A Career on the Move
Words by Eve Jacobs/Photograph by John Emerson
It doesn’t take the smarts of a brain surgeon to figure out why physical therapy jumps right to the top of the jobs list with an amazing spectrum and quantity of opportunities. The numbers of sports injuries of fitness aficionados and athletes of every age are climbing, the anti-aging battle of baby boomers is in full-bloom, and many more individuals survive the traumatic injuries of accidents and war but require long-term rehabilitation. And we are all living longer and may require some help staying mobile. It certainly looks like no physical therapist will have to search hard for work in the foreseeable future. CNN Money’s “Best Jobs in America – 2010” ranks this career number 4 out of its top 100, naming great pay and growth prospects and excellent quality of life.
Nancy Kirsch, PT, DPT, PhD, director of the three-year, entry-level doctor of physical therapy program at UMDNJ’s School of Health Related Professions (SHRP) in Newark, agrees whole-heartedly. “Physical therapists will always have a job,” she says. It’s a profession she loves. “It’s always different. It’s always changing. You’ll never be bored a day in your life. And you’ll always be employed.”
The UMDNJ-Newark program admits 50 to 55 students each year from an applicant pool of 300 or so. About 60 percent of students enter the graduate program within a couple years of earning a bachelor’s degree, while 35 percent are career changers, many in their late 20s and 30s, but some in their 40s and 50s. Most of these have discovered they hate sitting behind a desk, Kirsch says. The career changers admitted to the program over the past few years include a furrier, a chiropractor and a biology teacher.
The remaining 5 percent come through the “3-plus-3” program with one of UMDNJ’s partner undergraduate schools. What this means, according to the program’s director, is the fourth undergraduate year is the first year of the doctoral PT program, and the student earns the bachelor’s and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degrees in six, rather than seven, years. Many of these young students don’t anticipate the difficulty of the doctoral program. “The workload blows them away,” says Kirsch.
While applicants often have an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences, frequently biology or exercise physiology, any major will work, as long as the prerequisites, including anatomy and physiology, physics, chemistry, statistics and psychology, are successfully completed prior to applying. “When Wall Street is hurting, everyone starts calling,” laughs Kirsch, although she says few Wall Streeters are willing to take on the three-year curriculum and prerequisites.
Top grades in the relevant courses are important, but great people skills, including the ability to communicate well in writing and verbally, are high on the list. While Seton Hall University, Stockton State, and a combined UMDNJ-Rutgers program in Stratford also offer DPT programs in New Jersey, the Newark school’s chief competition for the best applicants is Columbia University in New York.
Chris DeCaro, 36, from Hampton Township in Sussex County, entered UMDNJ’s DPT program in 2004, seven years after graduating from Boston University with a bachelor’s in biology. After teaching secondary school biology for six years and coaching varsity- level and junior varsity soccer, as well as basketball and softball, DeCaro was ready to move on to something new. With an entrepreneurial spirit, a desire to teach at the college level, and a longtime interest in understanding movement, she “bit the bullet” and went back to physical therapy school full-time for three years, losing her income and incurring educational loan debt. But she thinks it was well worth it. The 2007 graduate who became licensed to practice that year is now the sole owner of Northern Hills Physical Therapy in Flanders and loves her profession.
In her practice, DeCaro sees some sports injuries, but “takes care of people with a variety of orthopedic problems, across the lifespan,” including quite a few children and teens. She advises those thinking of this field to volunteer in many different practices and venues. “There’s such a variety of opportunities in physical therapy — not all related to sports. Orthopedics grabbed me and it’s what I do now,” she says.
During year three of the DPT program at SHRP, students complete three rotations in various physical therapy settings. Ambitious to get as much experience as possible, DeCaro completed four rotations: one at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, a rotation in brain injury at a facility in Haledon, NJ, affiliated with St. Joseph’s Medical Center, another in pediatrics, half at the Children’s Hospital at Morristown Memorial and half at an outpatient facility, and a fourth in orthopedic/spine at the University of Michigan. They were all great learning experiences, she says.
According to Kirsch, the school has more than 450 clinical sites. “Twenty years ago, most physical therapists worked in hospitals,” she says, “but that has changed. Now, more than 50 percent work in the private sector.” She names industry, nursing homes, acute care facilities, professional sports teams, college athletics departments, rehabilitation facilities, private offices, and home health care agencies among the places where physical therapists are employed. Most of our graduates get multiple job offers, she says, but many “end up where they did a rotation.” There is also a huge faculty shortage in this field, so teaching opportunities are plentiful. After passing the licensure exam, DPT grads can practice as generalists or in a specialty. Specialization within the profession is growing, according to Kirsch, and one-to-two year residencies in pediatric, neurologic, sports, orthopedic, geriatric and cardiopulmonary physical therapy are options for graduates to gain further experience. “There are close to 80 residency programs now,” she says.
DeCaro, an ’07 alum, keeps close ties with the school. Not only is she an adjunct faculty member (she’s not teaching at the moment), but she purchased Kirsch’s practice and is now supervising Matt Thompsen, 27, from Randolph, a third year student.
After graduating from The College of New Jersey with a degree in statistics, he worked at a pension company for six months and was miserable. “I love sports, being creative, being with people,” he says. “I like being on my feet — not sitting at a desk all the time.” He tried the profession on for size as a physical therapy aide and found that he liked it very much. “I enjoy working with patients and seeing them return to a sport or job. It’s very rewarding.”
After completing his prerequisites at the County College of Morris, he applied to just one program — at SHRP in Newark. Cost, quality and geography were uppermost in his mind. “The program is tough, as I expected,” he says, “but it’s not unmanageable. You get a great education.”
Thompsen looks forward to his professional future. He will graduate in 2012. Outpatient orthopedics — specifically sports rehabilitation and injury prevention — are what he enjoys most. “I like when patients are more active. I don’t like the hospital as much.”
He advises those thinking about this career to volunteer or get a job as a physical therapy aide. “See what really goes on,” he says. “Don’t stress about making a career choice when you’re an undergraduate. Make friends. Develop social skills. What you major in is not all that important.”
“In physical therapy, there really seem to be more jobs than therapists to fill them,” comments DeCaro. “When we need to hire, we fight for the graduates.”