Monday, August 17, 2009

Best Careers 2009: Physical Therapist

Next to the clergy, physical therapy ranked highest in job satisfaction, according to a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. More than three quarters of physical therapists reported being "very satisfied" with their occupation. In a similar survey by the Wall Street Journal's Career Journal, physical therapy rated one of the eight best careers.

And it's easy to understand why:
  • You're a one-on-one coach, a role that many people enjoy. It's a bit like a fitness coach but with more skills and you're helping people with more acute problems.
  • You usually see real progress. For example, it's touching to see a patient, who came in on a stretcher or in a wheelchair, walk out at the end of treatment.
  • Unlike physicians, who often are restricted to 12-minute appointments, you typically see a patient for an hour.
  • You have considerable autonomy in how to solve problems, yet, unlike in self-employment, you can get a steady and pretty good paycheck.
  • There's variety: Most physical therapists are generalists. You might treat, for example, a brain-injured child, a football player who broke his arm, an Iraq War veteran amputee, and an aged stroke patient.
  • You can choose from a wide range of work settings, notably hospitals, physical therapy clinics, schools, physicians' offices, and patients' homes.
  • Unlike many other health professionals who must work nights and weekends, you usually have normal work hours.
  • Despite increased use of lower-cost physical therapy assistants, the job market for physical therapists is projected to remain strong as the baby boomers are reaching the age where they get more weekend-warrior athlete injuries and more serious problems.

Like all careers, physical therapy has downsides:

  • This career is physically demanding. All day, you're moving patients around, demonstrating exercises, and so on. That's a plus for some people and a minus for others who might prefer a desk job. It's not uncommon to leave work with sore muscles.
  • Burnout risk. Many of your patients will be newly disabled, in pain, progressing slowly, and/or frustrated by the painful exercises you prescribe. That can take a toll on you.
  • Training requirements have been ratcheted up. Not long ago, a bachelor's degree would do. Now, a master's is the minimum, with a three-year doctor of physical therapy increasingly the norm.

Nevertheless, if you're a science- and helping-oriented person, fascinated with the human body, and have an optimistic personality, a physical therapy career may heal your career pains.

By Marty Nemko