Are you a physical therapist who is interested in changing careers?
I had the pleasure of interviewing Fei Jiang, who changed careers from being a physical therapist.
Many physical therapists graduate with a great deal of student loan debt. Desperate to generate income, they often find themselves stuck in a physical therapy job they are not happy with but must remain loyal to because of their student loan debt situation or simply not sure how to pivot out of it.
There is more than one potential solution to this, with one being a complete change in career path. While I am passionate about being a physical therapist, some of us may be happier with a career change – I am sure this is true in nearly all professions.
My hope in sharing this interview is not to discourage physical therapists and physical therapy students from a career in physical therapy, but to provide insight on one of many potential solutions to improve both your financial situation and happiness in life. Enjoy!
Question: Hi Fei! Thanks for agreeing to share your story with the Money Mobilizer Community! Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
Hi everyone! My name is Fei. I’m a physical therapist turned business consultant for a global firm and I’m here to provide insight on how I made the big leap. If you’ve ever thought of making a leap from your current career but are not sure if you should – maybe my story can help.
Question: Thanks, Fei. How about we start with you telling us about your path to becoming a physical therapist?
Sure! My path to becoming a physical therapist isn’t typical compared to my peers. Meaning, I was never an athlete who got injured and had an amazing rehab experience. Nor did any of my relatives receive physical therapy for injuries. So, I ended up in healthcare for two reasons:
1. I graduated undergrad in 2009, which was during the economic recession, and that gave me perspective on finding work that is recession-proof.
2. I tried a bunch of internships – from interning at a chemistry lab, to marketing at a tech company, to a financial firm, and I ended up really enjoying my time interning at a physical therapy clinic. I truly loved helping patients get better so they can get back to doing things they love. I wanted to know how to do it, and pursuing a DPT degree became a no-brainer.
Question: So, once you completed PT school, how did your mindset change?
Great question. After graduating with a DPT in 2014 from the University of Southern California (USC) and working for 5 years in the field, I decided to get an MBA and make a career change.
I had enjoyed my physical therapy journey and explored it all – I’ve worked in inpatient hospitals, outpatient clinics, veterinary clinics, and the VA – everything except pediatric care. I’ve tried Luna (physical therapy on demand), home health physical therapy, and cash pay. I’ve even gone through an orthopedic residency program and obtained my OCS.
All of those experiences led me to come to the following realizations:
1. Staff Physical Therapy Pay Can Have A Low Ceiling
I found opportunities to increase my salary as a staff physical therapist difficult to come by and receiving 1% pay increases each year wasn’t even keeping up with inflation.
Even though I improved my skillset as a physical therapist by getting my OCS, it did not automatically result in an increase in my income as a staff physical therapist. In addition, I found that it made me treat patients more efficiently, which is not directly tied to earnings because insurance reimbursement emphasizes time spent/number of visits rather than quality of care.
Some people say you can get more patients while being more efficient but really, one person has only so much band-width!
I also could not envision myself becoming a director or supervisor, nor going into cash-pay business.
2. Documentation Is Time-Consuming
I could not foresee myself performing patient care 40 hours per week (not including documentation time) for the rest of my career. And those 40 hours didn’t even include the time needed to complete my documentation, which continues to gradually become more and more time-consuming. Some insurance companies even require that I write progress notes after every 2 visits!
I think most therapists can relate to the annoying grind of doing notes in the morning before patient care, during lunch breaks, or after hours.
3. Career Outlook
Reimbursement rates keep reducing, with no end in sight. This is especially frustrating because there is so much evidence on the benefits of physical therapy.
This means working more for the same or less money. If I am already tired, how will I feel about this decades from now?
Question: So how did you figure out that getting your MBA was the next step you should take?
Funny story here. I decided to apply for an MBA while studying for the OCS. After residency I moved back to LA and one of my new roommates was a UCLA Anderson student. I thought it was a sign to apply ASAP.
On a more serious note, I thought about the question “What do I actually enjoy doing?” quite a lot. The answer was, I love problem-solving, working with clients, and having variety. Sounds like physical therapy, right?
However, I wanted to apply this to organizations. As a PT, I felt like I didn’t have much of a voice. Whenever I questioned something that didn’t make sense, my managers always responded, “Don’t ask me, it’s coming from the ‘higher-ups’.”
I wondered how these ‘higher ups’ were making decisions. Is it policy-based, financial-based, data-based, personal experience-based, or all of the above? I thought going to business school could help answer these questions.
I also thought that maybe the higher-ups did not relate to the healthcare workers and patients and therefore made brash choices that deeply affected us but not them.
Could I be a ‘higher up’ with a more complete view?
Question: How did you decide on which MBA program to apply to?
Since I was in so much student debt, I decided it would be more responsible to apply to UCLA Anderson’s part-time FEMBA (Fully Employed MBA) program. This enabled me to work during the day and take classes 2 nights a week. There were weekend options but I chose Tuesdays and Thursdays 6pm-10pm classes so I can have my weekends (which became time for homework and parties).
Question: How did you decide on pursuing consulting for your new career?
So, earlier I said I wanted to solve problems, work with clients, and have variety on an organizational level. I found just that with consulting.
While I was open to generalist consulting (ie. consulting for any industry from retail to tech), COVID-19 really turned things around. Yes, I was lucky to graduate during both a recession and a pandemic. Yes, I am being sarcastic here.
Despite the stress of volatility in the job market at the time, what became really exciting was the acceleration of innovations in healthcare. What I thought was not possible before became possible! There was a lot of focus on change and digitalization in healthcare that has been historically outdated, hierarchical, and painfully slow. This was so incredibly exciting to me, and I luckily landed a role in consulting with a focus in healthcare.
Question: Did you find that getting your MBA helped in your career path?
I found that getting my MBA signaled to others that I can do more than just clinical roles. While physical therapists have skills that can be incredibly versatile, I think others’ perceptions of you (or even your perception of yourself) can limit your opportunities.
Additionally, consulting firms target MBA schools so it helped me get my foot in the door.
Question: Did you find that getting your MBA from UCLA helped open doors that may not have been opened if you had gotten your MBA from a less recognizable program?
Choosing which MBA program to go to depends on your goals.
I think if you want to end up in a more competitive field like consulting or care about networking, going to a top program helps. Some firms are choosy where they look to recruit.
However, if you want to stay in the healthcare field (i.e. administrative role, or something physical therapy-related), I don’t think it is necessary to go to a top program. Getting an MBA signals to others that you can and want to work in non-clinical roles no matter where you go.
Question: When do you think a physical therapist should and should not consider getting an MBA?
Physical therapists should consider getting an MBA if their future goals align with it and they want to do it.
A couple of examples of this would be if you want a corporate job or do a start-up that would benefit from the course work and networking opportunities. And you have to figure out if the benefits will outweigh the costs (the costs being the financial cost of tuition and opportunity cost of time!).
Physical therapists should not consider an MBA if the opposite is true from the above.
Additionally, one thing that really surprised me about MBA course work is that there’s A LOT of math! If you can’t be bothered with math again, the program may not be for you. While math isn’t hard-core engineering-like, there is a lot of emphasis on probabilities, formulas, excel work, and chart/diagram readings.
Question: What if a physical therapist wants to change careers but doesn’t want to pursue an MBA? Are there other degrees that you might recommend they look into?
Yes! Another common degree to get is a Masters in Public Health (MPH). Largely, MPH programs focus on healthcare administration from a public health perspective. If you want to do hospital admin, the MPH degree can be an excellent choice. There are 1-year programs for this.
There are also online programs that are cheaper and more accessible (MBA, MPH, leadership certifications) that could be helpful to look into as well. Other orthogonal options could be learning how to code via coding boot camps, getting a real estate license, or tapping into other networks and opportunities you currently have like helping a family or friends business.
Question: Has having a physical therapy background helped you with your new career at all?
The quick answer is yes. My physical therapy background helps me currently in two different ways:
1.) As a professional
2.) As someone who understands the healthcare landscape
The skills that were translatable from physical therapy were putting structure around unstructured problems, working well with clients as a good listener, managing people – both with colleagues and clients, and working hard.
Since my current clients are stakeholders in healthcare, I am able to use my experience working at all of the different clinical settings to empathize with end-user experiences (patients, healthcare providers). I could envision how a new solution can impact them on a deeper level. Additionally, it’s helpful for me to connect the dots between payers, providers, patients, life science companies, and regulators.
Note that what my physical therapy background did NOT help me with, that I have to learn on the job, are PowerPoint and Excel skills, and lots and lots of industry jargon.
Question: So now that you are in a different career, can I just do the impolite thing and ask if you’re making more money?
Haha, yes, my income has doubled and there’s growth beyond that as well.
Question: And are you happier now that you’ve changed careers?
Consulting is inherently busy and stressful, with volatile hours. Some days you work into the night and others not much to do and can travel.
With that said, my quality of life is overall better.
I get to work from home which means I can take walks during breaks and get dental appointments. I can also travel (over the past 6 months, I’ve worked from 6 different cities). I prefer this flexibility over the consistent 9am-6pm.
Additionally, I get nice time off during holiday seasons (my clients do not work during holiday breaks so I get a break too!). There’s more time off than the typical 2 weeks from the clinic. There’s better benefits in corporate settings generally.
Question: What about your student loan debt – how do you plan on managing both your DPT student loans and your MBA student loans?
My financial situation is horrible and I don’t wish it upon anyone else – it’s nearly half a million dollars of student loan debt!
That said, I have a financial advisor who has been incredibly helpful. We strategized on a method best for me. Thus, instead of paying a bunch of loans off, I believe cash is king so I diversify where to put my money.
I am doing the PAYE student loan program and investing into different accounts (401k, Roth IRA, medium brokerage, property, and a little in crypto of course). It’s not the best situation, but I do feel less trapped with the new job due to growth potential.
Question: Do you have any advice for those considering applying to PT school that want to make sure getting their DPT is the right career choice for them?
If you know you want to go to a physical therapy program, have a financial plan. Consider and evaluate different options like state school vs. private programs. Discuss plans and options with your family and/or financial advisor to optimize your situation. Having a plan and understanding what it means long term has helped me feel comfortable with making a career change and this is empowering.
If you are unsure if becoming a physical therapist is right for you, I would advise you to talk to different professionals. Talk to your family, relatives, friends. Cold message people on LinkedIn that you are curious about and ask for a quick phone call (I’ve received a few!). People can give you in-depth insights beyond what you can find on google.
Question: That’s great advice. Thanks for all of the insight, Fei. I’m sure I speak for many Money Mobilizer readers when I say thanks for being so open about your journey.
You’re welcome, thanks for the opportunity!