How to become a great physio – advice for future physical therapists!

This week a young patient of mine contacted me to ask for advice on a career prep project with school. I get a lot of people asking me what it’s like to become a physio, and how to do it. I hope this will help you in your journey, not only to become a physio but to become a great physio. Best of luck!

1. What is a typical day in the life of a person in a position like yours?(Work hours, number of appointments,etc.)

First off, I don’t have many typical days. I don’t really think I’m a typical physio.

Most private practice physios work alternating morning and evening shifts, 5 days a week. They may see anywhere from 10-20 patients a day, often treating for 6 hours straight (7am-1pm or 1pm-7pm). But there is a lot of variability and you may be able to set your own hours. I personally work all morning shifts 6:30-1pm, so that I can be on-site with teams in afternoons and evenings. I tend to have about an hour of paperwork to do after each shift. I start earlier than most, because my mornings are very busy and often people need to fit in treatment before school or work. I have always been active as a coach, but I now make more volunteer commitments that use my sport physio talents, and contribute to my own professional development. I also do some paid work with teams and athletes, and sometimes work at events or tournaments. My biggest problem is that sometimes this means I work a full day in the clinic, then go to work with one or two or even three teams in an afternoon/evening, which becomes like a 12-16 hour day! I always have more things to do than I can fit into the day, so I need to try hard to find balance in life, with my own fitness, family and friends. I also need to try hard to be organized and productive, because if I am not, I will not achieve my goals.

2. What is a typical starting salary?

Approx $40-65,000 but this can be quite variable. Sometimes it depends on whether you get into a busy clinic or if you get many or few new patients, and if you find full time work right away. The job market is competitive but if you have a lot to offer you should be ok.

3. What sciences do you feel are the most applicable for this career?(Bio, Chem, or/and Physics)

Bio is probably MOST applicable, but all three are touched on during the course of your studies. Some physiotherapists may choose to do more advanced studies (Ph.D) that may utilise these sciences more, if they are good at them and have a passion in that area. Chemistry will relate to learning about human physiology (how the body functions) and sport physiology (how we function during and after physical activity), and Physics will relate to biomechanics (forces, power, acceleration of the body in specific movements we do in daily living, rehab and sport).

4. Do you have any characteristics that you feel help you in the science field?

Quote from "The Pursuit of Happyness" 2006

Quote from “The Pursuit of Happyness” 2006.

Willingness to learn. Keep an open mind toward things. Able to see the importance of completing certain courses that will ultimately help me to reach my end goal. And eventually I even learned that sometimes you may not like your teacher, a project, or a subject but you have to put that aside and strive to get the highest mark you can anyhow, because it will help you to achieve your goal. So perhaps most of all, a characteristic I try to live by is using goals – understanding them, naming them, refining them, sharing them with people around me, and trying to achieve them.

5. Did you enter university knowing that you wanted to be a physio?

No. I didn’t even know it existed until after second year university! I also hadn’t really considered other related pathways – becoming a doctor and then specializing in sports medicine is one option; and another option could be doing a diploma as a Registered Massage Therapist. Some RMT programs offer transfer credit toward a university Bachelor degree… this means after 2 years you could be working professionally as a RMT for approx. $100/hr, getting valuable professional experience in this field until you finish your undergrad and physio degree. It would also open doors to get involved with sports teams. I would seriously consider this pathway if I were to do it all over again from scratch. I don’t personally know anyone who has done this, but it sure beats working at Starbucks part time during school.

6. What are the pros and cons of this career?

All depends on your mindframe, because my cons may be your pros or vice versa but here are my thoughts:

Cons: Sometimes as a professional, you have to deal with people who are unpleasant, aggressive, moody or unreliable. You also have to, at times, deal with a lot of paperwork on behalf of your clients (especially if their visits are covered by ICBC or WorkSafe BC). And when you work with athletes, sometimes establishing effective communication with a whole team, coaches, and even parents can be a challenge that limits the effectiveness of your work. You may not love these moments in your job, but most people learn to see that they are important to helping your patients reach their goals.

Pros: The opportunity to help people overcome physical obstacles such as injuries and limitations of their movement can be rewarding. Sometimes the gratitude demonstrated by people around you can be very rewarding when they recognize the outcomes you have helped them to achieve. And on a personal level, I have learned so much about the body that I can apply to myself, and help people I care about. Lastly, it offers opportunities for continual learning – the most inspirational physios I know have remained dedicated to learn more throughout their entire careers.

7. Being a physical therapist, there are lots of opportunities for different work environments. Which ones do you work in?(In hospitals, in clinics, with sports teams)

I work clinically and with sports teams. In Canada, there are very few paid opportunities to work with sports teams, so if you want to truly work with sports you may have to sacrifice a fair bit of your personal time to make this possible, with little or at times no compensation.

8. What programs did you take in university that you feel helped you with this career?

In university, you can study any undergrad degree you wish, and as long as you satisfy the prerequisite courses for a Masters in Physio, you then apply for your masters degree. Everyone takes a different route but a common one is to go through a program in Human Kinetics or Kinesiology. Personally, I did an undergraduate Biology degree. A good friend of mine did a minor in Psychology, which I think may help him a bit in understanding and working well with the mental and personality aspects of patient interaction. I also suggest getting experiences outside of academics which is equally important and should be a high priority for you – playing sports, working out in the gym, coaching, volunteering to help people of all ages… these will help you to learn more, and push your abilities so that you develop skills in areas that you’re not comfortable with yet.

9. What made you want to become a physio?

I realized it is an area of passion for me. Many people can be good at something but not truly have any passion for it. I was good at a lot of things, but I can spend hours learning about the body, whether it’s through books, academic papers, working with my clients, training teams, etc.

10. Do you have any advice for a person wanting to become a physical therapist?

Work hard. Get good grades throughout high school and university – this will help you to get scholarships if your grades are high enough. I had a friend in university who had a diagnosed learning disability, which affected her reading and writing. She studied harder than anyone I have known to reach her goal, and she is now a successful physio. I often tell people if they would work hard at their studies, they may not even need a part time job in school because the money you can earn from scholarships can exceed your part time earnings, and all the extra time you have you can use to either study, play, do something good for your own conditioning/fitness, rest etc. In other words, work hard, play hard, and get enough rest to do it again tomorrow. So you end up not only with scholarships but also grades high enough to keep any door open for you – if your grades are too low, you won’t be able to switch undergrad programs, get into a masters degree etc. which really catches a lot of people off guard. Learn to ask your teachers, “How can I get a grade of 90% or higher in this class? This is my goal, do you have any advice for me? About assignments, tests? If I submit a draft of my paper a week before the deadline, is there someone who could look it over for me?” If you are clear with people about your goals, they will often try to help you achieve them.

Last but not least, all this advice is just my opinion. It is heavily influenced by the type of person I am, and I haven’t tried to represent the views of other types of physiotherapists – many work in the hospital, or work more with certain populations in private practice than I do (for example, specializing in work injuries, specializing in hand therapy, etc.). I specialize in sports of all kinds, functional movement for athletes and non-athletes, prehab and recovery for sports, and orthopedic private practice including manual therapy (manual means hands-on). My mindset is unique in that I strive to work with people both to help recover from injuries, AND to prevent them; and I always try to help people understand how these will improve their performance (in day to day life and in sport).

Best of luck in your future, and if you do choose to become a physio, be a great one!


PS, more from The Pursuit of Happyness… take a moment to think about how you’ll feel when you achieve your goals, maybe a bit like this: