The Untold Story of How my First "Year" of DPT School REALLY Went...

Alright, here it goes - the post I've been dreading to write. Things are about to get REAL personal. So if you didn't already know, I started my first semester of DPT school this past fall. It was a new, exciting, but very challenging experience that did not quite go as planned. I've kept quiet about the nitty gritty stuff and opened up only about the small details just enough to answer the questions of people who have been curious. But now, I'm sharing my story in hopes to bring to light the difficulties I faced, how it affected me while being a part of a not-so-easy curriculum, and how you can overcome similar situations if you are ever faced with them as a DPT student.

Where to start - ahhh geeze. So first things first, being a part of a DPT program is an amazing opportunity. There are usually at least 1,000 applicants that apply to every single program across the country and being accepted will only get more and more challenging as time goes on. Physical therapists are remarkable clinicians and becoming a part of this field is so competitive to ensure that the best of the best are out there practicing. DPT... Doctor of Physical Therapy program - now what does this mean? This means that it is a challenging, rigorous, doctorate-level program that is preparing future health care professionals to make a difference in the lives of countless people. With that being said, it is SO much different than any undergraduate program you have ever been a part of and from day one, you need to make sure that you are taking it seriously and giving it your all. Things will start moving very quickly right off the bat and the material is very, very dense. But remember the bigger picture - you need to be a diligent student not only for your own knowledge and to do well in your classes, but to be a competent clinician and provide your future patients with the best and highest quality of care possible (sorry - had to squeeze in that quick lecture moment).

Anyway... so, let's backtrack just a little bit. Over the summer (right before I got ready to move and start school), I was in a very severe car accident. God works in mysterious ways and somehow my dog and I walked away with minimal injuries, but to this day the accident still takes a huge toll on me. I was unconscious in my overturned car (which was totaled) while my dog luckily escaped for safety but was lost for a day. It haunted me - I felt like I was going to have a panic attack any time I got into a car, I was having horrible nightmares pretty much every day, and migraines became second-nature to me. But this huge life event, along with going through a breakup from a 5-year relationship and big changes in my family, lead me to become both mentally and emotionally unstable. Every day felt like a battle - a battle to be happy, a battle to be motivated, a battle to remain focused, a battle to feel worth something. I cried... a lot. I cursed... a lot. I isolated myself... a lot. I felt so alone in a new, unfamiliar place. I felt like I had no support system. I was exhausting myself by working every day to not only support myself and pay for school, but also get out of the financial hole that the accident put me in through vehicle costs, medical costs, and legal costs. Things were pretty rough, to say the least.

So... wait... what actually happened with school?

Per the regulations of my university, I was dismissed from the DPT program on account of my failing grade in one course (Histophysiological Aspects of Movement). I managed to push through and do well in all of my other classes, but was one point away from receiving a passing grade of 70% in the class - yes just one point. In order to fairly adhere to the university's principles, there was nothing that could be done about it - no "bumping up" or giving points back for questions on the final exam or offering extra credit opportunities. I was dismissed from the program, no longer with my class, and did not take any DPT classes over the spring (January through May).

How did the petitioning process work?

In order to come back to the program, I had to write a petition letter. My petition letter was three pages long (double-spaced) and was addressed to the faculty of my program. I was dismissed from the program in December, but my petition letter would not be looked at until May (this was so that if any students failed the spring semester, all of our letters could be looked at together, as we would all be considered to come back with the next incoming class in the fall). So as you can imagine, waiting for these few months to pass felt like a lifetime. In my letter, I had to identify my weaknesses, why I was unsuccessful, and how I would plan to address my weaknesses and be successful in the future. One thing that definitely helped my petition was taking a class in my time off. I am currently completing a self-paced, 16-week long Medical Physiology class with the University of New England (online). The learning objectives and outcomes align almost identically with those of the course I did not pass. The goals I am achieving by taking this course are strengthening my foundation in related topics and implementing study skills that not only offer great preparation and pave the pathway for future success, but also allow me to gain valuable experience in self-directed learning. The faculty recommended that I took a course to strengthen my knowledge in the core concepts of the class I did poorly in, but it was not mandatory. So, once May finally came around, all of the faculty members in my program had to read my letter and come to a consensus of whether or not it would be approved. Determination was made in the best interest of the student (me) on the basis of whether or not I would, or could, be successful upon returning. The faculty would love to accept everyone back that is unsuccessful. However, if they do not see potential for success in the student, to do well in classes and eventually pass comps and the NPTE, they will deny the petition in the best interest of the student and to further prevent extensive financial loss in paid tuition. The faculty was in support of my petition and extended me a provisional offer to come back in the fall. Because they wanted to make sure I would be successful upon return, my formal acceptance back into the DPT program was determined by my successful completion (grade of C or better) in my online course.

So... you're starting over?

Technically, yes - back to square one. No longer a part of the class of 2020, but instead the class of 2021. I will not have a full course load in the fall. I will be taking the course I did not pass (Histology), along with Anatomy I and Examination and Intervention (clinical skills class). These are two very dense classes that largely build on each other in subsequent semesters, so I want to stay as fresh and skilled as possible in these subjects. I will maintain the credits in all other courses I already completed. Then, come second semester, everything will be "back to normal" and I will have a full course load/be fully integrated with my new class. My GPA must stay above a 2.8 for the remainder of my time in the program and if it would fall below this value, I will not have the option to return again without completely reapplying to the program.

What will you do differently?

