Is A PT Residency For You?

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Q: What do 37,000 physical therapists across the United States know?

A: That pursuing a clinical specialty after gaining their licensure offers both challenges and benefits.

Current and former PT residents associated with the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) Physical Therapy Program are sharing why they pursued additional credentials and the ups and downs for anyone considering a residency.

Tina Esbenshade, PT, DPT, is a resident working on an Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS) certification through the Johns Hopkins Hospital in collaboration with GW. As a resident, Esbenshade’s workload includes multiple days of clinical work, didactic coursework and teaching in the DPT program. “It’s difficult getting back to the foundations of PT and having your beliefs and practice somewhat challenged,” she said of the experience. “You have to want to learn and grow.”

Esbenshade’s residency started in July 2023 and will end in the late summer of 2024 with the OCS exam, which consists of 200 multiple choice questions and vignettes designed to test knowledge on topics from anatomy to pathophysiology to interventions to diagnoses and prognoses states. Given the difficulties and significant time commitments that a residency program entails, Esbenshade advises, “I don’t think you should be hesitant about pursuing a residency, you should be all in.”

After completing her Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at Baylor University in 2020, Esbenshade spent several years as a travel PT. She enjoyed the experience, but she wanted more for her career. “I love to learn, but felt like I came to a plateau with travel PT." she said of her decision to pursue OCS certification. Through the GW program, she has the  opportunity to develop a higher degree of clinical expertise in issues relating to the musculoskeletal system.

Sentiments of growth and development ring true for former resident and GW DPT alumnus, Rachel Wilcox, PT, DPT. As a “second-career” professional, Wilcox spent several years in pharmaceutical research which enabled her to work with individuals with neurologic dysfunction. Those experiences led her to pursue physical therapy as a career. After graduating from the GW DPT program in 2022, she started MedStar/GW’s Neurological residency program. 

How would Wilcox compare a DPT program to a residency? “They’re so different,” she noted. “PT is so didactic, but residency is more balanced with clinical hours and didactic content and education opportunities sprinkled throughout. Ultimately though, my priorities helped me make the decision. I knew I didn’t just want to be a clinician; I also wanted to continue research and pursue teaching.” 

As a GW DPT alumnus, Wilcox was uniquely positioned to witness firsthand the involvement of residents in the DPT program and engage in adaptive sport and fitness opportunities through MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH). “Up until my third year, I was on the fence between Neurologic Clinical Specialist (NCS) and OCS,” she said. “Ultimately, neuro opportunities felt the most exciting to me.” 

Mirroring Esbenshade’s advice, Wilcox added, “You definitely should be a lifelong learner and a growth mindset is definitely beneficial. You have to have an openness to receive feedback and be comfortable with making lots of mistakes. Residency sets you up with the skills to be a lifelong learner, which is the essence of effective clinical practice.” Her final piece of advice for interested students? “Ask faculty. Ask current and previous residents. And keep an open mind.” 

GW has opportunities available for orthopedic, neurological and pediatric residencies. For more information, visit