5 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Starting Physical Therapy School: A Nontraditional Student Perspective
Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes
Every time I use the phrase "nontraditional student," I feel compelled to clarify that in some cases it's a euphemism for "older than most."
When I started physical therapy school in fall 2016, I was 36 years old.
It was the fulfillment of a dream that was almost 20 years old. Now, I'm done with coursework and only have clinicals and boards to do before the big dream is finally a reality: Kelly Clark, physical therapist. However, the next big milestone is one that is both incidental and enormous: Kelly Clark, doctor of physical therapy.
I say incidental because in 1998 when I graduated from high school and first gave up my dream of becoming a physical therapist, there was no such thing as doctor of physical therapy. There were 2 schools in my home state of Illinois that still offered bachelor's degrees in physical therapy, but many programs had already begun the switch to a master's degree.
That knowledge alone was intimidating; neither of my parents had graduated from college, and no one in our family had ever gotten a graduate degree. So it seemed that grad school wasn't an option, and I felt uneasy about entering the profession with an already-outdated credential.
That wasn't the only reason that I didn't apply to physical therapy school, but it was close to the top of the list.
Occasionally over the years, I was reminded of that dream, but I didn't seriously consider it again for more than 15 years.
In summer 2012, I called my dad to wish him a happy Father's Day, and there was something in his voice that let me know my life would never be the same. It was that word we all hope to never hear from a loved one, one I had to say for him as I listened to the strongest man I ever knew dissolve from 250 miles away, both of us helpless and alone and forever changed. Cancer.
It was less than 6 months before he passed away, and during one of many long and difficult conversations about regrets and dreams I slowly came to realize that I was following my father's footsteps in the worst possible way, away from a dearly held dream that I knew would die if I didn't make it real.
I started doing research and that is when I found out that I would now need to obtain a doctorate degree to become a physical therapist.
At first, I shook off a growing sense of impossibility with nothing but determination, but as I scrolled through lists of prerequisites and looked up tuition costs, I remember feeling hopelessly daunted.
It would be so many years, so much work, and so many possibilities of failure. There was seemingly a lot to lose, as I had the best job of my life at the time. But when I thought about my dad and his sadness in knowing that his bright daughter had not finished her degree, I knew that I couldn't possibly do anything but grit my teeth and make it happen, no matter what it took. If my father's humble dream of a peaceful retirement was truly lost, I took comfort in knowing that at least I would not let his hard work go to waste. If that meant I had to somehow, impossibly, become a doctor of physical therapy, so be it.
There are still those who question the wisdom of referring to physical therapists as "doctors" in any context, but trust that there is one context in which I, at least, can't avoid. The first time I went home to visit my mother after beginning graduate school (in her eyes at least) I had suddenly transformed into Dr Clark.
I felt the distance, but didn't understand it until months later when she confessed that as soon as I walked in the door, she felt the way I looked, the way I dressed, and the way I carried myself. She saw that her daughter was about to become a doctor, which to her meant that I would leave everyone behind.
I was surprised that she thought of it that way. All I had ever wanted was to make my parents proud of me, and instead she felt that I was leaving her and my entire family behind. It was then that I began to see a vast chasm of misunderstanding between patients and health care practitioners that undoubtedly contributes to health disparity. However, because I decided to push past my doubts and become a physical therapist I may be able to help close that gap just by joining the health professions and continuing to share my perspective.
All those years when I decided not to become a physical therapist, I thought that I understood why.
I thought that it was a simple matter of practicality and finances and the way things were. But now after 5 years of education and the countless formative experiences I have had during graduate school, I can see that there are many more barriers to the health professions than I ever had realized previously. Barriers that I did not face as a white, middle class, native speaker of English, and that knowledge has helped me make peace with what I long thought of as wasted years.