  1. Work less.
    This is what really got me this semester. I worked WAY too much - typically at least 5-6 days a week. I highly advise against working during DPT school, even if it's only part time. I can tell you right now, managing finances may be rough if you had planned to work during school. But regardless of how disciplined or efficient you may be, balancing the course load of DPT school and working simultaneously is just too much for one plate and I'm sure all faculty and current students across the board can agree. See what your options are when it comes to financial aid, loans, scholarships, and grants. Regardless of whether you work during school or not, you are probably still going to have a hefty amount of student loans to pay back when you graduate and start practicing. No one wants to pay back student loans for half of their lifetime, but you have to keep school as your #1 priority and make sure you have optimal time to study and nonetheless be successful. If you absolutely have to work during school, then come up with a strategic plan for how you will balance the two. And if working ever becomes too much, cut back and make adjustments to fit your educational demands. I may work a few days a week in the fall since I will not have a full course load. However, come spring time, I will probably not be working at all - MAYBE a few weekends here and there, but my spring schedule/course load will absolutely not permit for me to work very much (if at all).

  2. Improve my study habits.
    My study habits were ever-changing because I had a hard time figuring out what truly worked best for me in the class I did poorly in. It felt like no matter how hard I tried, nothing worked for me and the information just couldn't stick. So when things started getting really overwhelming, I stopped trying my hardest and didn't give it 100%. I'm someone who easily gets stressed out when working with study groups - especially if I feel like we're not all on the same page or moving at the same rate. So, I do most of my preliminary studying alone, then work in small study groups after I have had the time to study/learn by myself. The class I did not pass was Histological Aspects of Movement. This class was tough for me 1) because I worked too much and didn't have enough time to study and truly grasp the material and 2) since I am a visual learner and most of what is learned in this class is at the microscopic level (and there was no lab or clinical component to the class - just lecture), it was challenging for me to make sense of the more complex processes that cannot be seen with the naked eye. I have found that a combination of different study methods work best for me - that is, reading material ahead of time to be well-prepared for every lecture, recording and re-listening to lectures, making study guides and flashcards, drawing pictures, diagrams, and flow charts, watching interactive videos, again, working with small study groups, and regularly attending tutoring sessions. Another strategy that really helped me was creating my own exclusively short answer practice exam. I only did this for the final (as I did not have time to for the other exams), but doing so helped me drastically improve on the final exam in this class. This allowed me not only to construct questions myself, but also explain the answer(s) in my own words without having the correct answer(s) right in front of me.

  3. Meet with my advisor regularly.
    This is one of the biggest goals I have set for myself in the upcoming semester - to regularly meet with my advisor. Every student in my program is assigned an advisor, who is one of the DPT faculty members. I never met with my advisor - not once. My advisor was not a professor I had for any classes during my first semester. I wouldn't have him for a class until my second semester, so besides talking and getting to know each other at orientation, I did not know him very well. I was hesitant to reach out because of the circumstances of my personal life and how vulnerable I felt. However, I know that talking with someone who not only cares deeply about me and my success, but has been in my exact shoes before as a DPT student, will help me grow in numerous ways.

  4. Be a more involved advocate.
    I want to be more involved and become a much more devoted advocate of this profession. I held a class officer position as historian, but did not do much else outside of the lab or classroom setting. I want to be more involved and truly immerse myself in this experience. My knowledge and growth, both personally and professionally, is much more than just getting good grades in the classroom. I plan on being active with the APTA and attending conferences, meetings, and webinars, volunteering at service events in my community, and working diligently to network with professionals in the field to start building rapport.

  5. Make time for self-care.
    This is another big thing that really got me. I completely neglected myself and allowed my depression to overcome me. I ate like complete crap, hardly ever got any sleep, constantly felt drained with no energy, rarely exercised (and gained about 20 pounds), and never gave myself time to unwind, relax, or simply just take care of myself. I will make time to take care of my mind, body, and soul through simple acts of self-care, such as exercising regularly and eating healthy, meditating, and itemizing my schedule so that I give myself some free time here and there to take part in the things I love, like hiking or going out and getting some good photography shots or simply trying new recipes.

It feels really really good to get this all out in writing - every word, every thought, every detail... just everything. I want you to know that DPT school is not easy and your abilities will be tested day after day, semester after semester, year after year. Know that you are NOT ALONE! Know that YOU CAN DO THIS! Know that when the going gets tough, YOU ARE RESILIENT and THERE IS A REASON (OR MANY REASONS) YOU WERE CHOSEN OUT OF THOUSANDS OF OTHERS TO BE A PART OF THIS SPECTACULAR FIELD. Never give up - there's always someone there that can help you and be a part of your support system, whether it be through tutoring or counseling or even just going to the gym together to relieve stress. This was a huge obstacle for me to overcome. But in my initial meeting with the program director, she spoke these words to me that I will never forget: "You would much rather be an amazing physical therapist for 30 years than a mediocre physical therapist for 31 years, right?” Yes, that's exactly right. This line really touched me and made me realize that this experience would shape me into a better physical therapist. Had I gotten four more questions right on my final exam, then I would have passed the class and never gotten dismissed from the program. But I would have made it through by the skin of my teeth, and that's just not fair to my future patients. My study habits, work ethic, and academic performance need to be in top shape for my future patients because after all - this whole journey is for them.

As always, if there's any questions you have, please don't hesitate to ask! I want this to be an authentic, inviting place where we can relate to each other, help each other grow, and share our stories and experiences because the reality is that we will all experience some roadblocks somewhere down the line. Thank you for reading along and following my journey and in the words of Louisa May Alcott "I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship."