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The journey to becoming a physical therapist

Meet Mark Denesha, ex-military turned physical therapist and owner of Forever Forward - a mobile clinic for orthopedic injuries, post-ops recovery and sport-specific training. We sat with Mark to hear about his journey in becoming a Physical therapist.


Mark, thank you very much for joining us today. We met a week ago at this great healthcare meetup in Austin. You are a physical therapist. What inspired you to become one?

Thanks. Yes, exercise has always been, one of the constants in my life. I started exercising regularly when I was young and that led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in exercise physiology. At the time I was interested in becoming a strength conditioning coach. I quickly realized however that such jobs are hard to come by and don't pay well. That's when I decided to explore adjacent options. Healthcare seemed like the perfect fit. You can't go wrong with it and physical therapy was the closest thing given my background.

Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a physical therapist?

After completing my undergraduate degree, I went on to get my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, which requires another three years of study. It's a big commitment. I started with looking at all the schools. I had to take extra classes during summer and winter breaks in order to make sure I had all the prerequisites and did well in them. Classes included physics, chemistry and some schools even required biochemistry. It's a very competitive process. You need a good GPA, typically at least a 3.5 or 3.6. to stand out. As a student and depending on the program, you need to volunteer your time shadowing inpatients and then outpatients. Many people will work as a PT Aide to get that extra experience while getting payed. Then you need to take the GRE and do well there too.

And you managed to do all this?

Yeah. I was coming back from the military at the time. I had a lot of direction and discipline. I took the GRE, I did fine and my gpa was great. I decided to apply to only 2 state universities: Sunni Upstate in Syracuse and Sunni Downstate in Brooklyn. I was confident I could have gotten into NYU or Columbia but the tuition for these universities was too high for me. I was lucky to have the GI bill to help me out with housing allowance and a portion of the tuition. However I was also considering the starting salary of a PT after graduation, and I didn't want to come out of school owing around $200,000. Eventually Sunni downstate made an offer first and I took it.

In retrospect do you feel that it would have made a difference attending NYU or Columbia?

No matter which school students attend, they all have to aquire the same knowledge and take the same board exam. The only potential benefit of attending a prestigious school like NYU or Columbia is the "pedigree," which may help when looking for a job. In my experience, however, the school attended does not make any difference in actual competence.

So you accept your Sunni invitation and then what happens?

I moved there on a Sunday and began school the next day. I started with a summer session and after that it was non-stop for 3 years, with only one break during the first year in winter. After the first year and a half, I started 8-16 weeks rotations at a school clinic. During the clinical rotation period, I did inpatient at a hospital and at a skilled nursing facility and then outpatient. For the last rotation, I had some flexibility to choose a place I was interested in.

And of all these rotations, which one did you feel most comfortable with?

For me, outpatient was the best fit because I was still in the strength and conditioning mindset. I really enjoyed working with young athletes, so outpatient was where I saw myself in the long run.

Tell me about the board exam once you've finished those 3 years. How was it?

Well I'm a good test taker and wasn't too stressed about the exam, but it was still tough. After graduating, I spent a month or two studying for 8 hours a day, either at the library or at home. It was demanding and challenging, but I was able to get through it.

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