comes into your office for the first time, they may not be able to walk or stand or do much of anything on their own. You may need to lift people, stretch limbs, or assist them with equipment. Depending on the severity of their injuries, you may have to do this for a long time. It is important that you not only make your patients strong and healthy, but that you are strong and healthy, too.
Pain is going to be a part of a person’s injury and part of their road to recovery with physical therapy. Pain may cause your patients to lash out and refuse to do their exercises with you and at home. You will have to communicate to your patient that they will experience pain when they start physical therapy, and it may become worse than it was at a certain point. But encourage them to work through it and remind that that the pain will decrease as they get stronger and more flexible.
It is important to be realistic about an individual’s prognosis and be honest with them. If you are helping an elderly person who suffered from paralysis from a stroke or a teenager who hurt their ankle playing soccer, the outcome and goals are going to be very different. In one situation, you are trying to prolong someone’s independence. In the other, your goal will be to get an athlete back on the field playing. But you may have to tell both the elderly person and teenager that they will not get the results they want and not to take it personally, while also understanding they may be angry with you.
Most jobs in health care are physically and emotionally demanding, and you will have to apply what you have been taught. You have to be prepared for the unexpected and enjoy a challenge. If you have a good sense of what your career as a physical therapist will be like and still want to pursue it, then you know you have made the right decision.