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Key Success Factors of Physical Therapy

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This paper explores the different factors college students consider to have a successful physical therapy career. These factors are necessary for pre-physical therapy college students to prepare for a competitive growing market. In 2011, the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) executive committee appointed a task force to focus on developing a model to forecast the supply and demand of physical therapists through 2020. The APTA model supports the projection that there’s a possibility that the need of physical therapists will increase until the year 2020. (APTA Projects Future Supply and Demand of Physical Therapists, 2013)

The scope of this paper is to provide insight on a few factors and expectations that college students should already be aware of, or should consider in order to become successful, and fulfill the demand in physical therapy. There is much quantitative studies that go over different deciding factors students consider to pursue a career in physical therapy, but there isn’t much qualitative research available on students pursuing physical therapy. Therefore, we will review three pieces of quantitative literature and analyze the gaps of having a successful physical therapy career relative to graduate program selection, career expectations, and success factors. Then, we will conclude with a discussion the literature review and then tie in a semi-structured interview and interpretive phenomenological analysis by filling the gaps to understand one aspect as to how and why students develop these success factors.

Factors Influencing Professional Master of Physical Therapy and Doctor of Physical Therapy Students’ Program Selection.
Johanson (2004) conducted a quantitative research, via survey by means of electronic mail, telephone, and post-mail to 34 program directors to find the factors students consider when choosing between a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) or a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. At the end of the survey process, of 919 students, “only 29.9% of respondents were MPT students, and 70.1% were DPT students.” (p. 10) As a result, Johanson (2004) found the top three factors (out of 22 factors) are degree conferred, reputation of program, and location. Johanson points out that the study “focused on one point in time, just beyond the stage of the students’ final program choice. (p. 16)

Sex Differences in Career Expectations of PT Students
Johanson (2007) developed another research report using her previous research data that explored the factors influencing college graduates to persist to pursue a post-graduate education and choose a particular program. This time, the research report focused on physical therapy career expectations based on sex, and time before potential influences from faculty and clinicians during education. The methods were the same, but the data analysis used chi-square “to test for proportional differences in career expectations between men and women.” (Johanson, 2007, p. 1201) The results were significant between gender differences. Johanson (2007) explains:

Male students’s expectations of owning practices, managing or administering practices, becoming faculty members, publishing articles in professional journals, and having higher incomes mirror some of the current sex differences among practicing physical therapists. More men than women currently do own practices, hold more managerial or administrative positions, hold more faculty appointments, and have higher incomes. Male students’ expectation of higher income may be related to some of their other career expectations. (p. 1204)

What is interesting about this study is that it seems as if it’s more focused on males versus females. Considering that physical therapy is a female-dominated profession, why is it that Johanson perceives males with more expectations than females, especially since males are underrepresented as there were only 238 respondents versus the 678 women respondents. Also, the study limited itself by not exploring “family responsibility and association with career expectations.” (Johanson, 2007, p. 1206)

Gender and Physical Therapy Career Success Factors
Rozier, C. K., Raymond, M. J., Goldstein, M. S., and Hamilton, B. L. (1998) investigated certain factors considered important in defining physical therapy career success between men and women. This data was collected through written surveys. A sample of 1,906 physical therapists responded to the questionnaire. Results show both men and women identified the following factors as indicators to achieving career success: practicing ethically, improving patient health, and feeling satisfied over high income or status position. (Rozier et al., 1998) Rozier et al. (1998) also mentioned that family issues influence the factors of achievement; especially in females (i.e., “ability to manage family responsibilities in conjunction with employment opportunities.”) (p. 690) A few things that limit this study is the qualitative analysis on motivational factors like family, friends, and internal motivation.

Designing the Interview
Broad speculations shows physical therapy has a growing number of applicants within recent years. (Johanson, 2004) One may wonder why a person would pursue a career in physical therapy when there are other occupations with more prestige and higher income benefits during this time. This concern was fulfilled by first investigating the market within the medical field. By using a model that manipulated data collected through APTA member surveys, the appointed APTA task force showed that there’s an increasing demand for physical therapist. (APTA Projects Future Supply and Demand of Physical Therapists, 2013)

While a literature review was conducted, it became apparent that physical therapy is a female-dominated industry, which means there may be a rise in males entering the field. However, there isn’t enough evidence to support an adequate financial compensation for physical therapists which raises concern as to why else people would pursue physical therapy as a career. With limited research done from a qualitative view, it became apparent that a semi-structured interview and Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis was an appropriate data collection technique and methodology to capture the participant’s life experiences, developed through factors such as sports. The participant is a male undergraduate student who covered the gaps found in the three quantitative literature when asked lifestyle questions. These interview questions are referenced in Figure 1.

