What You Need to Know About Becoming a Physical Therapist


“Does everyone get this sweaty?!” I exclaimed as I held a simple lunge in a small room at the Jaco Rehab clinic.

My hair stuck in clumps to the back of my neck and the sides of my forehead. Above my upper lip, a line of sweat had formed and I’m not even going to describe what was happening in my underarm region. My leg wobbled as I tried to hold the position and I’m pretty sure my face looked like an angry muskrat as I struggled. Here’s one thing I learned—running does NOT make your legs strong. Seriously, it was embarrassingly difficult for me to hold a lunge…

But the good news is the physical therapist helping me didn’t seem to notice (or even comment) on my inability to keep my sh*t together. In fact, he seemed totally comfortable with my whining and pathetic attempts at holding the poses. He took my injury seriously and helped me practice the exercises that would strengthen my leg and protect my knee from further harm.

So, when we decided to write a piece about what it was like to work in this profession, I thought he’d be the perfect person to interview.

Marco Adamé Jr. is a doctor of physical therapy, orthopedic clinical specialist, certified athletic trainer, and center coordinator of clinical education. He graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) with a degree in Kinesiology in 2002 and then went into USC’s Physical Therapy school graduating in 2006. He left school to work as a physical therapist for three years before returning to do his residency in 2010.

Why physical therapy?

Marco always wanted to help people. For a while, he thought that meant becoming a doctor, but after a rough meeting with Organic Chemistry, he decided to reassess. If he was going to go the MD route full force, he knew that it was not going to get any easier and so he started questioning whether it was, in fact, the right path for him.

At the time, he hadn’t declared a major and so he contacted a bunch of counselors at USC. Two got back to him. One was the counselor for the Exercise Science/Kinesiology program. He had a very frank conversation with Marco and asked straight off the bat, “Well, what is your dream job? What do you want to do with your life?”

As a 19-year-old in college, Marco thought that it’d be really cool to be the guy who ran out on the field when a football player got hurt.

“But I looked at that as a pipe dream. He [the exercise science counselor] told me that it didn’t have to be. He said, ‘Go to the downstairs office and get a job as the student athletic trainer.’ So, the next thing you know, it’s the next fall and I was there, running out on the field. It was really great because I love sports and I got to be in a health profession, so it was a merger between both of those worlds.”

But, even though it was really fun being an athletic trainer at USC, Marco wasn’t sure it was a lasting career choice. Athletic trainers work long hours, don’t have weekends, travel a lot, and unless you’re working for big athletic team or school, the pay is not much when you think of the amount of work you’re putting in.

These factors, along with some encouragement from friends, convinced Marco to try out being an aide at a physical therapy clinic over the summer. During his time there, he discovered that it was something he enjoyed even more than athletic training.

“It was the first job I loved waking up and going to,” he says.

Helping athletes compete at the highest caliber (like being able to throw a 90-mile-per-hour fastball) was definitely cool, but working as a physical therapist allowed him to help people who needed therapy to improve their everyday lives.

“Being an athletic trainer is fun but those guys are like 6’2 and 280 pounds. They hurt after maybe a mile of running or something like that. As a physical therapist, you get to work with people who have had, say, a stroke or something and are having a hard time sitting up. That kind of stuff. Then after you work with them they’ll say ‘I felt so much better and was able to get out of my car’ or ‘I forgot my walker at the restaurant and I noticed I was walking without it!’ It’s just really rewarding.”

Luckily, a lot of the exercises that you learn and teach as an athletic trainer are very similar to those you’ll be using as a physical therapist. The educational background is also along the same track.

What are the educational requirements for a physical therapist?

To become a physical therapist, you have to complete an undergraduate program which will consist of general education courses as well as prerequisite classes that you’ll need to get into physical therapy school. Each program has different prerequisites but some basic classes that you’ll be taking are exercise physiology, physics, basic chemistry, biology, biomechanics, and a class that has some sort of statistics in it.

Along with completing these courses, you need to get some volunteer hours to put on your application for physical therapy school.

How do you volunteer at a clinic?

“Just email,” Marco says, “start with something like, ‘I had a friend or family member that went to your clinic and they really enjoyed it. I’m interested in physical therapy and learning more. This is how many hours I’m available.’ That way we’ll know if we [the clinic] need you or not. Oh, and please spell check.”

But be sure that the amount of hours you’re willing to volunteer is reasonable enough for there to be a good amount of give and take. One hour every week will probably not work in your favor or the clinic’s. As a volunteer, a lot of your time will be spent doing little tasks like wiping down tables or folding towels and only after you’ve finished with that can you shadow a therapist and ask questions. So you want to spend a decent amount of time at the clinic in order to get the most out of the experience.

Also, you probably want to consider volunteering at more than one clinic while in school. That way you can get a different perspective on therapists as well as the different types of physical therapy that exist.

“There are different types of physical therapy like cardiac therapy or wound care, even occupational therapy. My whole thing was that I wanted to help people but I didn’t realize there are just so many different ways you can help people.”

Volunteering can help you form a better picture of what you want to do within the field.

What is physical therapy school like?

Physical therapy school is a three-year commitment after your four years of undergraduate classes. Everyone has their own experience but there’s no doubt that any graduate program is going to take up a lot of your time. You have classes that go from around eight in the morning to five in the evening and then you’ll be spending quite a bit of time studying, going to office hours, and getting clinic hours in.

