Reality Check: Should You Really Attend Massage School?

male studentChoosing massage therapy for a career is a momentous decision. In the nearly 15 years I’ve been practicing, I’ve rarely met any successful therapist who doesn’t look back on attending massage school as a life-changing experience. The key word there is successful. If you want to be a successful massage therapist, it’s a lot easier if you are a successful student first.

Massage is more than just rubbing people. It entails being knowledgeable about anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, pathology…in other words, science. It includes learning the cautions and contraindications for massage. The public isn’t generally knowledgeable about those; that’s why we have to be. You won’t be able to massage every person who calls or walks in the door, and you need to know when it’s okay and when it’s not, or when your usual routine needs to be modified in order to accommodate someone’s condition.

If you did very poorly in sciences or just plain hated them when you were in school, consider that before signing up for massage school. It’s never too late to learn something new, but think carefully about that. The exam you will have to take in order to get a license is going to include questions on all those “ologies.” You have to be willing to learn those, and not just for the purpose of passing that exam. If you want to be an effective massage therapist, you need to know the origins, insertions, and actions of a few hundred muscles. That way, when someone comes to you and says “It hurts when I do ____,” you actually know which muscles do that, instead of blindly groping around hoping you hit the right one.

It’s vital to cultivate interviewing skills, and to learn to conduct a thorough intake process. You need to be comfortable in talking with people in a professional manner, and learn what questions to ask—and what not to ask. You need to learn what constitutes inappropriate questions and comments, as well as what constitutes appropriate questions and comments. You need to be tuned into body language and non-verbal signals from the client. You need to be a good listener.

The choice to do massage for a living includes the obligation to abide by the code of ethics. Other than doctors and nurses, we are the only people who (legally) place our hands on unclothed people. A total stranger walks in your door, and ten minutes later they are undressed and on the table. They are placing a huge amount of trust in you, and the responsibility to safeguard that trust is in your hands.

Things happen in massage school. As you start to learn about the anatomy and physiology of the human body, your own body awareness increases…you become much more aware of every sensation, every ache and pain, every twitch or noise your body makes, and if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself assigning the correct terminology to it. A stomach rumble become a borborygmus. It’s not just your leg that’s having a cramp, it’s your gastrocnemius. You realize you don’t just have a pain in the butt; you have piriformis syndrome. You start noticing things you’ve never noticed before. When you’re standing in line at the grocery store you notice that the person in front of you is rubbing their neck. You notice the posture, or the look of stress or pain on the face of the person walking toward you on the street, and you think “I could help that.”

Massage school is not for everybody.

Massage is not a good career choice for someone who sexualizes everything and hits on everybody they meet. It’s not a good choice for someone who is an incorrigible flirt. It’s not a good choice if you want to spend your days dressed in sexy, revealing clothing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dressing as sexy as you want to—but the massage room is not the place for that. The massage room is not the club and clients are not potential dates. One leer, one grope, or one flirty comment can ruin the therapeutic relationship in an instant.

Massage is not a good career choice for someone who is prejudiced or judgmental about other people’s bodies. You’re going to massage fat people, skinny people, people with scars, people with amputations, people with tattoos, people of all colors, shapes, and sizes. You’re going to massage people who may have serious deformities. You’re going to massage people who have as much body hair as King Kong, people who have pimples, and people who have funny-looking stinky feet. If you don’t think you can handle all that with compassion and without judgment, then you don’t belong in this business.

Your education does not stop at the massage school door. In fact, massage school is just the beginning.  In most states, you’re obligated to obtain continuing education on a regular basis. You’re making a commitment that you’re going to keep on learning. Frankly, you need to take it whether it’s required or not. When you think you’re at the point where you know it all, you can stop.

People sometimes sign up for massage school for the wrong reasons. If you’re thinking about it because you’ve been told you’ll be making $75 an hour as soon as you graduate, let me assure you that there is absolutely no basis in reality in that claim. The more likely beginning scenario is $15-20 an hour if you’re employed by someone else. If you go out on your own, you may charge $75 an hour for your massage, but bear in mind that is your gross, not your profit. You’re going to have a lot of expenses, especially when you’re just starting out and need to furnish an office, lay out rent and utility deposits, and pay for marketing materials and signage. Even if you establish an outcall business, you’ll still need to pay for your liability insurance, automobile expenses, advertising, sheets, phone service, massage lotions and potions, and the list goes on. That $75 an hour is shrinking fast. It’s reality check time.

My financial advice to people is to be realistic about your break-even point and how many massage appointments you need to do in order to actually support yourself. Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that the overhead in your business is $2000 a month, and you are charging $75 for massage. That means you have to perform 26 massages before you have made any profit…that just pays the bills. Then consider what your obligations are at home—rent or mortgage, utilities, car payments, credit card debt, student loans, insurance, groceries, child care, whatever it is you have to pay. If your home obligations total another $2000, then you have to perform 52 massages. That’s not counting money to take a vacation, or buy a new computer or guitar or whatever your toys of choice are, emergency car repairs, copayments for your health insurance or payments for your medical expenses if you don’t have any insurance, or $6 lattes from Starbucks on a daily basis. It’s just to meet absolute financial requirements. To an established massage therapist, 56 massages (or more) a month may be the norm, but when you are just starting out, it may not be realistic for you to expect that amount of business. Having a Plan B is in order.

Most of the people who choose to go to massage school are caretakers. They want to help people. They may have been the family backrub go-to person. They are tactile people. They have good intentions. But just remember, good intentions are not enough to get you through massage school and make you a successful massage therapist. Give it a lot of thought before you take the plunge into massage school and spend your time and money preparing for something you’re not really cut out to do. Massage can be the best job in the world—helping people to feel better—but it’s not for everybody.

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  • Deb Woodrow

    Best article i have seen written on becoming a Massage Therapist in a long time! All aspiring Massage Students need to see and read this article!

  • Gloria Coppola

    So true! Make sure you pay attention to business class – you will need it! Don’t go into massage for the money, it requires heart and compassion and loads of patience too. Network, network! Keep learning!

  • paolaenergya

    So many good points here. What I really liked about Laura’s post is the emphasis on empathy and cashflow. You need both! I know so many therapists who have great massage skills and empathy but struggle financially; the reverse is also true but it happens less often. Personally I still find, after 7 years in business, that cashflow is tough. Massage is not a predictable type of service and a full diary may not always be realistic. Still, if you are good and are very professional, people will come back to you over the years.

  • Rajam Roose

    Great article! When I taught business class at a local massage school and got to the part about licensing and continuing education expenses, the students became seriously dismayed. This was because many of them had indeed signed up on the visions of riches that had been encouraged by the school’s career counselor.

    I’m going to share this one around.

  • Rivka

    Don’t forget the time associated with developing clientele to get those 52 massages!
    Marketing, networking, answering phones, scheduling, time between appointments to change sheets, cleaning the space, laundry.
    It isn’t 52 hours of work and then nothing.
    Did that office overhead include professional licensing fees? Insurance for your practice? Transportation to work?