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Guide to Physical Therapy Observation Hours

Most schools require some observation hours, which was definitely my favorite part about the entire application process. It’s not boring and you’re not just standing in the corner staring at the physical therapist and patient (although this does happen some of the time). Observing allows you to get to know a physical therapist, learn about the career field, and figure out if this is really something you want to pursue!

This guide will give a general overview of the process and answer some commonly asked questions. I will also give a summary of my experiences in the 5 settings in which I observed.

What are observation hours?

Observation hours include paid and volunteer time spent with a physical therapist. They may be directly treating a patient, or you may be filing paperwork or cleaning treatment areas – it all counts as long as a PT is there to witness!

Are observation, shadowing, and volunteering the same thing?

Observing and shadowing are exactly the same thing. These hours can be paid, or unpaid hours, as long as you are directly observing/shadowing a physical therapist.

Volunteering typically refers to the general term of helping out other people, whether it’s folding laundry, organizing equipment, making handouts, helping with secretary duties, cleaning bathrooms, etc. Volunteering in a hospital may include giving family members directions, taking phone calls, decorating, or helping in a gift shop. Volunteering hours don’t count as shadowing/observing unless you are directly with a physical therapist.If you happen to clean a treatment table or fold laundry between shadowing patients or asking questions, then I would probably include this time in your hours. If a majority of your time is spent away from patients and the therapist, then these hours do NOT count.

How many observation hours should I get?

Each school will have their own requirements. Check the school’s website, PTCAS website for each school, or the PTCAS Observation Hours Summary. You must meet the requirement for each school in order to be considered for acceptance. This is not a just a recommended guideline, so double check what each school requires. Some programs specifically require a certain number of hours in outpatient and inpatient.

I recommend that you observe in an inpatient setting, whether or not it is required by the schools you will be applying to. Inpatient physical therapy can look vastly different from outpatient settings, so it’s good to see as much variety as possible. Try to get 20-40 hours in different settings, rather than getting 100 hours in just clinic. You’ll be exposed to different patient populations, different treatment techniques, you’ll get a better idea of what you’re interested in, and you will have more physical therapists to potentially write you a letter of recommendation.

More hours than the minimum required may not make you more “competitive” of an applicant. If you already meet the minimum hours for all your programs, try to diversify your number settings rather than racking up a bunch of hours at one clinic.

Where can I observe a physical therapist?

Here are the possible settings to choose from on the PTCAS application. You can choose more than one for each facility you observed at (for example, if the acute care hospital also had inpatient rehabilitation).

  • Acute Care Hospital
  • Rehabilitation Hospital
  • Skilled Nursing Facility
  • Outpatient Orthopedics
  • School
  • Wellness/Fitness
  • Occupational Health
  • Home Health
  • Other Inpatient Facility
  • Other Outpatient Facility

Here are the possible populations observed to choose from on PTCAS. You can choose more than one for each facility you observed at.

  • General Orthopedics
  • Neurologic
  • Cardiovascular/Pulmonary
  • Integumentary
  • Geriatrics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Aquatics
  • Women’s Health
  • Other

How do I schedule observation hours?

Call or message the facility where you want to observe and introduce yourself. Have a list of days and times when you are available BEFORE you call, and ask if any of those times are available. A good amount of time may be 2 hours / week for 2 months, or 4 hours/day for 2 weeks. It may take time to get all your hours completed, so don’t stress if it takes you 1-2 years to get your hours.

  • In person – Few people will show up to a clinic in person, so you’ll stand out as someone who really wants to shadow at that clinic. I would recommend showing up in the morning, as that tends to be less busy. Be prepared to wait until a therapist has free time to speak with you.
  • Call – If showing up in person is not possible, calling is great too! Expect to call several places before you find somewhere to observe. Try to avoid calling around lunch time or just before closing.
  • Email – This is another option but it is likely that the email will be ignored. I emailed 10-15 places to observe, and only received one positive response. Plan on sending many emails before you get any responses, so I recommend using this as a last resort.
  • Volunteer department – Hospitals generally require you to sign up online through the volunteer department. Larger hospitals may have a waiting list, so try to get your inpatient hours as early as possible.Some hospitals also may require a long application with references, and may require you to volunteer for 6 months minimum. It may be easier to observe at a smaller hospital, or to call the hospital directly and explain that you want to shadow a physical therapist, not volunteer.
  • Rehabilitation department – You may need to contact the therapy department of a hospital or nursing home directly, because sometimes the volunteer department is for general hospital volunteers, not students looking to become a healthcare provider one day.
  • Use your connections – Ask your friends and family if they know any physical therapists.
  • Ask your local school district – School therapy is less popular for observation hours, so use Google to your advantage to find an email or phone number.
  • Find home health companies online – Call the company number and try to speak with a physical therapist.
  • Network with physical therapists online – Try to make connections on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Does someone have their own cash-based private practice? Send them a private message and ask to shadow.

