CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become an occupational therapist.
Is becoming an occupational therapist right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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The opportunity to job shadow an occupational therapist in one or more clinical settings provides invaluable exposure to the work that allows students to begin to assess their suitability for and their interest in the job. Such opportunities may exist in hospital settings; in the offices of occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, and audiologists; in nursing care facilities; and in home healthcare services.
Aspiring occupational therapists should reach out to their high school counselors, family members, and/or local healthcare businesses to ask about potential job shadow experiences.
Some schools offer specific pre-OT undergraduate education tracks, but many prospective occupational therapists complete a Bachelor’s program in a discipline like biology, kinesiology, health science, psychology, or sociology.
Relevant coursework includes:
• Functional anatomy
• Foundations of occupational therapy
• Therapeutic communication skills
While five-year accelerated, combined Bachelor’s/Master’s bridge programs exist, the majority of students intending to work as OTs follow four years of undergraduate study with a standalone two-year Master’s program. Many Master’s Degree programs ask applicants to provide evidence of what is often referred to as Level I Fieldwork: volunteer or work experience in an OT setting. At least one letter of recommendation from a licensed occupational therapist is typically required.
It is vital that students earn a Master’s Degree that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Here is a list of ACOTE-accredited programs throughout the United States.
OT Master’s programs train students to effectively observe how patients perform their daily activities, identify areas where they are having difficulties, analyze the causes of these challenges, and implement plans to improve function. Topics addressed include:
• Musculoskeletal anatomy
• Medical and social conditions
• Assistive technology
• Patient care concepts
• Physical interventions
• Mental health therapy
• Research methods
Master’s Degree programs in occupational therapy generally comprise six months of supervised fieldwork, known as Level II Fieldwork. This hands-on training takes place in various clinical settings: rehabilitation centers, private clinics, acute-care hospitals, nursing homes, and privates homes.
On September 27, 2018, ACOTE accepted the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) abeyance of the 2027 mandate requiring all entry occupational therapy programs to transition to the Doctoral level. Accreditation of entry-level Master's programs will be granted for a period to extend no later than June 30, 2027. This is the maximum time allowed under the ACOTE decision to move to a single point of entry for occupational therapy education at the doctorate level July 1, 2027. Only entry-level doctoral occupational therapy degree programs will be eligible to receive or maintain ACOTE accreditation status as of July 1, 2027.
The occupational therapy field is regulated throughout the United States.
After earning a Master’s Degree, students need to register for the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) exam, which is administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).
Licensure procedures may vary somewhat from state to state, but common requirements generally include submission of official transcripts, a background check, and submission of NBCOT exam results.
Employment / Specialization
Occupational therapists can choose to work in a permanent position or in what are referred to as occupational therapy travel jobs. Travel therapists are typically obligated for thirteen-week periods, guaranteed forty-hour weeks, and of course are exposed to different client populations. For more information regarding OT travel jobs, click here.
Once they gain some experience, some OTs choose to specialize in a specific area, such as gerontology, mental health, or pediatrics. In many cases, those who specialize earn a Doctorate.
Continuing Education / License Renewal
Many states require occupational therapists to earn a certain number of [OT Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to maintain licensure](https://www.otcareerpath.com/occupational-therapist/state-licensing-requirements
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Occupational Therapists happy?
Occupational Therapists rank among the least happy careers. Overall they rank in the 26th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.
This notably low happiness metric among occupational therapists may be at least partially attributable to the considerable physical and emotional demands of the work.
What are Occupational Therapists like?
Based on our pool of users, Occupational Therapists tend to be predominately social people. This is an expected finding, based on the work that OTs do. They use practical movement and exercise to rehabilitate patients with disabilities or injuries. They design work or home environments that enable individuals to overcome their challenges and adapt. They help people of all ages, from children to the elderly. Their work demands almost constant social interaction with patients, patients’ families, and other healthcare professionals.
Steps to becoming an Occupational Therapist
The path to becoming an occupational therapist involves earning an undergraduate and a graduate degree, obtaining a license, and committing to professional continuing education.
How long does it take to become an Occupational Therapist?
It can take five to six years to complete the education required to become an occupational therapist:
• Bachelor’s Degree – four years • Master’s Degree – two years or • Bachelor’s to Master’s Degree bridge program – five years
Should I become an Occupational Therapist?
Here’s a snapshot of the occupational therapy field to help you answer this question.
Demand Graduates in this field do not face many difficulties in finding a job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 27 percent job growth for OTs through 2024.
Salary With high demand comes higher salaries. Occupational therapists are among the most well paid professionals in the U.S.
Work Settings Occupational therapists can choose to work in many different clinical environments, including hospitals, rehab centers, nursing homes, and home healthcare settings.
Flexibility and Opportunities for Specialization OTs can choose to work on a full-time or a part-time basis. The can also choose to specialize. Among the options are geriatrics, pediatrics, physical rehabilitation, mental health, vison therapy, and hand therapy.
Job Satisfaction OTs generally derive a great deal of satisfaction from the work they do, quite simply because they make a difference in their patients’ lives.
Social Aspect By the nature of their work, occupational therapists meet and work very closely with many different people from many different walks of life.
Risk of Infection Sometimes, the work of an OT is messy. There are times when it is necessary to clean urine, vomit, discharge from infected wounds, and blood.
Patient Misbehavior Patients facing the challenges of occupational therapy are going to be in bad moods some days. They may take out their distress and exasperation on their therapist. In these circumstances, OTs have to remain calm and realize that these outbursts are the result of frustrations; they are rarely personal.
Physical Demands Lifting and moving adult patients can be physically demanding.
Long and Irregular Hours Some situations may call for particularly long days. Weekend and holiday shifts are not uncommon.
Emotional Toll While occupational therapists can certainly experience emotional highs in witnessing patient progress and recovery, they also must deal with situations in which their patients fail to improve or die. This can be stressful and emotionally draining, especially for OTs who are new to the job.
The Required Skills
Having read the job’s pros and cons, you will likely now understand the need for these skills in the occupation:
• Communication and observational skills • Creativity and practicality; ability to find unconventional ways to help patients • Passion, sensitivity, and patience • Capacity to encourage and motivate patients • Ability to work as part of team – with patients and with colleagues • Evaluation and report writing skills
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly A blogger’s perspective of working in occupational therapy
How to become an Occupational Therapist
A Master’s Degree in occupational therapy (OT) is required to work in the field. Generally, to qualify for state licensure, OTs must graduate from a program accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination.
While occupational therapy Master’s programs may accept applications from students with a Bachelor’s Degree in any subject area, applicants with a background in health sciences typically have an advantage in the admissions process. OT curricula focus on behavioral neuroscience, biology, physiology, functional anatomy, kinesiology, psychology, occupational therapy research, and the practice of OT in healthcare settings. Often, students can tailor their clinical fieldwork to their specific interests, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, or physical disabilities.
Some universities offer Bachelor’s to Master’s Degree bridge programs that allow students to earn two degrees in a compressed timeframe.