I was going to be a biology major, and no one was going to change my mind. I was going to be a biology major, have a 4.0 throughout college, and be the best medical doctor anyone could have imagined.
I finished my first semester of college with two C’s- one in BIO 101 lecture, and the other in BIO 101 lab. Just a few months into my college career, I was already off-track.
Looking back, I couldn’t be more glad that things went the way that they did. In the same semester that I realized that the biology path at UNC Chapel Hill was not for me, I discovered Psychology and fell in love with the subject matter. I began to see what I was learning in my psychology classes in the world around me, and started to see my environment from a completely different perspective. I began to understand issues in psychology, such as mental illness and the associated stigma, and how pertinent this was in all aspects of life. As a future physical therapist, I truly believe that this will be the most important factor as I develop my own method of service and interaction with my patients and peers.
So, I made my first big college decision and ditched the biology major and took on psychology instead. However, I was still set on taking all of the pre-med courses required to enter medical school. The thing is, I should have realized then that I didn’t have a true passion for attending medical school- I was not at all motivated to shadow doctors, study for the MCAT, or volunteer in a health setting. I never went to my advisor to determine the best path for me to pursue medical school and I didn’t submit my email address for the pre-health professions listserv until late into my junior year.
In my senior year at UNC, I figured it was time to get serious if I was going to be a doctor. I signed up for an MCAT prep course the following summer- and almost never studied outside of the few hours per week that we were in class. Granted, it was Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and it was very difficult to focus on studies during the day without having had any food or water. However, rather than utilize my nights to get in some extra time with my physics workbook, I turned my attention to friends in the area and spent my time socializing instead. The approximately $3000 for the prep course, plus the hundreds of dollars I spent rescheduling my MCAT because I was never prepared enough continue to haunt me to this day. However, I try now to look at this as an investment in the future that was meant for me, one that I would work passionately and relentlessly towards.
It took 4 years of poor grades and low commitment to science courses, 4 months of failed attempts at studying for the MCAT, and 4 days of shadowing doctors in an inpatient setting for me to realize that maybe I never had the passion for medical school of which I had spent all that time convincing my friends. I thought that pre-med was what all the intelligent kids did, and if I wasn’t trying to get into medical school, then I was wasting my time. Much of this was the South Asian culture, some the culture at UNC, but mostly, it was my own laziness in researching other fields of work. I was pre-med only to please my parents and to gain respect from my peers.
It took only one day of shadowing at an outpatient physical therapy clinic for it to click- this is where I was supposed to be. My former roommate of 6 years was in the athletic training program at UNC and was interested in physical therapy school. As an athlete and sports-lover, myself, I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to check it out. My first day of PT shadowing was like a Say Yes to the Dress moment: career edition. From then on, I woke up early to get to the clinic and learn as much as I could from the physical therapists. I left the clinic at the last possible minute each day and was often late for class, for just one more exercise, one more conversation with a patient. Every patient became my favorite patient- their hugs, smiles and “good luck with your studies” made my day every time. Once I was able to start to shake off the expectation that I and others had of myself of becoming a medical doctor, I began to be able to see myself treating patients in a PT setting one day. I was hooked. The thought of coming to work at a gym- my own grown-up playground- every morning and helping patients to maintain or improve their condition to battle pain and disability aligned with my passions for mental health better than I initially could have imagined.
Ridden with depression and anxiety, many patients discontinued treatment before they were ready to be discharged, while others spent the sessions trying to get out of exercise to avoid looking foolish or weak in front of others. And I completely understood. I, too, have spent the past 3 years battling anxiety regarding my appearance and physical capabilities, and so it was almost a no-brainer that physical therapy would be difficult for others who felt the same, especially following injury that no longer allowed them to live the active lifestyle to which they were used to. Unfortunately, it also became clear to me that not every physical therapist I would go on to shadow would understand the mental barriers to overall betterment of health. A blessing in disguise, enraging comments such as “she’s crazy” or “he’s too lazy to get up and actually put in the work” allowed me to understand the need for healthcare providers with a background and/or deeper understanding of psychology and its inseparable existence from physical health.
Looking back, I can start to connect the dots between my various life experiences- which I perceived as good, bad, and everything in between- and see how every phase of my life has brought me the amazing opportunity to pursue physical therapy. Prior to beginning PT shadowing, I had never had my own appointment with a physical therapist. I wasn’t friends or family friends with any PT/OT/SLPs; therapy wasn’t on my radar. It sort of fell into my lap at a time when I was very confused about where I was headed academically and, for that, I am grateful. Now, I am working as an Up & Movin’ Mobility Specialist at the local hospitals and am loving every minute of it. As part of the Up & Movin’ program, I get to ambulate and complete exercises with patients who have been admitted in order to prevent any hospital-acquired debility. I can’t wait to be able to do similar work as a Doctor of Physical Therapy. God willing, I’m ready to start living my 3-year DPT journey, and to help patients throughout my education, and later, my full-time career.
Shadowing at a PT clinic is how I knew a DPT was for me, so here are some of my tips on securing a spot as a shadow/volunteer/tech:
- Be persistent. If a clinic does not call you back after you leave a message, try again. Still no response? Go in person. Understandably, outpatient clinics, skilled nursing facilities, hospitals and other locations where physical therapy is provided are typically very busy, so you may have to try more than once to even find the right contact person.
- Start applying early. This is especially true for hospitals and other inpatient settings, which often have an application and interview process, HIPAA training, orientations, and other hoops to jump through before you even see your first patient. Give yourself 2-3 months before you intend on beginning volunteer or other work at a hospital. Outpatient clinics, on the other hand, typically require less orientation time to begin shadowing. Remember, it’s best to get experience in a variety of workplaces.
- It’s okay to make it known early to your supervising therapist or PTA that you may need a letter of recommendation down the road. However, be mindful that you are not there just for them to sign off on the fact that you simply showed up. You’re shadowing to gain a better understanding of the work, and to one day maybe be a co-worker to the very therapists from whom you intend to learn and seek mentorship.
- Sign up for your school’s pre-health or pre-PT/OT listserv if one exists. These are great avenues for finding out about local opportunities, and the emails will typically give you the contact information for the correct person to speak with, thus taking out the trial and error work that sometimes goes into getting in touch with a facility.
- On that note, join your school’s pre-PT organization (or start your own!). Again, these groups are dedicated to bettering your chances of getting into a professional program by providing opportunities for growth and excellence in that field, specifically.
- Don’t get discouraged. I applied to 4 different hospitals in Raleigh and Durham, NC, combined, and got rejected because each one noted that they would only take current DPT students as shadows. It took me months to hear back and by then, it would have been too difficult to switch around my schedule to accommodate it anyway. However, when I moved to a smaller city in Indiana, I was shadowing within a day. Sometimes, there are factors that are just out of your control that may affect whether or not you can attain your desired position. Stay focused because I promise, the volunteer and work positions exist, but they may take you going the extra mile to find them.
Be sure to comment below with your experiences and favorite tips for getting your foot in the door with a PT facility!