What should I wear?

My top suggestion is to ask the clinic what their dress code is. Most outpatient clinics are business casual. Many hospitals and nursing homes require scrubs, however volunteers may be able to wear business casual. In general, I recommend wearing:

  • A nice shirt (doesn’t need to be a button down, but avoid casual t-shirts or shirts with graphics / logos)
  • Pants
  • Closed toed shoes
  • Minimal jewelry

Make sure your shirts aren’t too revealing, and try to cover up any tattoos you have. I also recommend avoiding wearing too much cologne or perfume, or scented lotion. Some patients are sensitive to fragrances and may have a bad reaction.

What should I do while observing?

This depends on the setting, and you can read the details of my experiences below. I watched treatments and asked thoughtful questions either during the treatment or right after, depending on what felt like a better time to ask. For example, in orthopedics, I just asked questions during the treatment because I usually talked to the patient and physical therapist, so it didn’t feel out of place to ask. In the hospital, it worked out better for me to ask questions when walking to another patient’s room, or when they were typing up the paperwork on the computer between patients. Just be yourself and be engaged in the experience! Notice how the PT talks to and interacts with patients, what questions they ask and how and why they treat something a certain way. Ask what they like and dislike about their job, other places they have worked, how much paperwork they are required to do, their thoughts on the future of physical therapy, etc.

Still not sure what to ask? Click here for 75 questions to ask physical therapists, patients, and other staff members!

Depending on the setting, you may be able to be more active in the treatments. If you’re an aide, you may perform ultrasound or apply heat packs, or if you’re volunteering you might follow behind a patient with a wheelchair. Try to be as active and helpful as possible!

Between patients, there are a lot of things you can do. You can fold laundry, cleaned treatment rooms, organize equipment, talked to other staff members, read through the pt aide binder, jotted down notes on the patients I just saw, or talked to other patients that were in the room. If you’re unsure of what to do, just ask! Sometimes it’s hard to be proactive if you’re worried about getting in the way, but it gets easier over time.

What to do when you are finished observing?

Thank every single patient for allowing you to shadow. At the end of the day, thank each staff member for helping you learn. If you have shadowed for a long time over a few months, it could be nice to bring in a gift or a thank-you card.

Make sure you respect patient privacy and follow HIPAA guidelines. Don’t share patient details on social media or with family members. Don’t write too much information on your application essays. If you’re not sure, make sure you read the guidelines before you decide to share any interesting stories.

How do I report all my hours?

PTCAS has an article on how to submit your hours. You can record all your hours on an Excel spreadsheet (more details on this blog post).

When you apply to PT programs, you will need to input the start and end dates of when you observed, what settings, what patient populations, and the name of a therapist that supervised you. If your school requires verification of these hours, you will also need an email address for one physical therapist at each facility.

Click here for a free downloadable spreadsheet to keep track of all your observation hours.

My Shadowing Experiences:

