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Home After School So you think you want to be a Physio. . .

So you think you want to be a Physio. . .

by Chrissy von Hirschfeld

We’ve all heard the tales of stressed-out Health Sciences students, but it’s not every day we get detailed insight into a degree where students simultaneously juggle filled coffee cups and dissection utensils. Chrissy tells us about her studies in Physio at UCT.

Since I can remember I have wanted to be a physio, possibly because my mother once told me that I gave really good massages (in hind sight I figured that it worked nicely to her advantage, seeing as I was always keen to give more). Thinking back, there are many reasons why this career attracted me. My aunt was a physio and she was and still is so passionate about her work. I loved learning things about anatomy and how the human body works and as a young athlete I spent a fair amount of time at the physio myself!

Getting prepped with the right high school subjects

When it came to choosing my additional subjects (over and above our compulsory English, German, Maths, Afrikaans and LO), it was a fairly straight forward choice – definitely Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and IT (The last one was partly because I enjoyed working with computers but also because I couldn’t choose Accounting and Life Sciences together. In retrospect, Accounting would have been way more beneficial with regard to starting my own practice one day).

Maths plus Life Science OR Physical Science is a pre-requisite for a BSc in Physio, although I highly recommend doing both!! 1st Year Physio has Chemistry and Biomechanics (basically Physics), so you will struggle a lot with the Health Sciences if you didn’t take Science… that’s why it’s important that you find out the entrance requirements for your degree when (if not before) you choose your high school subjects.

The hop from matric to UCT

I did well at school, achieving an A aggregate, which I knew was important in boosting my chances of getting into Physiotherapy (a very in-demand choice of study at UCT) and I was more than ready to start studying right after Matric, rather than to take a gap year.

Personally, I wouldn’t advise doing a gap year, as I feel there can be a tendency to forget “how to study,” and Physio is quite an academic field. Also, it’s a long degree, so the sooner you start studying the sooner you can start earning. If you have a passion for the medical field and want a job that is as physically demanding as it is rewarding, Physio could definitely be a winning choice for you.

My application process started at the end of Grade 11, continuing throughout Matric. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and wanted to achieve that goal as soon as possible. It was always my dream to go to UCT, although I did also apply at Stellenbosch University (the main reason for not wanting to go there is that the medical campus is at Tygerberg rather than on the main Stellenbosch campus).

The ‘student life’ – not quite

All health professional students were secluded to the Health Sciences Campus. I say secluded because I think that is the one aspect of student life that would have been great to experience in another faculty. I’m talking about life on Upper Campus at UCT… drinking coffee on Jammie Stairs, strolling between classes next to ivy-lined walls, deciding whether to even go to the next class or not – or at least that is how many of my non-Health Sciences friends seemed to be experiencing it!

But no, no… our varsity career consisted of running up and down between GSH (Groote Schuur Hospital – affiliated to UCT as a teaching hospital) and Medical Campus, drinking copious amounts of coffee (but in contrast to what you might see on another campus, we’d be holding it in one hand whilst elbow-deep in a cadaver with the other!), signing in and out of most lectures and feeling exhausted 24/7. That being said, I loved every minute of the degree and it prepared me surprisingly well for the real world.

Support systems? Check!

The Health Sciences department offers a tremendous amount of support for students who struggle (either academically or emotionally). From the ‘mentor system’ in 1st Year to countless work revision tutorials and even lecturers giving you their personal cellphone number for “just in case” – it felt like the academic world was doing all it could to help everyone pass. This 4-year degree is tough – it involves a lot of studying and people expect you to do a lot in your own time too. Because it involves working with people, you want to be on the ball so that you can confidently handle patients.

In your final year, you write your undergraduate thesis in groups, and at the end you graduate with an Honours degree, so you have an incredibly valuable and rewarding qualification to your name after all your hard work.

Squeezing in time for pocket money

In addition to studying, I did some high school tutoring as a student job, which was a great income but quite stressful at times. I had to fit everything into a 24-hour day and not be a zombie in the next morning’s Movement Science lecture. The good thing is that school and university exam times coincide, so you can give your student more lessons when you are on study leave (assuming you don’t need aaaall the time to study yourself).

I lived at home for the first 3 years of studying, which was perfect for me, as the degree does require a lot of time and it was great to have someone cooking and washing and supporting me at home (apart from the extra financial burden of moving out).

Some tips for Physio students:

  • Job Shadow. I would highly recommend some job-shadowing before you enroll at university. See if you can go to a practice where they cover in- and out-patients to get the best overview of what physios do. Lots of people don’t even realise that physios work in hospitals too.
  • Too shy? Don’t worry if you feel you aren’t self-confident enough to work with people. To want to help people cannot be learnt. However, in terms of confidence: Practice makes perfect.
  • Dissection work. Don’t be put off by the prospect of working with cadavers; there is literally NO better way to discover the human anatomy.
  • Learn to love a uniform. From second year onward you are going to wear a uniform for clinical work – it is NOT a fashion statement. Rather try appreciating the practical design.
  • Community service. Embrace it! It is going to happen one way or another – make the best of it and learn as much as you can in that time.

Comm Serve and the working world

After graduating, physios have to complete a year of community service. Lots of people dread this, as sometimes this forces them to move away from home for a year, but I have yet to hear of a single person who did NOT enjoy this year. It is an adventure and you will probably learn as much (if not more) in this one year as you do during your whole physio degree. Also remember, it gives you a guaranteed year of work, straight out of varsity (not paid too badly either!), which should not be taken for granted. After your community service, you are likely to have a better idea of what type of physio you would like to pursue, eg. hospital-based physio, paediatrics, out-patient physio, sports physio and the list of options goes on!

Jobs in Cape Town aren’t as plentiful as for example in Joburg/Durban, but you will definitely find something. I am currently in my first year of work (post-community service) and loving it. Personally I chose a job which covers hospital and out-patients as well as teaching Pilates (which is commonly associated with physio but not covered specifically in the undergraduate coursework). No two days at work are ever the same. You get to meet the most interesting variety of people and you are continuously learning. I know as a scholar/student the term ‘continuous learning’ might sound dreadful, but once you are in a profession you will value the chance to keep discovering new things in your field of interest as the research evolves.

EduConnect 2cents

Physiotherapy is a very hands-on occupation. As a physio, you use your own body and a lot, specifically your hands (to give massages, etc.). You need to be in both a mental and physical good shape when you treat your patients. If your hands aren’t functional, you can’t work. Physios are encouraged to insure their hands. Just keep that in mind when you go ahead and engage in a tough arm-wrestling competition, or decide to do ten hand-stands without first warming up your wrists!

Minimum Entrance Requirements for BSc Physio at UCT

  • minimum APS of 360
  • English (as HL or FAL) (50%)
  • Maths (50%)
  • Physical Sciences OR Life Sciences (50%)
  • your next 3 best subjects excluding Life Orientation (50%)
  • personal report reflecting additional skills, experience and attributes


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