An Interview with Thomas P. Bukoskey
“I would tell a student that an interest in science and a desire to do good should be to main motivating factors for entry into the field of physical therapy.”
Thomas P. Bukoskey is an associate professor of physical therapy at a university in Fort Worth, Texas. He has been a professor for 9 years and teaches both capstone courses and core classes in subjects including gross anatomy and kinesiology.
Professor Bukoskey earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy from Creighton University in 2005. He also holds a Master of Science in Physical Therapy and a Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy from D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. He currently works as both a professor and a practicing physical therapist while he earns a second doctorate in education from Grand Canyon University.
In your own words, what is physical therapy?
Physical therapy is the task of returning patients to a state of full physical ability so that they can do their jobs, participate in sports and perform other functions in all aspects of their lives. Physical therapists figure out what is holding patients back from full functionality by identifying problems in the body from a neurological, cardiopulmonary and orthopedic perspective.
What classes do you teach in physical therapy?
At my university, I teach core classes in gross anatomy and diagnostic methods, I mentor students in an evidence-based approach to clinical questions, and I teach a capstone class. In the gross anatomy course, physical therapy students dissect cadavers to understand their inner workings in order to gain information that is critical to later classes in pathology, physiology and clinical examination.
In the diagnostic methods class, students learn the tools that physical therapists use to evaluate patients, such as strength and range of motion.
Students near the end of the program take my capstone course, which teaches what might be called the “softer” skills. Students learn about state laws, how to construct a professional resume and so on. I also mentor students on their evidence-based projects by helping them to formulate and eventually answer clinical research questions using scientific methods. Students eventually turn this project into a manuscript that can be submitted for publication in an academic journal.
How long have you been a professor of physical therapy?
I have been a professor in this field for about 9 years, including the period of time when I taught physical therapists and physical therapist assistants.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying physical therapy,” what would your response be?
I would tell a student that an interest in science and a desire to do good should be to main motivating factors for entry into the field of physical therapy. When I ask students during interviews why they want to become physical therapists, they usually say that they want to help people. I understand that motive, but I really hope that a prospective student also has a more specific desire to have an influence on major systems of the human body in order to maximize people’s ability to function on a daily basis.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a physical therapy program have?
Students of physical therapy may have difficulty thinking independently. They may be used to absorbing information by rote and regurgitating it, but physical therapy requires students to apply different overlapping branches of science to a physical problem in a dynamic way. They have to think independently, since issues of physical therapy cannot be approached with routine solutions found in textbooks. In other words, students need to be able to synthesize information and think critically.
Also, students often approach physical therapy with the misconception that they can study only 1 narrow focus, such as orthopedics. However, the expectation upon graduation from any physical therapy program in the United States is that students are competent entry-level clinicians. This requires that they be competent across all pillars of physical therapy. After graduation students can specialize, but not when they begin their studies.
Students also frequently have the misconception that physical therapy programs are sports-related. They may be attracted to physical therapy because they are athletes who were once injured or had friends who were injured and therefore have had a cursory introduction to the field. In reality, physical therapists work in many different settings, from hospices to home health.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a physical therapist and what traits would hinder success?
Discipline and a willingness to work hard are traits that people in this field should have. The student who really impressed me the most came to us 3 years ago with a bachelors degree that wasn’t really science-rich. She didn’t know 1 medical term from another. Nevertheless, she had recently served 2 tours in Iraq and had a resilient attitude. She plans to graduate with her well-earned doctorate in 2012. I have no doubt that she will be a successful physical therapist.
One unhelpful personality is the know-it-all. Some students enter the program having always earned an A and been extremely good at regurgitation. Others may even have another degree related to clinical care, but not necessarily physical therapy. In either case, students like this often act like there is not much a professor can teach them. These students rarely fare well because physical therapy requires people who can learn and adapt.
What courses in physical therapy are most important for a student to take?
It is important that students take courses in all fields of physical therapy, rather than only focus on the field that they are considering professionally. I encounter too many students with bachelors degrees who were too narrowly focused on only 1 of the core subjects that physical therapy draws from, such as kinesiology. Although an undergraduate major that was focused on kinesiology may give them an advantage in my kinesiology class, my anatomy class may stop them in their tracks. It is important that before entering an undergraduate program a student looks at the course requirements and makes sure that they are comprehensive in the course choices that encompass their undergraduate degree.
Can you give a few study tips that would help a physical therapy student succeed?
Teamwork is a great way to test and apply material studied in class. I encourage students to work in groups of 3. The first student asks questions, the second student demonstrates knowledge, and the third acts as the patient. The student asking questions can also give feedback. The process teaches students to take constructive criticism from peers.
Also, in order to dedicate themselves sufficiently to the study of physical therapy, students must be aware of what a sacrifice it is. They have to make sure to inform the people in their life of their commitment, unless they plan on abandoning them for 3 years. One way students can inform family and loved ones is to get them involved. For exampled, my wife has proofread a lot of my papers and she has also acted as my practice patient.
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of physical therapy?
At the moment, the minimum requirement to become a physical therapist is a masters degree, but the majority of programs across the United States offer doctoral degrees. In fact, there is an expectation that by 2012 or 2013, physical therapy programs will only offer doctoral degrees.
Normally, earning the education necessary to become a clinical physical therapist is a 7-year journey. The first 4 years will be undergraduate work. Any bachelors degree with a scientific emphasis is fine, as long as the courses provide background in anatomy and other core subjects. After that, students apply to physical therapy schools by taking the GRE, securing letters of recommendation, and fulfilling other requirements. Once accepted, physical therapy school will occupy the next 3 years of study.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in physical therapy?
Students of physical therapy never have a difficult time finding a job. In fact, most have 2 or 3 offers before they even graduate. In most rankings of hot jobs, physical therapy is usually in the top 10. People are always going to be sick, accidents are always going to happen, and there will always be a place for a physical therapist to make a difference in people’s lives. That being said, the recession has had its effect, and in certain specialties professionals aren’t letting go of their jobs. But in most specialties, students should find gainful employment, and physical therapy professionals should not worry about employment for the next 10 to 15 years at least.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying physical therapy at the graduate level?
The first way to prepare for a graduate-level physical therapy program is to choose the right school. Your choice should focus more on an institution’s intellectual climate than on its credentials. All physical therapy programs are accredited by the same agency, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, or CAPTE, so the standards are fairly uniform. The real decision should come down to culture. Personally, I attended faith-based institutions with smaller classes that fit who I am. You should pick a school that fits your personality.
You can also prepare by examining some of the support systems in place at the schools you are considering. Be honest with yourself about your weaknesses, whether intellectual or financial, and see if the institution helps you overcome those weaknesses. For example, if you have always wanted to attend an Ivy League school but cannot afford it, do not throw yourself into debt by choosing an expensive program. In this field, a doctorate is a doctorate, no matter where it came from.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying physical therapy?
My initial advice to anybody who wants to enter this profession is to volunteer in a healthcare facility or shadow a working professional. Working in a hospital, for example, allows students to see the whole spectrum of a physical therapist’s duties and to witness the concepts they learn in school being put into practice. My own experience as an orderly in a hospital burn ward was quite an eye-opener.
I would also advise young students who are considering the field to pick the top 3 physical therapy schools they want to attend and look at the undergraduate prerequisites. Students want to make certain that they take the right classes at the bachelors level. Otherwise, they will have to make up for those courses once they enter graduate school, and it will require more time and money.