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My Transition from PT Student to New Grad Travel Physical Therapist

Travel therapy is somewhat of a mystery for most PT students and new grads. It’s not talked about much during physical therapy school curriculum, and there are a lot of therapists that believe that it’s a terrible idea for new grads to become travel PT’s.

This post will detail my personal experience of becoming a new grad travel PT, some of which might not be applicable for your own personal situation. My hope is that sharing my story will help answer some of your questions, and show that it might not be so difficult to start traveling as a new grad.

For more information about starting travel therapy as a new grad, I recommend this blog post by Travel Therapy Mentor. 2020 is not the best time to jump into traveling, especially as a new grad, so make sure you’re well informed about the current challenges as a travel PT.

How did I first hear about travel PT?

During my senior year of college, I completed about 40 hours of observation at my local hospital. Two of the physical therapists introduced themselves as travel PT’s. They met in PT school in Arizona and then decided to travel as new grads to help pay off their student loans.

I didn’t even know that healthcare providers could travel for work. The idea sounded interesting to me, but I didn’t give it much more thought than that. All of my energy for the remainder of that year went towards my PT school applications and interviews.

When did I seriously consider traveling?

During the spring semester of my 3rd year of PT school, we had to create an Individual Professional Development Plan (basically a 5-10 year career plan). I still had my last 2 full-time clinicals remaining, and felt pretty lost in what I wanted to do with my career and where I would want to live for the next couple years.

I was interested in so many different settings, wanted to keep learning about a lot of different diagnoses, and was craving to learn from as many colleagues as possible. I also knew of a handful of states where I could see myself to working permanently, but I had never lived in those states. What if I actually hated the state or setting that I chose? What if my favorite setting didn’t pay enough money for me to pay off my 6-figure student loans?

I decided to learn a little bit more about travel physical therapy. It seemed to hit off all of my main goals:

  • Travel the country
  • Live in different cities and states to know where I want to “settle down” one day
  • Learn from as many other therapists as possible
  • Try out different settings and work with different populations
  • Pay off my student loans quickly
  • Have flexibility with vacation time (a couple months each year seemed pretty nice!)

So, I added travel PT to my Individual Professional Development Plan! (along with becoming a Clinical Instructor, an adjunct professor, participating in international service trips, and volunteering at least 50 hours per year……)

How Did I Prepare to Become a New Grad Traveler as a PT Student?

During the entirety of 2018, I learned as much as possible about travel PT. I joined all of the travel Facebook groups, read lots of blog posts, met travel therapists, and asked LOTS of questions. Travel PT is not something you want to do if you are not prepared, especially as a new grad.

Feb 2018 – I attended the APTA Combined Sections Meeting and spoke to about 7-8 recruiters at different travel PT booths. I had 2-3 minute conversations with most of them, and didn’t feel like there was potential for a good connection with a majority of the recruiters. I usually just got handed a business card and then they went on to the next interested student. I found one recruiter that I instantly got along with, and ended up speaking with her for about 1 hour. I also met Dylan Callier (of the New Medical Nomads podcast) at a networking event and got to learn a little about travel PT.

June – August 2018 – I spoke with 2 travel PT’s on the phone (who Dylan recommended) to learn more about their experiences. I also spoke with 2 recruiters on the phone (recommended by those travel PT’s) to ask them lost of questions and see if I might want to work with them one day.

September 2018 – I attended Traveler’s Conference the week before my PT school graduation. I took several classes to learn about traveling, networked with other therapists, and met a few new recruiters. I met one recruiter that I LOVED and knew I wanted to work with.

I also contacted Travel Tax on the phone and email to learn more about tax homes. I was pretty confused, and wasn’t sure if I would need to take my first physical therapy job near my parent’s house to re-establish my permanent address in California, since I had been living in Maryland for the full 3 years of PT School. They were able to answer all my questions about my specific situation.

I graduated in mid-September, then drove cross country back to California, and continued studying for the NPTE.

