Starting a job in hand therapy can be challenging, especially when you don’t have experience. Some places won’t hire you, and it can be overwhelming with all the expectations of a new grad.
In this article, I’ll discuss how you can get a job in hand therapy straight out of OT school.
How I landed a job in hand therapy with only 3 months of fieldwork experience
After finishing Grad school, I knew I wanted to be a hand therapist, but it was difficult to find a job in my area. It was a concern that I didn’t have experience, and some outpatient facilities didn’t want me until I had some kind of mentorship.
I talked with some of my classmates who were working as hand therapists to see if they knew of any openings. They didn’t.
I decided to work in acute care at a hospital and postponed my dream job in hand therapy. After eight months one of my classmates emailed me.
She said that she was leaving her hand therapy position, and the facility was looking for someone to replace her. I immediately applied for the position, and the following week I had an interview.
During the interview, the manager asked if I would be willing to work at a doctors office under the direction of a surgeon.
I agreed and he told me he would have a hand therapist train me before I started.
The next two days I shadowed a hand therapist to increase my splinting skills and refresh my memory. It was enough time to feel confident.
I started working as a regular hand therapist the following week.
1- Shadow a Hand Surgeon
I never shadowed a hand surgeon prior to working as a hand therapist, but I wish I did. It’s an incredible experience, and it will make you a better hand therapist.
I would start by calling up your local hand surgeon’s office and ask if you can observe a surgery. After you get to know the surgeon better, he/she may be used as a referral.
Some hand surgeons are looking for a hand therapist, and they may ask you to work for them.
Shadowing a surgeon is a great way to network. If you decide to start a private hand therapy practice later down the line, you will already have someone who knows you.
2- Build a Hand Therapy Network
You may not find a hand therapy job right out of grad school, but if you want to get your foot in the door start by building a network.
Join a facebook group and ask about job openings, keep in touch with colleagues who are already working as hand therapists. Contact your local therapy recruiters and outpatient clinics for positions. Network with hand therapists on linked-in.
The ideas for networking are endless. If I was to network today, I’d shadow a few surgeons, talk to the local outpatient clinics in my area, and post on facebook.
Hand therapy communities are small, and you might be surprised what can happen by reaching out to a small network.
3 – The more Hands on experience, the better
Having 3 months of fieldwork experience in hand therapy is how I got the job. Starting without experience will take longer, but it’s doable.
If you have no experience, it’s best to immediately start shadowing a hand therapist, or find a clinic that will provide mentorship.
It’s best to find a facility that has multiple hand therapists. This might include a surgery center that has multiple hand surgeons and therapists.
These types of jobs are usually in more populated cities. If you don’t live in a big city, start shadowing a hand therapist or offer to work for less pay while you get trained.
Experience is the only way to feel more confident as a treating therapist, and it will make you a better therapist.
4 – Learn how to Splint well and fast
Learning how to splint well and fast is a key component to any good hand therapist.
I’ve known hand therapists who have been doing it for years and their splints still look sloppy. You don’t have to be an artist to splint well, but your splints should try to keep the patient protected and functional.
Splints should also be aesthetically pleasing, but that comes with practice.
Splinting takes time, and once you get more comfortable you’ll be busting out wrist cockups in less than 15 minutes.
Start practicing your splinting skills with thick fabric or cardboard. Try to cut out various splint patterns. Have a Hand therapist look at your patterns to give you advice on what you can improve.
Add Velcro to these splints, and practice with a friend. The more you splint, the better and faster you will become.
In the future, I plan to create a course on how to splint faster by not using patterns. Subscribe to my newsletter, so you’re the first to know about the course.
If you have experience in hand therapy and you can splint well and fast anyone will hire you.
5 – Work for a hand surgeon
If you’re looking for a job in hand therapy, the best experience you can get is by working for a hand surgeon.
I’ve worked at outpatient clinics with experienced therapists, but if you’re able to work for a hand surgeon who enjoys teaching, you’re much better off.
At my first job, I worked directly for a hand surgeon. If I didn’t know something, he was there to help. If I had questions about the type of splint he wanted, he would give me advice. If I didn’t know the patient’s diagnosis, he would explain it better than Google could.
Having a surgeon as a mentor is the greatest resource you can have as a new therapist.
6 – Take courses related to hand therapy
I didn’t take a single hand therapy course before working, but I can see how it would be beneficial for someone without experience.
If you need more experience, enroll in a HTTC course to boost your confidence, or read a book.
If you’re serious about hand therapy, you should definitely get this book that’s considered the hand therapy bible.
More importantly, I would buy the Indiana treatment manual. This book is your single best resource as a new hand therapist.
7- How waiting for your dream job in hand therapy can be beneficial
If you want to work as a hand therapist right out of school that’s fine, but waiting can actually be more beneficial for your salary.
As a new grad working in hands, you’re going to get the lowest possible salary they can offer. In most cases, this is around $35/hour or less. !
Before working as a hand therapist, I started working at a hospital. This gave me more experience as an OT, but it also gave me leverage over a position.
When the hand therapy job was offered to me, I knew the company was desperate for a hand therapist. They needed a therapist for a contract position, and they needed one quick.
I was making $38/hour at the hospital, but after 6 months I started working per diem making $55/hour.
At my hand therapy interview, I asked for $50/hour, and to my surprise, they accepted my offer!
Instead of acting desperate for a job in hand therapy, I waited for a business that was desperate for a hand therapist. That’s how it can be beneficial to wait.
Working in Hand Therapy has been one of the most rewarding careers in my life. Starting out, it was stressful, and there were moments I didn’t know what to do.
Having a network, experience, and mentor made all the difference.
If you’re interested in becoming a hand therapist, check out my guide to becoming a certified hand therapist.
To learn more topics related to OT and therapy subscribe to my newsletter.
David is the lead editor of OT Focus. He has been practicing as an Occupational Therapist since 2013. He specializes in acute care, hand therapy, and ergonomics.