  • Outpatient Orthopedics (65 hours) – I volunteered at my school’s health center, so I mostly saw students and some employees of the university. I liked that I was able to observe with 5-6 different physical therapists and I saw different injuries. However, I didn’t like how I saw a lot of ankle, knee, and shoulder injuries, and the PT aides used heat packs, e-stim, and ultrasound on a lot of patients. Most of my time was spent cleaning and organizing the clinic instead of observing the therapists, so this was my least favorite of the experiences.
  • Aquatics/Pediatrics (36 hours) – I volunteered through a community nonprofit which worked with children with special needs. We met once a week for 1-2 hours, and each volunteer was paired up with one child. We said hello to our kids, helped them into the pool, did a group activity, then worked with our kid alone or in small groups, and then ended on another group activity. Some kids were able to swim in the deeper end, but most of them were held in our arms as we moved them through the water and they played with toys and the other kids.My first semester, I was paired with two girls who were wheelchair-bound as they had a steel rod in their back, and they used a feeding tube so I had to be careful to make sure that water did not get in their mouths (which is pretty difficult because other kids LOVE splashing!). It was tough to work with them because they had limited mobility and they weren’t able to speak, so I tried my best to communicate with facial expressions and hand movements.The following semester, I switched between several different kids, but the one I was with most often was diagnosed with dwarfism. He was able to walk and talked a little bit, and he was really shy around the other kids. He was one of the youngest and had trouble swimming without his dad for the first month or so, but gradually became more confident and was playing with other kids and going underwater. It was so cool to see his progress and be a part of it.
  • Fitness/Wellness (81 hours) – I observed here for 3-4 hours a week for one school year, but I really loved coming here! This PT converted the master bedroom in her house into a clinic, and she ran her cash-based business out of her house. I lit candles and made sure the music stayed on during sessions, so that was really different than every other setting (in a good way!). I love that she had longer sessions (1.5 hours for evaluations and 1 hour for treatments), and she incorporated a lot of yoga into the treatments. I saw a lot of different patients, and I saw one or two patients often enough to see them progress and get to know about their lives. Many patients were there for chronic conditions, which was different from the other settings I saw in which patients were recovering from surgery or recent injuries. There was a lot of downtime between patients, so I had a lot of time to ask her questions and play with her adorable 1 year old baby.
  • Inpatient Acute Hospital (39 hours) – I volunteered here on my winter break for 2 weeks. I showed up in the morning when all the PT’s and aides were in the rehab room. We were all given a printout of all the patients that needed to be seen, everyone updated the group on how the previous day’s treatments went for each patient, and then everyone decided which area of the hospital they wanted to go. There were 4-5 different areas of the hospital, and I only saw patients who were recovering from surgery, broken a bone, or were older and had difficulty moving. A majority of the patients were over 70 years old because this was more of a rehabilitation hospital, so a lot of treatments were in the bed or were gait training down the hallway. I got food tables out of the way, assisted with putting on gait belts, and followed patients with the wheelchair or oxygen tank. I had a lot of time to ask questions between patients, and I remember asking a lot about medical diseases, diagnoses, and abbreviations that were on the patient printouts. I saw how the therapists typed up their paperwork, and one of the aides walked me through the electronic medical record and asked what I would write down for one of the patients. I don’t think I would like to work at this hospital in particular, but I’m interested in hospitals with pediatrics and more settings than this one.
  • Inpatient Rehabilitation Center (15 hours) – I only spent 15 hours here because I already had over 200 hours of observing. This setting was cool because the occupational therapists worked with the physical therapists, so I was able to observe both careers and learn about the differences between the two. I walked with the therapist to the patient’s room, watched patient transfers, and saw treatments in the main gym area. There were 6-10 patients in the gym at a time, so there was always something to watch. I walked around to different therapists when I saw something I wanted to observe and introduced myself to each patient. Each patient shares a room with another and some had been there for months, so they really liked talking about their lives and were generally easy to talk to. The actual treatments themselves were not too interesting, but I loved talking to each person and spending a lot of time with them.

Updated 12/11/2019

Do you have any questions about observing? Ask me below!

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    • Katie - My Road to PT


      That would depend on each individual company. For example, some hospitals may require volunteers or observers to be 16 or older, so you would have to call to ask. I think most outpatient offices would let teens observe.

  1. Kacey

    Thanks for writing this! For your volunteer hours (like outpatient ortho) where you did more helping than observing, did you still mark them as observation hours and had DPT signatures? I did 60+ hours of volunteering at a hospital acute rehab area but didn’t think they were considered observation hours since I acted more like a rehab aide than a student observer.

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hi Kacey! Thank you so much for commenting. I really apologize for the LONG delay in responding.

      I definitely still counted all that time as observation hours, however I do think it’s a gray area. I had more than enough hours (300+) by the time I applied, so I was comfortable just counting everything instead of trying to divide the time up. You’re still learning about things that help the rehab department run smoothly, so it’s up to you if you want to include the time. Ideally you would also have some patient / therapist observation included within those 60+ hours.

  2. Random

    Nice blog! It helps a lot.
    I am an international student, so I wonder if I can gain observation hours in my own country since I am more familiar with the institutions there.

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      You’re welcome! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! You should be able to observe in another country, however please confirm that these observation hours would apply for schools in the US. PT can vary widely in different countries, so it’s likely that you would need to have observation hours from the US. I would recommend checking the websites for any programs that you’re interested to see if they have any answers, or you can call / email programs to confirm.