October 2018 – I reached out to my favorite 2-3 recruiters to keep in contact, and let them know I was planning on looking for a travel job once I took the NPTE at the end of October. I began the onboarding process with each travel company, which included submitting lots of documents (resume, references, physical and immunizations, Tb tests, etc).

I passed the NPTE and the California Jurisprudence exam at the end of October, but I still had to wait for my California license. I didn’t submit to any travel jobs before my license approved, because I wasn’t sure how many weeks it would take to process.

My PT License was Approved! Now What?

My CA license was approved about 2 weeks after I passed the NPTE. I already finished all my paperwork with 2 travel companies, so I contacted those recruiters and let them know that my license was approved! I didn’t have my license in the mail yet, but I was able to access my license number online.

They both sent me lists of jobs in California, with their locations and settings. I let them know which jobs I was interested in, and then asked for more information about the work hours and pay.

All of the acute care jobs wanted 2 years of experience, so I couldn’t apply for those. I applied for some outpatient jobs, but after interviews and my clinical experience, I fully realized I didn’t want to go into the outpatient ortho setting. I got one offer at an outpatient pediatrics clinic, however I was feeling really anxious about accepting the job. I didn’t have any savings, and didn’t have any student loans left over to pay for 1st months rent and a security deposit.

I sadly declined the pediatrics job, and instead accepted a local travel job for 13 weeks at a skilled nursing facility that was near my parent’s house. It doesn’t count as a “travel” job in that I had some non-taxable stipends, so all of my pay was hourly/taxable. I was able to create an emergency fund, started paying off my student loans, and saved up money for future living expenses.

Once I was financially prepared for moving and living expenses, I repeated the process of applying / interviewing for jobs that were in California, but further away from my permanent address. I applied for the same pediatrics job that I had declined a few months prior, and was thankfully given the offer again! I accepted the job, and was finally getting the chance to travel and explore a new city.

Do you have any questions about travel PT? Ask below!

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  1. Sam

    Hi! Pre-PT here 🙂 could you elaborate on how being a travel PT could help you pay off loans quicker than if you weren’t traveling? I’m very interested in the idea of being a travel PT one day, and hearing it could help pay loans off quicker makes that even better.

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Sam! Thanks for leaving a comment. My answer is long and I needed to simplify a lot. If something doesn’t make sense, please let me know!

      The first thing I’ll say is that I wouldn’t rely on travel PT to help pay off your student loans. There are a lot of variables to traveling, and it can actually be more expensive if you end up unlucky. For example, job contracts can cancel before they even start, but after you’ve paid for your housing. You might not be able to find a contract in your desired states or settings, leaving you to have long unemployed breaks. You should definitely learn about all of the downsides to traveling, because it isn’t just a short-term job that pays a lot of money. The COVID pandemic has also left most travel PTs unemployed for a significant amount of time, leaving many to pursue permanent jobs, so you never really know if there will be another recession at the time you will graduate PT school. While I did travel PT for a few years, I definitely recommend reading through other travel therapist websites to learn more about traveling. There are some that have done it for 5 – 10 years, and I always go to them for advice.

      Now, to answer your question: Basically, travel PT’s are paid with a low hourly rate (typically around 20/hour) which is taxed, and then you’re also paid a per diem for housing / transportation / food, which is untaxed. Travel jobs typically pay around 1600 – 2100 each week (which is after taxes), so you have the potential to make the equivalent of over 6-figures a year. Additionally, when you go to file taxes each year, only your hourly wages are taken into account, so your total income and taxes are lower. If you had your loans on an income-based plan (such as REPAYE), the interest rates and monthly payments on your loans could also be significantly lower. This means that you can focus paying back your HIGHEST interest rate loans faster.

      For more detailed information about finances, there are a few blog posts created by other travel PT’s that are helpful (Fifth Wheel PT, and New Grad Travel Physical Therapist). Check out the websites and Facebook groups (on my Social Media blog page) for all the travel resources I know about.