travel therapists

Last year I spent some time skiing in Revelstoke, British Columbia with a good buddy of mine, a fellow therapist that I met while on one of my travel assignments. We ended up hiking to the top of Mt. Mackenzie on a sunny bluebird day out of bounds. Between the two of us, we have a pretty good knowledge of side and back country skiing. In addition, we were carrying the normal avalanche gear. At the peak, we noticed a couple of skiers dropping off the back of the mountain. We desperately wanted to join them. They also had on the standard avalanche gear, but they had two distinct things that we did not: maps and experience in this particular area of BC.

Even though we desperately wanted to bomb down the backside of Mt. Mackenzie, we decided to be smart and ski down the west facing side of the mountain, where we hiked up to keep the resort within our view. Since we were lacking maps and local knowledge, we knew this was the wisest choice.

Why do I tell this story?

Even though we were experienced skiers, we didn’t have everything we needed to be safe. And that’s how I feel about advising a new grad to start out as a travel therapist. If you have what you need, then go ahead and drop in. If not, wait until you are ready.

Many colleagues have mentioned that their professors have encouraged them NOT to take travel therapy positions as their first job. Like the story above, it really depends on your experience and the tools you have at your disposal. Professors are right in warning new therapists about some of the difficulties they might have as an inexperienced therapist in a travel setting. But, it turns out that “inexperienced” is a relative term.

Not only did your clinical education prepare you for being a staff therapist but so did your former activities. In many instances new physical therapists are not new to the health care game at all. I’ve met many individuals who are former athletic trainers, nurses and exercise physiologists. I personally worked in a large trauma 1 hospital as a nursing assistant for a number of years prior to physical therapy school. So, depending on the “tools” in your toolbox and past experience maybe being a traveler makes sense to you despite the well intentioned warnings of colleagues and professors.

Maybe you’ve had a diverse clinical experience and are not quite sure what setting you would like to be in. Taking a few travel gigs with a strong therapy team might be a great option. This again is where a trustworthy recruiter and staffing agency comes into play. They can help you find a facility or setting where you are not the only PT (OT or SLP) at the clinic and where there is plenty of staff support. Many times facilities are excited to have a new graduate therapist because of the new ways of thinking, evidence based practice, and positive energy they bring.

Here is another situation in which a travel PT gig might be right for you. Maybe you have done well with outpatient orthopedics and manual therapy. If your skills are solid and you know what to expect walking into this setting, then why not take it a travel gig to start? This gives you the ability to take a short- term job in the setting you love, but also in a new location that you want to explore.

The last argument for not starting your therapy career as a traveler is a general rule of thumb; you should not start a career “floating around.”

This really depends on the individual and that individuals’ skills, goals and experience. A therapist who is weak with inter-professional communication and needs a lot of coaching should probably not take a travel position. On the other hand, therapists with strong inter-professional communication and a desire to learn about new environments will excel as a travel PT.

A related claim is that employers shy away from resumes with lots of different “jobs.” I have found that most employers know that therapist and nurses have traveling as an option, and see it as beneficial experience. Travel therapists bring a broad range of experience and knowledge to their jobs that many employers find helpful. So far I have had no problem having offers for permanent jobs with my resume full of travel jobs.

In summary, jumping into travel therapy as a new grad or waiting until you have a year or two under your belt before you start traveling can both be great decisions. You make the call!


Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson is currently living and working in Bellingham, WA. Justin graduated from Central Michigan University with his DPT in 2008 and earned his GCS designation in 2011. Justin has worked for large trauma 1 and teaching hospitals along with diverse settings as a travel PT for many years.  During the winters Justin can be found sliding up and down mountains on his skis or at Mt. Baker where he is a volunteer ski patroller. During the months where there is no snow he can be found on two wheels.  You can reach him at JMJohnsonDPT@gmail.com.

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