Figure 1.
Interview Questions
1. Why did you choose Physical Therapy?
2. How did you get into Physical Therapy?
3. What are you doing to work towards your goal to become a physical therapist? 4. What networks have you made so far?
5. How would your network help you in your goal?
All identifying information has been altered to ensure confidentiality. The participant’s name is Joe. At the time of the study, Joe was a 19-year-old full-time student pursuing his undergraduate degree in the Pre-Physical Therapy option of the institutions Kinesiology program. Joe is considered a sophomore in college, with at least 30 completed quarter units out of 120 units. His college level Grade Point Average (GPA) ranges between a “B-“ to a “B.” Joe’s mother is an accountant and his father is a car salesman. He had grown up in the U.S. living in a middle-class society. Joe has experience in football, soccer, and basketball, but specialized in street hockey. Data Collection

The interview ran for 26 minutes. The interview was recorded and transcribed verbatim resulting in seven pages of transcript. The video recording device used was a Macbook laptop using the Photo Booth application facing the camera at the participant. The interview took place on a park bench within a court yard consisting of three other park benches, each of which were not within earshot of each other. The court yard was secluded from walking traffic between classes, which provided an excellent interview space with minimal disruption. The researcher lead the interview by first exchanging pleasantries and then asking rapport building questions regarding current classes, sports, and subjects of that matter.

Once the discussion moved into sports, the participant revealed a phenomenon of how a sports injury resulted in his interest in physical therapy. Probes and follow-up questions funneled the interview to gain information about experiences of his developing interests in physical therapy. Once the interview was complete, the researcher coded the interview and developed themes. The interview concluded with good flow and closed smoothly. However, there were moments when the interview was paused by the research in search of any missing points, but Joe was polite and waited patiently.

Data Analysis
The analysis of the interview data followed class lecture by Dr. Atencio on coding to develop themes. Analysis started by writing up field notes some time after the interview, lessening to the recording and reading the transcript several times. Writing notes attempted to provide to answer what is the theme for this research report. Once the whole transcript had been reviewed, initial notes were transformed into short codes capturing the essence of the report. These codes were listed so that the process of grouping may commence. Connections between emergent themes were established so that themes grouped together into higher order themes.

Higher order themes were then given names that represented the subordinate themes within that grouping. These themes were used to research literature to reference in research reports. The themes were checked in regards to the literature review and transcript to reflect the actual words of Joe. The themes were divided between gaps within the literature review and the interview, which has then been used as extracts to support this research paper.

Analysis of the results revealed an event that lead to his decision in choosing physical therapy as a career. Joe expressed that he and his friends were drawn to sports. He mentioned a time when he and his friends were suppose to gather to play video games, “but instead of video games [they] just played hockey and soccer outside.” When asked about how Joe became interested in physical therapy he replied: It’s a weird circumstance. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was going through high school so I was just playing football and during my junior year, in practice, before the season ever started, a guy went for a tackle. Wrapped around the guy and didn’t even know how to tackle. He went around and took out my left knee. So I had to go to a physical therapist for that.

So what I saw what the physical therapist did, I was like—oh, this is pretty interesting—because I was always wanted something to do something that pertains to sports. That’s the one thing that kept me to what I want to do when I grow up. I wanted to do something that relates to sports and I saw what they did. They help people, they still helped people in sports… because that’s basically where I want to go. Although Joe’s injury was unfortunate, he chose a career path relative to his hobby in sports, which, to this day, his injury is the cause of pursuing a career in physical therapy. Success Factors