  3. Lawrence Tolentino

    Hello! I recently developed an interest in PT, finishing up third year of undergrad so I’m a bit late. Did the PTs you shadowed expect you to have a certain amount of knowledge before you reached out/volunteered? I want to reach out to clinics, but I have not taken basic classes related to the field yet as I just switched my career path from business/humanities to pre-med/PT. Thank you for your time!

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Lawrence! I apologize for replying to your comment so late!

      You definitely don’t need to know much prior to shadowing or volunteering, other than the very basics of what physical therapy is. Shadowing is for learning and asking lots of questions, so don’t be afraid of calling places! Physical therapists are pretty chill people overall, so do your best to overcome your nerves and get yourself out there! When you call the clinics, you can feel free to mention that you’ve never shadowed before, so you can ask if they have a normal procedure for observers or volunteers. Mention that to any PT that you end up shadowing that day, and they’ll probably try to explain a bit more.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions. 🙂

  4. Rachel

    How would you recommend shadowing (if at all) during a pandemic? I have a lot of hours, but not as diverse as I would like. I have not been able to shadow since last spring right before Covid hit and I am just worried it may reflect poorly on the application for PT school

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Rachel! I’m sorry I took a few months to respond! I was taking a break from blogging for a while.

      My guess is that a lot of places are still not allowing extra people, especially hospitals / nursing homes. If you’re vaccinated, I would call the clinics near you and see if anyone would allow you to shadow. Private outpatient clinics are the most likely to let you shadow right now. You can also try posting on a few different PT-related facebook groups to see if anyone has been able to shadow in places near where you live.

      Everyone has had trouble finding places to shadow this year, so I don’t think it would look too bad on your PT school application. I would keep trying to find places to shadow, especially now that more people are vaccinated, as it would be best if you had some shadowing hours on your application before starting school.

      Best of luck!

  5. Kai

    Hi! This blog was very well written and very helpful. One question I have. Can high school students observe or do they have to be a college student? Thank you!

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hello Kai! I apologize for taking so long to respond! I was taking a brief break from blogging.

      You would need to call to ask the clinic / hospitals. Regular physical therapy clinics would probably let you observe, but some hospitals have strict policies about volunteering / shadowing and require 18 years or older. If you are reaching out to a hospital, make sure you are contacting the PT or rehab department directly, as they tend to have more lenient requirements.

      Best of luck finding a place to shadow!

  6. Sydney Foster

    Have you seen/heard of shadowing in a military setting? Military PT is something I’m interested in but Im having a hard time finding places/people to shadow that deal with military

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Sydney!

      It’s definitely possible to shadow in a military setting. It’s just harder to come find, especially if there aren’t opportunities near you. Here are my recommendations:

      1. Is there a VA, military hospital, or military base near you? I’d reach out to them directly. You can find Army facilities at
      2. You can contact Army-Baylor’s DPT program and ask if they know of any places that students have volunteered at.
      3. If there truly aren’t any places to shadow near you, you can also consider waiting until you have a 1 – 2 week break in school / work and travel to a different state / location and shadow for that entire time (once traveling is more safe due to COVID). When I shadowed in a regular hospital, I did all of that shadowing over my 2-week-long winter break in college, because I couldn’t find a hospital near my college that would let me shadow for a short period of time.
      4. Join the “Doctor of Physical Therapy Students” Facebook group and ask if anyone has shadowed near your location. There are current military PT’s on there, so you can make a post asking to just chat over email or phone call. Informational interviews are obviously not the same as shadowing, but it can give you great insight as to whether you are still interested in shadowing after learning more about the career and the pro’s and con’s.

      Good luck!

  7. Mel Chua

    I’m considering PT school as a second career (I’m an engineer and dancer who keeps getting tapped to “debug” the bodies of friends).

    I’m also deaf and a wheelchair user, and have been trying to figure out how this would work for observation hours (as well as clinical training). I’m fluent in both spoken and written English (my native language) as well as American Sign Language (ASL). I usually use my hearing aids and cochlear implant and speechreading for 1:1 situations, and then ASL interpreting or captioning for larger meetings, lectures, etc. I’m strong and agile and used to maneuvering my chair around, and can hop out, crawl, climb, etc. to just about anywhere; I just can’t stand and walk.

    I’m curious how you could see this working for observation hours (classes and clinic are things I will have longer amounts of time to figure out). I’m less worried about my wheelchair, since (1) PT clinics are generally wheelchair accessible and (2) I’m so used to maneuvering around spaces and can leave my chair and scoot, sit, etc. if need be.

