Setting Yourself Up for Success in PT School

Sonya L. Irons, PT, DPT, CCS
Posted 1/19/24

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Work life balance. Three little words that enter the conversation in physical therapy (PT) school. This might be your first exposure to all day classes, with a combination of lecture and lab classes. That leaves you balancing all other duties outside of those eight hours, from laundry, house cleaning, meal prep, exercise, quality time with family and friends, studying, homework, and preparing for class. What you experience as a student, from a time management aspect, is truly a preview of your future career demands. Sometimes work life balance is referred to as work life integration because the line blurs.

About eight years ago, I decided to take an intensive continuing education course on the principles of health and wellness coaching. At that time in my career, I felt like I was missing key information on how to have meaningful conversations with patients embarking on lifestyle changes. It was in this continuing education course that I learned more about the terms burnout and moral injury and their respective impact on both the clinician and the patient.

Recognizing healthcare professionals, including PTs, are at risk for burn out and moral injury are significant steps for the entire healthcare community. Since knowledge is power, what can you do as a student to initiate strategies that will help you stay engaged for the long-term to provide quality care? I certainly do not have it all figured out, but looking back, these student strategies often translate to a professional setting:

1. Learn to prioritize. I remember my advisor telling me that I should study 2 hours for every 1 hour of class. It does not take a math major to calculate this means 16 hours of studying for every 8 hours in class. That was the moment I realized it was my responsibility to prioritize tasks for completion. Certainly, the goal is to carry-over this skill to the clinical setting, as your future clinical instructors and supervisors will expect you to triage priorities in a clinical environment. 

2. Read your syllabus. Professors expect this step, and there will be deadlines embedded in the syllabus that you may miss if you are waiting for someone else to keep you informed of the deadlines. 

3. Never pull an all-nighter. Protect your health and time. Maybe you won’t get exactly 8 hours of sleep every night in school, but an all-nighter isn’t going to help you perform better. Additionally, you may have to set boundaries, even as a student. It is hard to say no to outside activities to assure you have enough time for studying or sleep, but learning to set boundaries is a skill that will help you in the long run—it is worth it.  

4. Find something every day that brings you joy. Your “to do” list is never finished, whether it is at work, home, or school. This can be tough to accept, but once you stop chasing the end of that list, you can prioritize something that brings you joy—maybe that includes having a conversation with a friend or taking a walk outside. 

5. Find happiness in your current situation. Have you ever said the following statements? “I will be happy when this test is over.” Or, “I will find joy when the semester is over.” Work to find your happiness in the present instead of waiting for a test or a semester to be over.

6. Improve and adapt study habits. Although I believed that my study techniques from undergraduate were successful, I had to change my pace significantly when I started graduate school given the volume of information covered every day. I was more of a solo studier in undergraduate, and I quickly changed (and embraced) to a group studying model in graduate school. 

7. Utilize the hour. I used to think, “Well, I only have an hour, which isn’t enough time to accomplish anything.” With focus and a little bit of flexibility, you can accomplish quite a bit—even if the studying occurs while waiting in a lobby for an appointment or waiting for a bus to arrive. Challenge yourself in those shorter periods to see what you can accomplish.

8. Ditch procrastination. This one is hard for everyone, but graduate school will not pause and wait for you to catch up. Take advantage of tutors or other resources early in the semester/quarter. Waiting too long to seek out help will feel like you are trying to dig yourself out of a hole. 

9. Consider your home environment. Do you choose to live alone, with classmates, or friends?  How do you perform best? How will your commute affect your morning schedule? What will your night routine look like to ensure you are punctual to school or your clinical rotation in the morning? How will you structure your time outside of the classroom? These decisions can impact other aspects of your life, so take time to consider your best-self scenario. 

10. Find support. Your support system might be your family and close friends. For others, your classmates will become your support system. If you are fortunate, they will become lifelong friends. Find supportive classmates because you are all in this together. They understand what you are going through. Take the time to learn from them, including their time management skills, and enjoy life with them. 

As you strive to become a well-rounded PT, having talking knowledge and awareness of these terms related to time management, burnout, and moral injury are important. You may hear these terms from faculty, during a lecture, or in a conversation with your clinical instructor. We need to be able to talk openly about these concepts. I wish you all the best in discovering what truly sets you up for success. 

About the author: Sonya L. Irons, PT, DPT, CCS is a Board Certified Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Clinical Specialist and a course instructor for Scorebuilders.