Similar to Rozier’s article on success factors, Joe is taking those first few necessary steps by taking physical therapy classes, looking for internships to practice physical therapy, and is willing to take any physical therapy position and work his way up. In contrast to Rozier’s results of high income and balancing family-issues, Joe managed to handle those factors through his father by staying consistent with his passion and standing up for himself. When asked about how his family feel about him becoming a physical therapist, he replied: They support me except for my dad. He supports me but he wants to control me. We recently has a talk where he asked ‘do you want to be a physical therapist,’ and i’m like, ‘yea, I still want to become a physical therapist.’ and then he was like, ‘so you don’t want to be a orthopedic doctor?’ and I was like, ‘no… I don’t want to become a orthopedic doctor. I want to become a physical therapist.’ ‘or how about a radiologist?’ … He’s just trying to guide me into going into the Air Force because that’s the easier way out and I personally don’t think there’s an easy way out.

Joe then talked about how his father has been trying to steer him away from physical therapy many times:
He wants me to make money. That’s his goal in life. I understand where he’s coming from, that money is what fuels you to what you can do in life, because without money you can’t do anything. And an orthopedic doctor earns more, which is true. They earn more but I’m not going to like it… Physical Therapists earn a good amount, not a great amount but a good amount of money. Enough to live.

Joe’s passion for his future career allows him to overcome great obstacles like his father to pursue his goals. He expressed that whenever his dad gives him a hard time with his career, he reminds himself of how much he loves sports. He wants a job that keeps him involved with sports. Physical therapy does that by way of improving an athletes’ health. Career Expectations

Joe’s findings mentioned in his success factors overlaps with Johanson’s (2007) point in explaining that students expect owning practices, managing and administering practices, etc. However Johanson also pointed that there’s a need to investigate family responsibilities associated with career expectations. Joe coincidently exploits Johanson’s need by revealing his support system:

My aunt is my true supporter. Even though she didn’t pursue physical therapy, she worked with physical therapist for a while and played sports through her gollege years. My grandma and my aunt, they talk a lot, and my aunt has a son too. He’s an engineer at San Luis Obispo, but apparently from what my grandma said, my aunt looks up to me a lot because I can associate with a lot of people. I can build connections with other people. She thinks I can go far in life. So i’m like, that’s nice to know from her. My sister, she supports me but we don’t really talk about it because it usually diverts into her… My mom is a strong supporter. As long as I keep focus, she’ll support me.

Joe’s family responsibilities as a college student are almost non-existent because of his strong family support on any expectations regarding his career decisions. Professional Program Selection Joe’s interview added great data to Johanson’s (2004) article on factors influencing program selection: degree conferred, reputation of program, and location. Comparatively, Joe is pursuing a doctorates at a school with a good reputation associated with sports. When asked about his plans for graduates school after completing his undergrad, Joe replied: I’ve looked at Sac state, Fresno state. Those are pretty good programs. My girl friend is currently living with me and we have a plan. She had came back for me cuz she moved to Texas and she came back to California for me. So I’m gonna move to Texas for her. [Also,] physical therapy is pretty big in Texas and sporting is really big in Texas and my girl friends’ parents, I’m really close with them and they currently reside in Texas.

The underlying motivation drives Joe to pursue a doctorates physical therapy program which fills a gap in Johanson’s article as to why those factors exist.

Findings from interview provided a unique contribution to physical therapy literature by using a qualitative approach to explore different factors in how and why some students’ physical therapy aspirations developed. Findings drew attention to where motivation derives from and why they may want to pursue physical therapy. Joe found that physical therapy is his bridge to maintain his passion in sports and its athletes. His plans, motivation, and support system will surely lead him to success.


APTA Projects Future Supply and Demand of Physical Therapists. (2013). PT in Motion News. Retrieved from http://www.apta.org/PTinMotion/NewsNow/2012/1/6/WorkforceModel/ Johanson, M. A. (2004). Factors Influencing Professional Master of Physical Therapy and Doctor of Physical Therapy Students’ Program Selection. Journal of Physical Therapy Education, 18, 9-21.

Johanson, M. A. (2007). Sex Differences in Career Expectations of Physical Therapist Students. Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association and Royal Dutch Society for Physical Therapy, 78, 1199-1211.

Rozier, C. K., Raymond, M. J., Goldstein, M. S., & Hamilton, B. L. (1998). Gender and Physical Therapy Career Success Factors. Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association and Royal Dutch Society for Physical Therapy, Vol. 78, 690-704.

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