    The harder challenge will be communication. Like I mentioned before, I do very well with 1:1 (sometimes 1:2 or 1:3) discussions in quieter spaces with good lighting. I don’t think I can request or bring an interpreter or captioner for observation hours – it might also make the dynamics awkward for the patient to have not one, but two more people in the room. I also know that sometimes patients will be in positions (face down, etc.) and the DPT might be at an angle where I can’t speechread them.

    I’m not sure how important the spoken dialogue between patient and clinician will be, and I certainly don’t want my involvement to take precedence over the patient’s treatment! But I would be curious whether you’ve heard of disabled students going through PT programs before, or how you’d suggest going about this.

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Mel!

      I had a classmate who had hearing aids, and she had an ASL interpreter in every class. I believe she used speechreading and talking in 1:1 and small group situations, but I’m not sure if she needed any assistance when working with patients. If you want her information, please send me an email and I can send you her information! She can tell you about her experience in PT school and working as a physical therapist. If you use Facebook, I also recommend joining physical therapy groups and asking if there are any therapists that use a wheelchair, and would be willing to speak with you about the clinical challenges. I think that is the best way to really know what the job will be like, because I can only make an educated guess about the challenges you might encounter.

      Observation hours: I would recommend that you start observing in a small outpatient PT clinic. If you can find someone near you that owns their own business, or is the only physical therapist in the clinic, that may be the easiest due to fewer people and noises. I recommend asking if you can meet with a physical therapist without any patients present, such as on their lunch break, so you can see the clinic, discuss all of your concerns, and have a plan for communicating when patients are present. Therapists and patients are really flexible and accommodating, so I don’t think communication will be a big issue once you have a plan and have tried it out. Having an interepreter might not be an issue at all, assuming there is enough space in smaller rooms. Sometimes the patients will also bring friends or family, so there might not be room for 2 extra people. The patients always have the ability to say no to you observing if they’re not comfortable with 1 or 2 extra people being there.

      There aren’t too many instances that patients are on their stomachs. It might only be for 10 minutes, and won’t be every patient. If a patient is on their stomach, you can always ask the therapist to repeat what the patient said, so you can join in the conversation. If the patient isn’t talking, you can also use that time to ask the therapist questions. If you’re at a clinic with more than one patient, you can usually just go to another therapist and patient and introduce yourself. When I observed, I spent a lot of time just listening to the therapist and patient speak. Sometimes nobody is speaking, or they’re talking about something and you don’t have anything to say, so you won’t be talking constantly. If there are any breaks, you can use that time to ask the therapist questions. Spoken dialogue is definitely important, but it really depends on the patient. Some patients talk a lot, and some are really quiet and play on their phones.

      I would avoid observing in a hospital, with kids, or at a clinic with many therapists / aides / patients, at least until you’re confident in a smaller, quieter setting. Hospitals may be tricky to observe in due to the small patient rooms, but it should be possible. Kids can be tricky to observe if they run quickly, so it might be hard to remain close to the therapist and may make communication more difficult. You should be fine with observing babies or older kids that are less mobile.

      For clinical training and settings: You should be able to do most things required in physical therapy school. There are some skills that you wouldn’t be able to physically perform, such as transferring a patient, but there are some things that may be able to be modified. You might be able to learn about patient transfers, and educate a classmate in how to perform them, as though you’re teaching a family member. If you aren’t able to stand above a patient to perform a manual therapy technique, you may be able to modify the position so they’re not lying down. If you have difficulty with your fine motor skills and can’t really do manual therapy, your PT program might have other elective courses that you can take instead.

      Off the top of my head, there are some settings that would be harder to work in, such as in a hospital, in some neurologic populations, or in skilled nursing facilities. These settings tend to have patients that need help with standing and getting out of bed, and the treatment sessions are usually very physically demanding for the therapist. You also might have difficulty working with kids, depending on their age and diagnosis, if they tend to run around, or if they are older and need help with standing and transfers.

      However, I think anything can be possible. In the hospital, neurologic, or nursing home settings, you may be able to work with an assistant or aide who you can guide to do the physical lifting for you. If you want to work with kids, you can use the coaching model which relies on educating the parents and gets them involved in the treatment sessions, so the parents could do more of the physical lifting. If you’re working at a job with more than one physical therapist, you can likely share a patient with another therapist, so you could be the “main therapist”, and they can do any parts of the treatment that you can’t physically do.

      Let me know if you have other questions! I don’t mind elaborating at all.

  8. N'Orion

    This page was very helpful and gave me a good idea on where to look for my observation hours.
    How did you search for a place that offered PT observation hours? I have been using the web but there aren’t a lot of physical therapists in my area. Should I just call as many hospitals as I can?
    Thank you for the help.

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hi! Thanks so much for reading. 🙂

      I did an online search for “physical therapist”, and looked up all the hospital websites (searching for their volunteer department). All you need is just one physical therapist to say “Yes”, and then you can as that physical therapist if they know anyone else in the area that you can shadow.

      I would call every place that has a physical therapist, because a lot of places might say “No”.

      You might also be able to shadow during your breaks at school. For example, I had a lot of trouble getting into a hospital where I went to college. A lot of students from my school wanted to volunteer, so I would have had to wait for a LONG time. Instead, I waited until winter break when I lived with my parents, and I shadowed about 20 hours/week for 2 weeks at the smaller local hospital that was easier for me to get into.

      If you REALLY can’t find anything, I would reach out to your state’s physical therapy association. Call or email, and see if someone knows a physical therapist that lives near you.

      Best of luck, and let me know if you need any help!

  9. Kasey

    Hi! Again, just as everyone else has said, your blog is absolutely amazing and so so informative! I have been fortunately unfortunate to have had two intense ortho injuries and surgeries that required 3 years of PT pre and post OP, so I have a good understanding of outpatient and ortho.

    I’m starting observation hours as I get close to transferring into late sophomore or early junior year of a kinesiology pre pt undergrad.

    My question is this- what truly is the difference in observation, volunteer, and paid hours? Is one better than the other (obviously getting paid would be great) in terms of your application to the DPT program? PTCAS says lnpatient/outpatient is required and volunteer/paid is “accepted/considered”. A lot of people use “observe” and “volunteer” interchangeably as well when they discuss these things.

    Secondly, thought of PhD in PT? I personally would love research but I’m not sure how interesting PT research would be in comparison to say, nutrition (I’ve always wanted to get into dietetics as well).

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Kasey! Thanks so much for reading. 🙂

      I’m sorry to hear about your injuries, but I’m so excited you chose to pursue physical therapy!

      That is a REALLY good question. In my experience, observation / shadowing / volunteer hours are pretty interchangeable terms. The only place I “volunteered” at was the outpatient ortho clinic on my college campus, because I had to apply to be a volunteer and the clinic had duties for me to complete while I was there 2 hours/week. I was expected to clean all the rooms after each patient, fold all the laundry, organize, cut therabands, clean any IASTM or cupping tools, etc. If there was any downtime, then I would observe a patient, however I usually didn’t directly shadow the PTs.

      When I’ve observed/shadowed at all the other places, I usually just watched the PT / PTA / aides and asked questions, got to know the patients, etc. If there was any downtime, I offered to help clean and fold things, but that was a small percentage of my time spent observing. In general, most people just get shadowing/observation hours. I don’t think it matters if you do that versus volunteer, because you’re not really doing anything “skilled” as a volunteer.

      If you have time for a part-time job and want the experience of being an aide at a clinic, then I’d go for it! Paid hours are a bit better than shadowing/observation because you have more interaction with patients, learn about exercises/stretches/modalities, and might learn about scheduling / insurance things that you might not learn about otherwise. Paid vs observation hours is probably not going to make a big difference in regards to getting into PT school, so if you have plenty of observation hours at different clinics, and don’t really want a part-time job, then don’t stress about getting extra paid hours! You might be better off working in a job that pays more than a PT aide, so you can hopefully save up some money for PT school.

      You should join the “Food and Physical Therapy” group on Facebook, and send a message to Austin Win. He’s a dietician and DPT and would probably be willing to chat with you! 🙂 I’m not interested in getting a PhD at this time as I’m not sure how beneficial it would be for my career interests. I’m also interested in research, but possibly to just participate in a study rather than make it my full-time job. Several of my PT school instructors did not have a PhD but they did research because they also taught at my school. Sometimes you can get in contact with a local hospital that does research and get involved that way. There’s no rush to decide if you want to pursue a PhD, so I’d recommend finding some active PTs on Twitter or one of the large PT facebook groups and sending some messages!

      Best of luck with everything, and hope this helps! 🙂


  10. Sydney

    Hey! I just now found this article/blog and found it extremely helpful! Im hoping to shadow at Benchmark this summer. One question I have is what do you wear to shadowing? I know it can vary depending on the setting, but is there a general attire rule to adhere to with physical therapy?

