The NATA Boards-An Initial Career Failure

The NATA Boards-An Initial Career Failure

Failure is defined as a lack of success in some effort. Some have suggested differentiating failure from ‘falling forward’ and how falling forward is positive. Since I don’t have the vocabulary of Simon Sinek to delineate these appropriately, I will use the term failure in this and the following blog to discuss some of my career failures. I hope that by revealing some failures and discussing topics such as uncertainty and admiration, more novice clinicians will feel more at ease when they perform at a lower standard than expected. This first one addresses NATA board exam failure.

NATA Exam-The Process is Sound

At the time of this failure, I am a practicing physical therapist of about five years. I had been working in outpatient orthopedics and sports medicine. Beyond working full time, I took two athletic training classes and accrued 1500 hours of observation/participation to qualify for the ATC exam. Unfortunately, this option is no longer available.

I am not sure how the exam is given today, but ‘in my day’ it was a 3-part exam. I was most confident in the portion I failed—the practical demonstration. You were given 3-4 skills, and you could not ask for any clarification and received no response from the 3-4 ATCs grading the exam. While I was a bit ‘seasoned’ as a PT by that time, I found this a little intimidating, and it honestly threw me off a bit. This is not why I failed, however.

NATA Exam-The Process is Sound

I failed on a portion of the electrical stimulation application. A particular technique that I still don’t recall or care about: it was a technique that I was not familiar with. I applied what seemed most reasonable based on its name and goal.

NATA Exam-The Process is Sound

I was a good bit anxious waiting for my results as, again, I had relatively no idea of that technique. I received my results-FAIL. I would have to retake the practical application portion if I chose.

Interestingly, I did not even try to figure out what that technique was, how to do it, etc. Which, in retrospect, is not a sound approach.

I entered the testing site for round 2. I prepared (except for that technique-and, most modality techniques as I had the attitude that I would figure it out if they came up). I spent my preparation time on other skills-taping, etc. I did well on those the first time.

NATA Exam-The Process is Sound

I was confident. My mind was clear. I was ready to go. I felt this way the first time too. 

Then came the ‘situation.’

As usual, the test started with the written portion with everyone in a stadium seating auditorium. From what I heard, those taking the test were a combination of initial and repeat test-takers. There was no way of knowing who was who.

There was a way of knowing who those who had to repeat the practical exam portion were. Once everyone had been seated, we were all paraded in and had to sit in the very front row of the auditorium. Everyone saw us walk in. Everyone could see us sitting in the front. There were about 30 of us. We were in alphabetical order by last name.

NATA Exam-The Process is Sound

I am sure we were all going through many emotions. A group member mentioned (just before the parade) how embarrassing this was. I initially felt anger. How dare they parade us like this. I did feel embarrassed as well. That eventually subsided—the anger didn’t-not for the next couple of days.

Luckily, several candidates had to test before me. I could calm my anger and embarrassment and re-focus.

I don’t remember what I told myself or how I did this, but it worked.

I remember telling myself that I never want to feel this way again. Make sure you are fully prepared. Don’t put it in the hands of someone else to determine if:
     You should pass,
     You are the best candidate for a job,
     You deserve the raise, etc.

I remember not telling anyone that I was taking the ATC exam. All my colleagues knew I was working toward it. When they asked when I was taking it, I said I wasn’t sure yet. I also only told them that I passed, not that I had experienced an early career failure.

It would be a great story to say that this failure led to increased focus, preparation and ‘straightened me out’ for all I have accomplished later in my career. Such is not the case, however. I was driven and focused before this failure. I failed. No excuse. No great story.

I choose to feel that the failure was something that simply happened. It did make me consider how to keep the ‘control’ in my hands as much as possible, but it did not make me prepare/study/etc. any different.

I felt my process was good; my outcome was not. Sometimes this happens. We continue to learn.


NATA Exam-The Process is Sound
  • I have failed many times. This is simply one example.
  • A career failure can happen despite an exemplary process of preparation
  • Young clinicians need to hear from more seasoned clinicians that failures happen.
  • This will be the first of two blogs detailing my failures.
  • I hope these stories help someone.

Thanks for reading!
Take care!