In our last instalment of Student Stories, we caught up with Sarah Patrick (MOT 2021) about her transition from full-time studies to a full-time clinical role. This time, we sat down with Erina Cho (MOT 2020). Erina is a year further into her career, and she shared her story of transitioning from the program into the profession, her advice for current students, and tips for thriving as a new OT.
Take us back to 2020. What were your last few months in the program like?
My class had a pretty weird experience because of COVID—my 3a placement got cut short, and our last placement and graduation date got delayed. Some of my classmates did their last placements virtually in telehealth, but I was lucky that my last placement was in person at BC Children’s, so I got some more hands-on clinical experience.
How about your first role (or roles) in OT?
A lot has happened in my first year. The faculty warned us that we wouldn’t learn everything in class—the program teaches you clinical reasoning, so you don’t have the nitty-gritty skills of your first position—so I was learning on the job. It’s an ongoing learning process, and it’s scary knowing how much you don’t know—you’re walking into a new level of responsibility, going from a student who’s learning from preceptors to taking care of patients yourself. I found the first few months really difficult.
It sounds like the transition was challenging. What would you say to someone else who was going through it?
I’d say that peer support can be incredibly helpful. Each MOT class is really close with one another, and we take a collaborative approach, like talking about companies that are hiring. Take advantage of the connections that you form in the program and of the resources that you share.
Another important thing is to acknowledge that it’s not going to be easy: you’re not going to know everything, and the learning curve is steep. Early on, I switched from acute care to in-patient stroke rehab, which is a totally different environment, and it’s a bit like starting over.
I’d remind new grads that things aren’t permanent and you can switch jobs at any time, so don’t get paralyzed by the plethora of options. It might sound weird, but I looked at my first few jobs like placements: it’s a chance to test things out, see how it goes, and, if it’s not the right fit, find something new. You’re never tied down except by private contracts if you go that route; your first job doesn’t have to be your last.
What advice would you give to students preparing to enter the profession?
For current students, I’d tell them to look at opportunities that offer mentorship. Find out what the culture and clinical practice leaders are like, and seek out a supportive environment—that should be a high priority. Also, don’t forget you have a range of options. Once you get your foot in the door with an employer like Fraser Health, there will always be tons of options, and that peer support mentality continues in practice. Rely on other OTs who are also relatively new to practice and are facing the same steep learning curve as you, those who just finished the transition into practice not too long ago, as well as your experienced and veteran colleagues. They will all give you valuable support and advice from slightly different angles.
Another thing, and this may sound obvious, is that you don’t always get the support you need: everyone’s too busy to help you if you don’t ask for it directly, and, if you get something wrong, they tell you that you’re not asking enough questions. If you don’t know something, admit it, and don’t be scared to ask questions, because that’s the only way you’re going to learn. It might be another OT or a coworker who helps you find the answer; it doesn’t really matter who it is as long as you’re building that support network. In the MOT program, it’s handed to you, because you’re all doing everything together, but in the field, you have to take that step yourself.
Donna mentioned that it takes five years to gain competencies as an OT, and I keep trying to remind myself of that. It’s easy to be hard on yourself or get frustrated by the inadequacies of the healthcare system, but there are lots of positives. I’m lucky to have landed in a good role for now; I feel completely different and way more confident than before. It’s a steep learning curve—you work at such a fast pace—but you get so much practice in acute care that I feel like a seasoned veteran now; you learn a lot of different skill sets there.
Give it time, and be gentle with yourself. That responsibility as a primary clinician is a big one.
Erina’s story will continue in our next instalment, in which she talks more about the challenges that she has faced, the highs and lows of life as a recent graduate, and the importance of self-care.