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Sydney! Thanks so much for reading! I’m glad it was able to help you out. 🙂

      I haven’t heard of Benchmark, so I can’t give you specific advice. If you’re shadowing at a hospital or nursing home, they might have a specific dress code for you to follow to make sure you adhere to infection protocol. They could want you to wear scrubs, long pants, good closed toed shoes, etc. If it’s a general clinic, I’d try to dress business casual (ie. nice pants and a blouse / button down / polo shirt). Try to avoid anything too casual (sandals, shorts, tank tops, dresses, etc.). Typically shadowing is a pretty casual thing so as long as you’re dressed pretty appropriately, nobody will care too much. If you’re still not sure, it never hurts to ask Benchmark before you show up!

      Best of luck. 🙂


  11. Grateful

    Thank you for your blog! It’s very helpful and encouraging.

    I found a website that suggested taking a HIPAA class to be HIPAA compliant. (

    Is this common to do before shadowing, or before sending shadowing requests? Should I take a HIPAA class before I start e-mailing people to ask to shadow, and does having taken a HIPAA class improve my chances of having practitioners let me shadow them?

    Thank you for any help you can give!

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      You’re welcome! 🙂 I’m so glad that it’s been helpful for you.

      I don’t think it’s common to take a HIPAA class before shadowing, and 100% not necessary! I had to do a short HIPAA training for one outpatient clinic that I regularly volunteered in, but the other 4 clinics didn’t teach me anything about it. I just kinda used common sense to keep the patient’s privacy.

      If it’s free, then it could definitely be helpful to take, but don’t worry about it if you have to pay money or if you don’t really want to. I’m sure a quick google search or Youtube video would teach the same things!

      Best of luck getting shadowing hours! 🙂 I’m sure you’ll do great. Let me know if you have any other questions!

  12. Erin

    Hi! So I called a Benchmark PT to see if they would allow me to observe and they said yes. They asked what I wanted to see and I’m not really sure what they meant. Did he mean like the types of injuries, or services they supply?I’m so confused, do you think you could clarify? Thanks so much!

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Erin!!! Thanks for leaving a comment and reading my blog! 🙂

      They probably are talking about specific injuries, ages (kids versus athletes versus older adults), specific treatments (aquatics, dry needling, etc). They just want a better idea of what you’re interested in, so you have an awesome learning experience! I think it would be a good idea to call them again and ask what exactly they meant, and then you can tell them if anything sounds really interesting and you 100% want to see it. If you just want to see anything and everything, just say that!

      Good luck, and congrats on getting some observation hours! I hope you enjoy your time, and let me know if you need any more help. 🙂

      • Erin Shaw

        Sorry for the super late reply, but thank you so much for your hep! I love reading your blog and hope I can follow it through my journey of PT school! You post some really helpful things and I hope school is treating you well!

  13. Etherly

    Hey! I have a question, did you have any knowledge at all about what they do or physical therapy in general before your observation hours? I start mine this week and I’m a little nervous because my knowledge about it is from nothing to beginner. I did take biology/anatomy classes in college.

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Etherly! Thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment. 🙂

      I started observation hours 1 year before applying to PT school. All I knew about PT was from what I searched on Google, and I also spoke to a couple of PTs on the phone, so I also didn’t know too much about PT. It’s 100% normal to know very little about PT – that’s the whole point of doing observation hours! You’re not going to get quizzed or get looked down upon. Every single PT has been a student before, and they just want to help you learn about the profession.

      It’s totally normal to feel uneducated, anxious, or afraid when starting your observation hours, but I can promise you that it gets WAY more fun and LESS awkward the more hours that you do. You’re going to be just fine! Please let me know if you need any help with anything else. 🙂

  14. Christina

    How old can your observation hours be? For example If I plan to apply to PT school in 6 years, would any observation hours I accumulate now still be valid?

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Christina! Thanks so much for commenting!

      I have never seen any rules regarding if observation hours expire. I just did a quick search and PTCAS doesn’t mention it on their website, so I’m assuming that it’s determined by each individual program. I’ve heard of people including hours completed during high school. I personally don’t think your hours will be invalidated, but if you want confirmation, I’d call or send a quick email to local PT schools and see if they have any policy regarding your question. Even if you’re not sure if you want to apply to these schools, it’ll give you some confirmation of what some schools currently require. If any of them invalidate hours after a certain # of years, please email me! I’d love to learn more about it.