This busy schedule will affect things like your ability to have a job or spend time with a significant other. Marco experienced first-hand (and observed among his classmates) the toll that graduate school can take on other parts of your life. So, keep these three years in mind when considering becoming a physical therapist. Can you deal with the schedule as well as the money constraints?

And the schooling doesn’t end there. After you’ve finished with physical therapy school, you might consider doing your residency.

Why do you want to continue your education?

Doing your residency can definitely help your résumé. Employers will see that OCS or SCS title and appreciate that you have a specialty and are dedicated enough to the industry to further your experience.

But mostly, the purpose of doing your residency is to make you a better clinician. After graduating from physical therapy school, Marco took three years to get in some work experience. During those three years working as a physical therapist, Marco realized that there was something missing. He started asking himself, “Is there something more I could be doing for my patients?” Wanting to improve upon his skills, he decided to apply for an orthopedic residency.

Marco feels that the three years he took away from school were beneficial to his experience doing the residency. As a physical therapy student, you’re treating patients but you are also under constant supervision. It’s a little different from being out in the “real world” working with patients on your own. Having worked out in the field for three years, he was able to bring those experiences to his residency.

There are both pros and cons of doing your residency straight out of school.

“You don’t really know who you are as a physical therapist or how you work until you’ve treated patients unsupervised. But then again,” he reflects, “going straight from graduate school to residency means you’re still in ‘school mode.’ That was a little difficult for me—getting back into that.”

Also, the industry is always changing. Even after you’ve finished your residency, there is so much research going on and there are so many discoveries being made. As a physical therapist, you have to make a conscious effort to stay informed. Marco attends a conference every year and is always reading articles about his field. So, really the educational part of the job never ends. You have to always try to stay on top of everything.

What is an essential skill students/recent graduates need to have to work in this field?

This may not be the first thing you think of when you hear “physical therapist,” but you need to have people skills to work in this industry. You’re working closely with patients and you have to be able to talk with them, find out more about their injuries, and make them feel comfortable.

That was definitely one of the things I noticed when I went in for some advice about my knee injury. Everyone in the clinic was so personable that I was immediately comfortable letting them know where my joint was hurting, what my regular exercise regime was, and how often I stretched (not enough, apparently).

In fact, I think I might have been a bit too comfortable and shared more about my life than necessary. Which is why it came as a shock to hear that Marco actually considers himself an introvert.

“I’m an introvert. If you saw me at the gym or something, I’d have my headphones on, not talking to anyone with the fish face.” [Editor’s note: “fish face” is that ‘Don’t bother me, I’m busy’ look. A term I will be using from this point on.] “If you’re like me, you have to be able to turn on that extrovert part of you. Manual skills are important but the most important thing is being able to communicate and listen to patients.”

So, how does one tap into that extrovert side of their personality?

Marco uses a simple trick that seems to work. Instead of thinking of the patient as a stranger, he thinks of them as someone close to him—someone he already cares about. That way, while he’s speaking with them, he’s comfortable and invested in their well-being.

“When I’m treating a patient, one thing I kind of think about is like, what if this was someone like my aunt Margie? How would I want her to be treated? Or like any family member or a really close friend. Someone I care about. What’s the experience I’d want them to have? Then I just do that.”

What are the best parts of the job?

Definitely improving the quality of people’s lives and helping them return to what they love to do. Whether that be running marathons or just walking without a cane, it’s cool to see the work you do have an impact. Also, because the job does require quite a lot of communication, you get to learn from your patients just as much as you teach them.

Though this interaction can also lead to challenging parts of the job. No matter what, you just can’t keep everyone happy.

What does your workplace look for when hiring interns?

Marco is the center coordinator for clinical education. This means he’s directly involved with hiring interns. Usually he’s looking for physical therapy students in their third year of physical therapy school—that way they have enough of a background to help out a bit more. The internship lasts sometime between 12 to 15 weeks. Interns will come in, observe the in-house therapists, and learn how to treat patients.

Mentorship vs. internship

Marco’s clinic also offers a mentorship program, which is different from the internship program. When a new recent graduate physical therapist is hired, they are paired with a staff member with a similar profile or personality. This mentor will help the new hire get acclimated as well as form a strong feeling of the clinic’s brand. They’ll work through how to deal with certain patients’ problems and for about an hour every week the mentor and new hire will go over any questions that might exist about technique. In between that time, the mentors will check over notes and meet with the hire to talk about problems or concerns.

Becoming a physical therapist is definitely an involved process, but if you’re passionate about helping people, this might be the route to go. You’re making a difference in people’s everyday lives—helping them walk, carry grandchildren, return to work.

Homework time! Interested in becoming a physical therapist? Find out what kind of Pre-Physical Therapy program your school offers. See if you can meet with the Exercise Science/Kinesiology (or a similar major’s) counselor. Does your school offer any positions like a Student Athletic Trainer? See if you can apply. Take Marco’s advice and see if you can volunteer at a clinic in your area.


2 Responses to “What You Need to Know About Becoming a Physical Therapist”

  1. Margaret

    thanxx… for sharing this information with us.. I like your blog…

    I am also looking my career in this field as medical industry is growing day by day…. and by reading your blog i come to knoe about educational requirements for a physical therapist..

    But i am little confused about becoming a physical therapist or professional nonsurgical orthopedic… I had visited http://progressivespineandsports.com/ and i came to know lots of information about orthopedic field….now i m not sure what to do..

    Can you suggest me the right option…???


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