I now know that my intimate understanding of the psychosocial factors that made it hard for me to become a physical therapist 15 years ago will only make me a better physical therapist today. I also see that many of the difficulties I faced in the past affect students of all ages. Anything that makes you feel like an outlier can become a barrier if you let it, including being a nontraditional student. I still haven't hit a wall that I couldn't figure out how to climb, but if I could give prospective physical therapist students any advice, here is what it would be:
Get over your hang-ups about your age (and everything else).
If you're older your classmates will never admit to noticing or caring about your age, so the sooner you stop mentioning it the better. The same thing goes for anything else that makes you feel self-conscious simply because it sets you apart (eg, age, size, race, class, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexuality); it doesn't matter. You belong in physical therapy school because everyone, from every background, needs physical therapy. There will always be patients who you can easily relate to and others where rapport takes more work, so the more exposure students have to people from a variety of backgrounds during their training, the better equipped they are to help their patients in the future. You, and all your well-earned differences, are an asset to your program and to the profession.
Lab clothes are important.
Take some time to consider the meaning of the word "lab" in the context of physical therapy school. Your body is literally a lab tool for your partner, and what you wear to labs will have a lot of influence over your ability to participate comfortably and enable your lab partners to learn. Your needs will vary, depending on your body confidence level, but at a minimum you'll need clothes that are easy to get in and out of, and layers to help keep your modesty. Even if you have six-pack abs and don't worry about any one seeing any part of you, your colleagues do not need the embarrassment of a wardrobe malfunction. That means biker shorts to layers on leg days, carefully considered bra straps on spine days, and sweaters or hoodies between roles of playing a patient.
You may be lonely.
On the first day of orientation, I was surprised to find that I was the only student over the age of 30 in my class. I had looked up the stats; less than 5% of PTCAS applicants are over 30 years old. I had naively assumed that in a class of 42, there would be at least 1 or 2 others close to my age; averages and homogeneity are two different things, but that wasn't the case.
My classmates didn't care or even seem to notice, but that didn't stop me from observing in every class that no one except the professor was within a decade of my age. It really bothered me that what felt like a huge difference to me was invisible to everyone else. This is a burden and privilege of representation, a topic much bigger than this blog and much more complex than my own struggle as a nontraditional student. All I can say about it is if you are feeling alone in physical therapy that is exactly why your perspective and voice are needed and valued. All patients are different and they all deserve to receive the same great care. Representation matters, so if you don't feel represented, remember that for your patients you are representation and you should hold your head high.
The timing is right. I have struggled with imposter syndrome, a feeling of not belonging or deserving one's accomplishments throughout physical therapy school, mostly because I waited so long to do it. In the meantime, I managed to tell myself a whole lot of things about exactly why I waited so long and most of them weren't very nice. After I started physical therapy school, I couldn't help but notice that my classmates were almost always working with older patients with a wealth of life experience. Of course, they struggled to embrace their own credibility just like I did. Now, I just try to remember that everyone has different reasons for pursuing or not pursuing higher education; there is no one right way to do life. If it took you a long time to get to physical therapy school your reasons and timing were valid, and the fact that you're here means that you belong in physical therapy school more, not less.
Don't be afraid to be different. I'm a completely different person now than I was when I was 25 years old, but I spent a lot of time comparing myself to fellow classmates in the beginning and worrying over the differences I found. Physical therapy school can be overwhelming, and it is easy to get distracted thinking that everyone else has it all figured out or is doing things better. Everyone does physical therapy school their own way and you just need to figure out what works for you. Eventually, I figured out that beyond leveling up my digital organization skills, doing things the same way I did to make sure that I got into physical therapy school worked just fine. You may find that you are more or less outspoken, have a different approach to assignments, or generally have higher or lower anxiety levels. Go with it. Trust your professors and the admissions board who recognized that you are going to make awesome contributions to the program, and just be yourself. Your patients and your profession will thank you.
Kelly Clark, SPT, is a student at Indiana University. You can connect with Kelly via email and twitter at @PT4thepeople.