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5 Tips to Build Confidence as a New Grad Physical Therapist

I think when we all first come out of physical therapy school, fresh out of our final internships and holding our new license numbers nervously in hand, we all experience some amount of panic and anxiety. Am I good enough? Do I know enough to help people? Will people even trust me in their care? Confidence may still be low and the responsibility of “knowing your stuff” can weigh heavily upon one’s shoulders.

However, in my short time practicing as a new grad physical therapist, I’ve found that there are a few key things that have really helped me grow into myself as a confident therapist. Perhaps the biggest compliment of all has been that patients and colleagues alike had no idea I was a new grad until I told them, having responded with, “Oh, but you seem so seasoned!” Personally, “fake it ‘til you make it” is a phrase I dread hearing. I completely believe that as new grads, we have been well-prepared for success. We just have to remember that we are capable! Hopefully, the following tips in the workplace will be useful to you.

1. Introduce yourself and your purpose

I’ve been guilty of rushing through my professional verbal tagline in the past. Granted, in certain situations and circumstances, it’s not always feasible nor appropriate. However, I’ve found that when I give myself a proper introduction, slow down, and explain to my patient/client why I’m there and my role as a provider, it not only increases the confidence the patient/client has for me but also the confidence I have in myself. Remind yourself who you are until it sinks in; own your identity – you are a Physical Therapist and you have a lot to offer!

2. Listen to your patients

Every person is living a story and their pain experience, or disability experience, is another one. Be sure you give them enough time to speak and listen with undivided attention. As PTs, one of our blessings is that we typically get to spend a little bit more time with our patients/clients compared to other providers. So, spend part of that time tuning into the stories of your patients, listen wholeheartedly, connect with them, learn from them, and free yourself from judgment. You’ll find that oftentimes, listening will give you information on how you can best help your patient. Furthermore, it will help establish a sense of trust between you and your patient as you continue to build a confident working relationship.

3. Explain the what’s and why’s – The importance of intent

Don’t underestimate your patient/client’s desire to learn. Again, this obviously changes from patient to patient, but a large part of being a physical therapist is being an effective educator. By keeping your patients well-informed on how the treatment ties in with their impairment, it enables the patient to achieve increased ownership of the healing process. For those who are really interested, I’ve found that explaining the scientific rationale (in an easily-digestible way) is really motivating to a lot of my patients/clients. In addition, I do think this is a great opportunity to showcase that you know what you are talking about (and it helps you stay focused and confident, too)! I also feel this helps us stay away from becoming a “cookie-cutter” PT in the long-run – always remember your intent and reasoning behind everything you do.

4. Bring something new to the table and stay proactive

As a new grad, we are armed with a lot of up-to-date knowledge. At my first physical therapy job, I was proactive about using clinical tests and measurements that the clinic was not traditionally using. Don’t be afraid to pull up a new test and add it to the clinic’s repertoire of practice tools. Remind yourself that you’ve gained a lot of knowledge in the past three years and that it’s worth sharing! I loved being able to contribute and you will find that your colleagues will greatly appreciate it as well. I know that many of us are fearful of being labeled the “needy new grad”, but rest assured that everyone is understanding and trusts that you have a lot to offer. It also pays off to do your homework, keep yourself immersed in the literature, and review your material as needed.

5. Remember to love yourself

Okay, so this one will likely be waved off as cheesy and cliche, but it’s important. One of the biggest confidence-extinguishers is when we don’t wholly accept ourselves – how many times have we spoken negatively about ourselves, criticized our own actions or in-actions, and/or stomped on ourselves after perceived failures? The nature of the therapist is to live with an empathetic heart, but remember to empathize with yourself, too. Remember to keep a growth mindset not just toward your patients and co-workers, but for yourself as well. So what does this mean? Make time for yourself daily, whether that be going on a nice run, engaging in a good book, spending some fun times with family/friends, or giving yourself a session of peaceful solitude. Reflect daily and remember to use as much effort connecting with yourself as you do with those you help. The more authentically whole you feel within yourself, the more you radiate good energy and confidence.

About Emma Lam

Emma is a clinician in the SF Bay Area focusing on orthopedics. She admires the resilience of the human mind and body, with vested interest towards holistic health and healing. She graduated as a Doctor of Physical Therapy from Samuel Merritt University in 2016 and enjoys the field in its entirety, with aspirations to contribute to PT education and research. Outside PT, she likes to spend time drawing, reading, playing with her bunnies, and staying active.

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