What is an Occupational Therapy Degree?

Do you have an innate desire to help others? Are you a compassionate and nurturing person? Then getting a degree in occupational therapy may be something you’d like to consider.

An occupational therapist enables people to become more productive and overcome obstacles when experiencing difficulties attempting to do everyday activities. They do this by helping patients with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working. A lot of effort and dedication goes into getting the appropriate education to become an occupational therapist, but for those that wish to help individuals live productive and satisfying lives, it’s definitely worth it.

As the large baby boomer population continues to age and people remain more active as they get older, occupational therapists are and will continue to be in high demand, as they also play a very important part in helping older adults keep their independence. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of occupational therapists will grow 29% and create 32,800 new jobs before 2022!

An occupational therapy degree can prepare students for a variety of careers (other than occupational therapist), such as clinic director, health specialties faculty instructor, rehabilitation manager, pediatric occupational therapist, sports therapist, and ergonomist.

Program Options

When looking for or considering an occupational therapy program, students should always make sure a program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education. A notable work experience element is built into all occupational therapy degree programs under the supervision of qualified occupational therapists.

Associate Degree in Occupational Therapy - Two Year Duration
Associate degree programs in occupational therapy can prepare students for state licensure as an occupational therapy assistant.

Occupational therapy careers require advanced degrees, but an Associate Degree in Occupational Therapy is a practical starting point. These two-year programs prepare students to sit for the Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant (COTA) exam, a national exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

Along with general education courses, students enrolled in an associate degree program in occupational therapy take courses such as physical rehabilitation techniques, patient assessment, psychology, human occupations, physical rehabilitation theory, anatomy, and theory of developmental rehabilitation. Programs also include internships, which allow students to get practical experience in clinics, hospitals, or community-based centres.

Bachelor’s Degree in Occupational Therapy - Four Year Duration
A few graduate schools require students to earn a bachelor’s degree specifically in occupational therapy, however the majority of schools will accept an undergraduate degree in biology, kinesiology, health science, psychology, liberal arts, or sociology.

It is important to take the prerequisite courses that are mandatory for gaining admissions into a master’s degree program (each master’s degree program will be different) as well as complete related work experience.

Relevant coursework includes:

  • functional anatomy
  • neurobiology
  • kinesiology
  • foundations of occupational therapy
  • therapeutic communication skills
  • statistics

Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy - Two Year Duration
While five-year accelerated, combined bachelor’s/master’s bridge programs exist, the majority of students intending to work as occupational therapists follow four years of undergraduate study with a separate 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 occupational therapy 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).

Occupational therapy 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
  • neuroscience
  • 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 of six months of supervised fieldwork. This hands-on training takes place in various clinical settings: rehabilitation centres, private clinics, acute-care hospitals, nursing homes, and private homes.

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.

Doctoral Degree in Occupational Therapy - Two to Three Year Duration
A master’s degree is considered an entry-level degree for occupational therapists. This means that, at the master’s level, students will get a generalist education. Students who want to specialize in certain areas of occupational therapy have to earn a doctorate or gain specialized certifications after working in the field for a while. A doctorate degree also broadens a student’s opportunities for getting into healthcare administration or college teaching. The doctoral degree curriculum will focus on research, clinical reasoning and best practices, program evaluation, and business-related aspects of practice.

Note: 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. ONLY students graduating after July 1, 2027, would be impacted.

Degrees Similar to Occupational Therapy

Sports Therapy
Sports therapy students learn to assess athletic injuries and apply therapy techniques so that they will be able to work with athletes in the future and have the knowledge to prevent and treat injuries.

A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to become a sports therapist. Examples of courses offered in the program are: science, anatomy, exercise science, and biomechanics. State certification and a license is also required (requirements vary by state). Once sports therapists are certified, they must maintain certification in emergency cardiac care, including adult and pediatric CPR and airway obstruction. It is not uncommon for sports therapists to pursue a master’s degree in order to advance in this field and to learn advanced therapeutic assessment and therapeutic techniques.

Physical Therapy / Physiotherapy
Physical therapy students learn to help patients achieve maximum range of movement and physical ability, either by developing it in the first place or restoring it after loss of physical ability due to illness, injury or aging. Becoming a physical therapist, also known as a physiotherapist, requires many years of education and training in areas such as kinesiology, anatomy, biology, physical fitness, and patient psychology.

In order to work as a physical therapist, one must complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree program. State certification and a license is also required (requirements vary by state). Although physical therapy degrees are only available at the doctoral level, students can get the prerequisite education for these programs by earning an associate or bachelor’s degree. Choosing to major in biology, chemistry, physics, physiology, or anatomy for the bachelor’s degree is recommended. Doctor of physiotherapy programs involve coursework in: applied physical therapy, functional anatomy, complex conditions, life span development, and pharmacotherapy.

Health Science
A health science degree prepares students for a career in healthcare. Programs include a core set of courses that introduce the student to a big picture view of the health industry, then allows the student to choose their preferred focus from a large number of specialties. This type of program helps to guide students towards a graduate degree in healthcare administration, public health or even a clinical specialty such as physician assistant or nursing.

Core curriculum courses may include: medical ethics, introduction to public health, epidemiology, introduction to biology, introduction to chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and medical terminology. Degrees are available at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s level.

Skills You’ll Learn

As well as learning human anatomy, life cycle, psychology, and sociology, a degree in occupational therapy helps students develop a range of diverse and practical skills, including:

  • communication skills
  • relationship-building skills
  • observational skills
  • creativity and practicality; ability to find unconventional ways to help patients
  • sensitivity
  • patience
  • capacity to encourage and motivate others
  • ability to work as part of a team
  • evaluation and report writing skills
  • the ability to collect and interpret data
  • the ability to assess, review, and evaluate data
  • the ability to solve problems
  • management skills
  • ability to work with deadlines
  • teaching, mentoring, and coaching skills
  • research skills
  • the ability to complete administrative tasks

What Can You Do with an Occupational Therapy Degree?

Occupational therapy graduates can work in a variety of fields, such as:

  • clinical research and development
  • social services
  • health promotion
  • health development
  • teaching
  • medical sales
  • charity work
  • prison work
  • mental health services
  • local government
  • hospitals
  • injury claims
  • drug rehabilitation
  • public health
  • inclusion work
  • development & distribution of disability aids
  • management
  • private practice
  • life coaching


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