      It’s so awesome that you’re beginning hours so soon. I recommend starting to get hours ASAP and slowly continuing to observe over the next 6 years, and make sure to keep track of everything! 🙂 Let me know if you have any other questions.

  15. kmiafitness

    THanks u so much Kate, this is very helpful. TOday I be volunteer first time at PT clinic, i was so nervous and this blog help me a tons of what i am supposed to do.

  16. Pingback:Applying to PT School: The Basics – The Journey to PT

  17. Lexi

    Hi!!! Thank you for the very helpful information. I have a question regarding one of the settings that you observed in. There is a club at my school that does similar things that you did in the aquatic/pediatric setting, but it does not involving shadowing a PT. So my question is does it still count as observation hours? Even though you were not directly working with a PT did those hours still qualify?

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Lexi!

      I forgot to add in my description that the nonprofit was run by two physical therapists, who both attended every week. In order for observation hours to count, there must be a physical therapist present, because they enter in their license number to verify your hours. That sounds like an awesome opportunity for you, and you can definitely include it under your volunteering section and maybe include it in some essays.

  18. myorganicadventureblog

    Hi Katie,
    I am an undergrad student at Towson and I am an aspiring PT. I was wondering how you got to doing inpatient hours. I am finding it to be quite hard as most hospitals have minimum of 100 hours over the course of a year (?)…. also, your fitness/wellness experience sounds amazing! A women turning her master bedroom into a home practice?! Wow! How do you find opportunities like that? I go home during the summer so until summer starts its a bit hard to show up somewhere in person.
    Sorry for such scattered thoughts, but another question. How should I go about finding a home health PT to observe under? Let me know! Thanks for the blog!

    • myroadtopt

      Hey Laura! I hope I’m not responding too late! I haven’t checked my blog in a while, and somehow I didn’t get notifications for any comments in the past few months.

      Cool, Towson is pretty close to where I live! Yeah, hospitals can definitely be difficult to get hours in. I believe they want a minimum # of hours because it does take some time to do volunteer orientation, so they don’t want students that are just going to show up for 1 day and not return. I happened to do some observation hours at a smaller hospital, so I just spoke directly with the physical therapy department, instead of the larger hospitals which have more loopholes to get through. Seriously though, the hospitals near my undergrad required an application, references, resume, and my undergrad was HUGE for pre-meds so there was a really long waiting list. I understand your frustrations!

      So before I was sure I wanted to go to PT school, I emailed and called maybe 15-20 PTs. I found a lot through my school’s alumni website, but I also emailed literally every PT clinic nearby to see if I could talk to them for a little bit on the phone, and get more information about what they do at their specific jobs. I met that PT at her clinic and talked to her for an hour, and then she asked if I wanted to observe every week with her!

      You can definitely do something similar – call or email PT clinics that you are interested in. I know it’s the end of summer already, so I hope that you found somewhere to observe!

      As for home health, that may be a lot trickier to get observation hours in because the PT has to drive to each location, so I guess you’d have to ride with them, or follow them around town? I don’t have any direct experience with that, so the only ideas I have are to find a local home health company and contact them, or use social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) to find a local home health physical therapist.

      Best of luck!

        • Katie - My Road to PT

          Yay, I’m glad you found 2 places to observe! 🙂 I know how difficult it can be. My only other advice is to try to keep in contact with those PT’s, or maybe keep observing there a little bit. That way you’ll have a lot of options when you need letters of recommendation.

    • myroadtopt

      You’re welcome! Thank you so much for reading and commenting! 🙂 If you have any other comments or can’t find an answer to a question, feel free to reach out to me and I’ll do my best to help.

  19. Isaac

    I have been shadowing at a extended care facility where there were many more opportunities to shadow the many PTA’s who were working under the direction of PT’s. Should I include hours spent shadowing PTA’s individually? Or count them as time with the PT? Or do they simply not count at all?

    • myroadtopt

      I would definitely contact PTCAS by calling them, or asking a question on their Facebook page. If you are applying to PT school, then I don’t think you can count the shadowing hours by PTA’s because that is a different profession, and they are not allowed to verify your observation hours. However when I observed at a hospital, I spent some time with PTA’s, aides, and OT’s. I still counted those hours because the vast majority of my time was spent with PT’s, and it would have been a hassle to calculate the exact time spent with just the PT. I would still contact PTCAS just to double check, though.