Working in Australia - the experiences of a UK Graduate Sports Therapist
Updated: May 19, 2020
So you're thinking about moving down under for a while and keen to keep working in the industry? This blog is written to help those making the move, but unsure where to start.
Australia is a popular choice for health professionals, offering a host of lifestyle and work-related advantages. For sports therapists who have recently graduated and intent on seeing more of the world and getting some international experience in one of the worlds most sport-friendly nations, it could be a great option for you.
If you're thinking about making the move, there's plenty to work through which can be a little confusing, but ultimately very worthwhile. It's important to consider that there are different options to support you to work effectively in Australia. Each way of setting yourself up to work will have pro's and con's, so you'll need to consider the one that will work best for you.
To help with your choices, you'll need to take the time to understand the general industry landscape, the similarities and difference in qualifications, as well as the professional association and insurance options. These decisions will be based on a range of factors including on how long you plan to travel and work for, the scope of practice you plan to work within, your interest in further training and qualifications, and that best aligns to your visa rules.
This is a journey I made almost 9 years ago, and I'm often asked how I made it work. I'll give you a bit of my background, experiences, insights into the decision-making process, and practical tips to making it work for you...
Soon after graduating from University College Birmingham in 2007, I was fortunate to take on a full-time lecturing position at the University while continuing to build on my clinical experience working in Rugby Union. Within a few years I had completed my Post-graduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning, written a book chapter, published my first journal article, and completed all the CPD I could fit in. This gave me confidence that I was on the right path to a rewarding and enjoyable career.
[G'day and thanks to everyone UCB Sports Therapy department - I have great memories there, and very thankful for the career it gave me - it looks like it's going from strength to strength which is good to see].
Fast-forward 5 years to 2011, and I was considering buying a new car, or perhaps putting a deposit towards a house. I decided to put that on hold and focus on a travel itch that needed scratching before settling down. I'd always been keen to travel to Australia since my older brother had travelled over a number of years before. I also had a good university friend offering to put a roof over my head in Melbourne (thanks Aaron!). I was convinced it was the right move having worked closely at UCB with my now very good friend 'Aussie Rob' Di Leva. He had essentially done the reverse, coming over to travel and work in the UK from Aus and was a regular source of encouragement and inspiration to bite the bullet and go.
It was a hard decision to leave the University. I had good job security and it had given so much to me. To be honest, at the time, I thought I'd be back there within a year... (sorry mum!). In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
In June 2011 I set off and spent a few months travelling through South East Asia to ensure that I made it to New Zealand in time for the Rugby World Cup in November 2011.
Unfortunately, we lost to France in the quarter-finals in Aukland, but it was nonetheless an opportunity to explore the beautiful island. The people, places and landscapes are some of the best in the world - I'd strongly recommend you taking the time to experience the incredible country while you're out this way.
After a few months travelling and enjoying Australia, I settled in Melbourne - the sports capital of the world - and decided to look into the opportunities for work in the industry. I knew that I'd regret not taking opportunities to experience work in such a sports rich country. The first step I took was to write to the head physio at Melbourne Rebels Rugby Club which had just launched into Super Rugby - outlining my background in the UK and desire to get experience in Australia Ruby. To my surprise, I was invited in for an interview and practical test. Within a couple of weeks, I had started some part-time work, and did some extra voluntary observation work for the experience.
At this point, I had retained my membership with the UK Society of Sports Therapists which covered my insurance to work overseas for up to 3 months of the year. [If you are only planning to visit for a few months, then this option is a great way to go. It's hassle-free, and still allows you to get some hands-on local experience]. This temporary insurance served it's purpose well. I was working in one of the best sports in the world, and in the sporting capital - dream come true!
I knew that if I wanted to build on this and continue to work in Australia I would need to work out how to convert my qualifications and get local recognition for association membership and insurances.
By January of 2012, I started working with victorian state premiership side, Harlequins Rugby Club. I began helping out the local physio in the first year, and by the second year had taken over as head of medical for the club. This was initially voluntary, but soon developed into paid work. The club gave me great autonomy to develop the acute on-field care and rehab aspects of the club, helping me to build on my UK experiences as the club went on to win 4 premierships in my 6 seasons with the club.
About 4-5 months into my Melbourne living, I decided that I would look for some private clinical practice work. The decision was partly financial, and partly to gain clinical experience. I soon realised that to work in private practice, you're much more employable with a private provider number (a unique number issued to eligible health professionals which can be used by individuals to claim a rebate against your treatment from their insurer). I started working at a multidisciplinary clinic in Melbourne. The clinic was led by good people, but it was clear that I'd made a mistake in not choosing a sports and exercise focused clinic. Little opportunity to provide active care above and beyond hands-on had me bored pretty quickly.
