Andrew Smith, on physical therapy

This is a post by my brother, about his career path in physical therapy. It was originally posted on the Regis University school of physical therapy blog.

"My Haphazard Journey as a Physical Therapist and New(er) Faculty Member"

Andrew C. Smith, PT, DPT, PhD

Undergrad and PT School:
University of Washington (Go Huskies!)

PhD Training:
Northwestern University's Neuroscience Program (my department was Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences)

Seattle, WA

Fun Fact:
I do not have a true hometown. I lived in 10 different places by the time I turned 18 years old (military kid).

Andrew Smith bio photo

Dr. Andrew Smith

My exposure to physical therapy (PT) began just like 94.7% of all physical therapists… by a sports injury requiring rehab. Back in 2001, I overheard that many PT schools were shifting to grant the Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. I thought that pursuing a doctorate sounded like an honorable thing to do, so I asked about what to major in for my undergraduate education. My academic advisor suggested either Psychology or Biology. I aced Psychology 101. I horribly bombed Biology 101. Some life decisions come easy. However, as you will read in this blog post, some life circumstances move you in a direction you may not have expected or planned.

Entering into PT school, I was convinced that I was going to work in a private, outpatient orthopedic clinic since I worked as a part-time PT aide for a private outpatient orthopedic company for 2 years. I was tempted to apply for their PT school scholarship with a 3-year service obligation, but for some reason, I decided I would keep my options open. At this time, a major theme emerges — you may be convinced of a professional career path, but life (and God) may very well take you in another direction.

I enjoyed my time in PT school. Finally, instead of being concerned about observation hours, GRE preparation, part-time work, and maintaining a high undergraduate GPA, I could simply dedicate myself to PT school. After exposure to the outpatient musculoskeletal clinic of Seattle's public hospital, I was convinced that I would work there, practicing PT for underserved patient populations. Again, the theme resurfaces — you may be convinced of a professional career path, but life (and God) may very well take you in another direction.

Along with my clinical rotation at the outpatient musculoskeletal clinic (mentioned above), I also did a rotation at a classic skilled nursing facility (SNF). Although I enjoyed my experience at the SNF, I believed that I was going to work at the outpatient musculoskeletal clinic. This was in 2008, and my wife was entering into her third year of medical school.

So, did I graduate PT school and go work at that outpatient musculoskeletal clinic practicing as a PT for underserved patient populations? Nope. My wife and I moved to Spokane, Washington, for a year, and I signed on with a large SNF company. Again, the theme returns. My wife completed all her third year medical school rotations in one location, and I learned the ropes as an entry-level PT at a SNF in Spokane. As fate would have it, I was the sole PT supervising two physical therapy assistants at that location. I had to quickly get comfortable with patient care and had a trial-by-fire experience, but I wouldn't change it for anything. The patient population, mostly elderly, was amazing, and I learned so much from these fascinating people. A point here is that SNFs can get a bad rep, but it is actually very rewarding and fun work.

In 2009, we moved back to Seattle, thanks to the large SNF company that transferred me to a location back in Seattle. I worked at a facility where the majority of patients were elderly and of Japanese descent. I am half-Japanese, and I absolutely cherished learning more about the culture and simple Japanese phrases to facilitate patient-interaction. During this time, a position opened up at the outpatient musculoskeletal clinic of Seattle's public hospital. As underserved medicine was and continues to be a strong passion of mine, I was so excited this opportunity came my way.

Fortunately, I secured the position and was back working as a PT at Seattle's public hospital's outpatient musculoskeletal clinic where I originally completed my PT student rotation years before. Here, I grew my knowledge and skills of musculoskeletal physical therapy and my appreciation for underserved patient populations. I signed up for my pension plan and looked forward to working at my dream job for years to come. As the reader might now anticipate… I was wrong. Again, the major theme — you may be convinced of a professional career path, but life (and God) may very well take you in another direction.

In 2010, my wife matched for her pediatric residency in Chicago. I made every attempt to re-create my job situation by applying for a handful of jobs and reaching out to locations, yet no one called me back. Just mere weeks before we moved, I received an e-mail from Dr. Maria Knikou at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She mentioned a need for a research PT to work with individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI). I had zero exposure to research. I never worked with a person with SCI. So… I was a perfect fit, right?

Andrew with other faculty

Dr. Maria Knikou, Andrew, and the lab members at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

At the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, under the tutelage of Maria, I learned the ins and outs of research. I also worked as a clinical PT at the inpatient SCI floor. I developed a real love for folks with SCI. Despite such a major devastating injury, I am consistently amazed at the resilience and joy that these people display. Here, I also learned that I both enjoyed and had a knack for SCI research. I decided that I needed to become more established as a rehabilitation researcher. A few clinicians in my life were enrolled in Northwestern's Neuroscience PhD program. They told me that if I get in, if I know who I want as PhD advisor, and have a general idea of what I want to study, then it was a pretty good gig. As a PhD student, I could get a small stipend per year, with tuition waived, and I would not have to withdraw additional student loans. Again, the major theme manifested itself in my life. I studied compulsively, re-took the GRE, and submitted my application.

In 2012, I began my PhD program, and finished in 2016. During this 4-year period, I grew immensely under the guidance of my PhD Advisor, Dr. Jim Elliott. I completed my dissertation using magnetic resonance imaging and both clinical and electrophysiological measures to investigate the disorders of whiplash and SCI. I also continued to work part-time at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, mostly at the SCI floor, and I was able to serve as a teaching assistant for the physical therapy students' neuroscience courses. I found the blend of research, teaching, and clinical practice to be fitting for me.

Andrew presents his PhD thesis

Dr. Jim Elliott and Andrew at Northwestern University for his PhD thesis defense

So, here I am, a new(er) faculty member at Regis University's School of Physical Therapy. I continue to work in the realm of SCI research, teach, and am now back to outpatient orthopedic care at our Regis Neighborhood Health Clinic occasionally. I continue to work with underserved patient populations through the Stout Street Clinic and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

To all students: I hope my story calms your worries about clinical rotations, as you may find your professional journey ends up like mine — haphazard and not perfectly aligned to your plans. You are entering into a beautiful profession, and one of its redeeming qualities is the flexibility you have within the vast realm of physical therapy. From SNF, to outpatient orthopedic, to inpatient neuro, and to academia, this profession offers a variety of settings to try out and grow into. And if the major theme comes into play in your life… My advice is to enjoy the ride.