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 pursuing 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.
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.