Having considered options to get back into education with the Australian College of Sports Therapy (ACST) in Melbourne, I decided to take on a full-time role at Holmesglen TAFE teaching on their vocational massage training programs. This included the Diploma of Remedial Massage (roughly equivalent to a BTEC Level 5 Professional Diploma in Soft Tissue Therapy in the UK), and an Advanced Diploma in Myotherapy (an additional year of study that would be equivalent to a Foundation or Associate Degree in the UK). This came with a loose promise of a sponsored visa, but I wasn't confident that the organisation could support me though.
[N.B. ACST closed a few years ago (in 2017). It was the only real representation for Sports Therapy training in Australia and offered Advanced Diploma level qualifications. The profession of Sports Therapy is not well recognised in Australia, and many of those previously qualifying in the area re-trained, or retitled to in either Massage and Myotherapy.]
I was at Holmsglen for about 6 months before hearing about a role at what is now known as Torrens University Australia. I initially interviewed for a lecturing role, but ended taking on the Program Manager role for one of the Bachelor of Health Science courses, on the provision that my visa was successful.
This was the dream - a sponsored role in one of the best sporting cities in the world with a company that would support me to stay in the country and share my passion for musculoskeletal healthcare.
I soon felt comfortable in this role to return to my studies, and completed my Masters (part-time) in Sport and Exercise Medicine over the next two years (2015-16). This study progressed my studies and allowed me to research into combat sports which had been a personal interest area for a number of years.
In 2014, I took on a clinical role at Complete Sports Care in Hawthorn. This time, the clinic was well aligned to my clinical interests and bias, and allowed me to work with alined values to my training. The clinical leads and practice owners are also prominent PhD researchers in MSK, and strong advocates of evidence-based and high-value care. Exposure to this type of clinical environment eventually led me to pursue research opportunities and the undertaking of a PhD.
That takes me to 2020. I've settled in Melbourne with my wife and dog, and a strong friendship group and professional network. I'm enjoying the blend of working in education and clinical practice, as well as the gradual progression through doctoral studies. My options are certainly open to returning to the UK for the right opportunity, but life here has certainly been good to me.
That's enough of my story. Let's get to the pragmatics of how to make it work for you...
How do I get locally qualified?
As a graduate sports therapist from the UK, you will have a transferrable and highly desirable skill set. The challenge centres around the differing international recognition of qualifications between the countries. If you are planning to stay for a while (>12/12), then I recommend that you gain an Australian qualification.
As with most countries, in Australia there are a number of professions that align in different ways to Sports Therapy (Physiotherapy, Osteopathy, Exercise Physiologist, Myotherapist Remedial Massage Therapist etc. etc.). After some investigation, it became clear that the path of least resistance to allow you to work to get an Australian Diploma of Remedial Massage qualification. Remedial Massage (RM) is a VET (Vocational Education and Training) qualification in Australia, a skills and competency-based system designed to help people join the workforce.
Fortunately, the VET system allows for the recognition of prior learning and experience (RPL) to be considered, meaning that your UK skills can count towards the assessment of each unit in the RM qualification. Each provider has is own RPL process, so you'll need to work with them on the details. More details on the RPL process can be found on the ASQA website.
To start the RPL process, you'll need to find a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) - you can choose from a list of current training providers here (n.b. you'll likely find that some will be much more helpful than others - there's not much incentive or profit for them as you'll be looking to get RPL for most/all of the qualification, rather than paying for each unit). I went to an RTO in Melbourne called the Melbourne Institute of Massage Therapy. They were very helpful in supporting me through the process, and I'd highly recommend them as one of the top providers in Mebourne.
I paid about $500 (≈£260) at the time for the process. I provided the RTO with my previous subject outlines and transcripts, and helped them to map out my previous study for equivalency of study to the Diploma of Remedial Massage qualification. The mapping was to a good level (as it was clear that my Sports THerapy degree more than covered the requirements of the Diploma of RM), but to be sure that I met all of the requirements of the qualification I was asked to complete a 1-hour practical exam showing a range of assessment and treatment skills. I was then awarded the qualification and could seek association membership and insurance.
Why can't I just be a sports therapist in Australia?
Well, you could, but not many people would know what it is, and you won't easily find work. I was initially hesitant at 'qualifying' as a Remedial Massage Therapist. I felt that might not reflect the skills that I'd worked hard to gain in my degree and subsequent studies, but it certainly doesn't stop you applying your critical thinking and skills and proving yourself in practice.
The RMqualification title is there to get your foot in the door, and necessary for many working fee-for-service clinical environments. I actually now advertise and practice as a myotherapist - this title better reflects the way I practice, and is generally well understood in Victoria. [Myotherapy is described as the evidence-based assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal pain and associated conditions, which most closely describes the way a sports therapist will work in Australia]. I chose to add both 'exercise physiology', 'dry needling' and 'electrotherapies' onto my insurance to ensure that I am covered for the way that I practice and work with patients. I'm fortunate to work in a clinic that respects my skill set, and in my experience, patients soon come to your for you skill set rather than your title, so this really hasn't been an issue.
Do I need to join a professional association?
There are a number of associations that will be fit for purpose, but I recommend looking at AMT or MMA. Both will support you in similar ways. You will then be able to get insurance (I'd advise going through their recommended insurer - it's quick and easy and they can talk to your insurer if needed), and a private provider number. I am insured with AoN for remedial massage, and chose to optionally add exercise physiology, dry needling and electrotherapies to cover the way I practice with a significant focus on exercise prescription in my treatment approach (as I am sure you would too).
I'm also a full professional member of Sports Medicine Australia. They are good for professional development, networking opportunities, and are a useful resource if you're planning on working in sport out here.
What visa do I need?
Another important consideration is getting the right visa - and this can be tough. I don't have any expertise in this area, and strongly suggest speaking with an immigration expert (a friend of mine runs Migration Unity, so I recommend that as a good place to start for guidance).
I came to Australia on a working holiday visa (subclass 417). This visa lets people 18 to 30 have their first extended holiday in Australia and work here to help fund their trip. The job I would later get with Torrens University then moved me onto a skilled work visa (subclass 457) as an educational manager (n.b. this subclass is no longer available, but there are other similar options now). This tied my working rights to the company, but after being on that for two years, I was able to apply for permanent residency for full working and living rights in Australia. In 2019 I followed the process through to citizenship, and became a dual British and Australian citizen after 8 years in the country.
Visa's will be one of the largest challenges for those keen to stay longer in Australia. Sports Therapy is not (and likely never will) be on the skills shortage list for longer-term visas, so they won't be easy to get. There are options to complete rural farm work to extend your visa's, but it's often complicated, so certainly worth getting the expert advice. For the vast majority of people considering <2 years travel, this won't be much of an issue.
Are there opportunities to study?
Options to study may be worth considering. They can often help you stay in the country for longer periods (with student visas), and can of course support your professional development goals.
One option is to upgrade to an undergraduate Myotherapy degree in about a year at Southern School in Melbourne (yes the place sounds hippy, but I promise you it's not). It offers an evidence-based program focusing on the assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal pain and associated conditions. It shares many similarities with sports therapy. Graduate Sports Therapists will generally have a better appreciation for strength and conditioning and later stage rehab, and Myotherapists generally have deeper knowledge in pain management, neuropsychology and papersistent management. [N.B. Bias disclaimer - this is one of the degrees I run at the university, so I'm of course bias, but do think it's a great program].
This course would be most similar to the UK Sports Therapy in level, but if you're keen to develop post-graduate qualifications, there's plenty of options for international students.
What else do I need to know?
Let me know what other questions you have, and I'll update this section.
So after reading this (or skipping straight to the end?!) you want to set yourself up to work, here's a summary of the steps:
Collate as much information on your degree as possible. Gather a copy of your degree, the transcript showing your subjects and results, a copy of the subject outlines, and ideally the learning material (preferably before you leave the UK). You'll need this to avoid having to re-study to get your local qualification - if you're reading this as a student, the easiest time to collate this is now while you're still studying. Just keep it all on a google drive and have it ready for when you get out here.
Get the right visa - speak to the experts and make sure you're not breaking your visa rules to avoid immigration issues.
Network early - reach out to people and build your professional community early. Remember effective networking is about working out how you can add value to them, not just how they can help you.
Find an RTO that will support you through an RPL process (recognised prior learning) to award you an Australian Diploma of Remedial Massage
Join a professional association that will provide you with guidance, insurances, and a provider number for you to be able to offer private health rebates
Search for that dream job - Seek and indeed are good places to start. Find a job that works with your clinical goals.
I hope this has been helpful for you. If you have questions, please do add a comment to blog or reach out and connect with me on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.
I'd love to hear from those who've has similar experiences.
I'll update this blog if there are any big things I've missed, or as other questions arise - just let me know.
Enjoy the journey!
Useful Links and Further Information
List of registered training organisations offering Remedial Massage qualifications - here
Immigration and visa experts - Migration Unity
Anything else you've found useful? Let me know and I'll add it to the list.