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How to Become an Occupational Therapist

By Jessica Wallace

Published:

Occupational therapy is a lucrative profession, but it’s equally demanding. It’s as hard as medical school, nursing school, pharmacy school, physical therapy school, physician’s assistant school, and other allied health professions. However, there’s usually a good reason why healthcare programs are challenging and this guide holds your hand and shows you the easy way to get into and build a career as an occupational therapist.

Career Summary

Occupational Therapist Salary

Occupational Therapist Salary

Here’s what you could earn as an occupational therapist if you switched careers today:

  • Entry Salary (US$78k)
  • Median Salary (US$99k)
  • Executive Salary (US$127k)

From these figures, it’s clear that the median Occupational Therapist salary across the United States is significantly higher than the median national salary across all professions.

What does an Occupational Therapist do?

The job description of an occupational therapist involves evaluating and treating patients to enhance their functional abilities in daily activities due to physical, developmental, or emotional challenges. This career is highly rewarding for dedicated individuals who love working with people.

Occupational therapists are essential in supporting those recovering from disability and disease, mental illness, and so forth. Imagine helping people to learn or re-learn how to bathe, dress, drive, focus, self-feed, stay organized, and play with friends with ample physical and emotional participation. These are just some of the things that an occupational therapist can do.

Occupational Therapist Career Progression

Rising in your career as an Occupational Therapist involves several well-defined steps.

Here are some of the levels you’ll come across and a summary of what you’ll do at each stage:

  • Occupational Therapy Support Worker: Interestingly, before qualifying as an occupational therapist, you can gain clinical practice experience by reporting patient progress, liaising with other challenges, or ensuring that equipment is in excellent condition.
  • Occupational Therapist: Qualified OT practitioner’s responsibilities include performing assessments and managing caseloads, planning, and developing treatment programs.
  • Senior/Lead Occupational Therapist: Here, you’ll develop and monitor services, in addition to supervising unqualified staff.
  • Advanced Occupational Therapist: Your role here will involve planning, coordinating, delivering, and evaluating services, while also managing individual caseloads.
  • Consultant Occupational Therapist: At this level, you’ll be managing your own caseload, but you’ll also hold operational responsibility and clinical governance for services. Your strategic knowledge will also apply in developing new services and being a leader, partaking in wider research, and commissioning developments.
Occupational Therapist Career Progression

Pros:

  • You’ll enjoy a career that lets you blend science and creative thinking skills to nurse individuals back to health.
  • You’ll have job security as there’ll always be people with long-term disabilities.
  • You’ll enjoy significant income and benefits that well surpass the US national average.
  • You’ll have the opportunity to work in a variety of establishments throughout your career.

Cons:

  • The educational requirements can be stiff and you always need to keep updating your skills.
  • Occupational therapists must be prepared to endure an emotionally and physically-demanding career.
  • The work schedule can be unforgiving and is highly dependent on patient schedules.
  • It may be hard to balance your personal and professional life.

Useful Skills to Have as an Occupational Therapist

  • Compassion and Empathy
  • Communication and Interpersonal Skills
  • Problem-Solving Skills
  • Organizational Skills
  • Enthusiasm

Popular Occupational Therapy Specialties

  • Hand Therapy: Specializing in conditions related to the hand, wrist, and upper extremities.
  • Pediatrics: Working with children who have developmental delays, genetic disorders, or conditions like cerebral palsy or autism.
  • Assistive Technology: Evaluating and recommending devices that help individuals with disabilities perform tasks more independently.
  • Neurorehabilitation: Assisting individuals recovering from neurological injuries or conditions, such as traumatic brain injuries or strokes.
  • Ergonomics: Evaluating and designing workspaces and routines to prevent injuries and promote health.

How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Occupational Therapist 5 Steps to Career

Occupational Therapist Education Requirements

Do I Need a Degree to Become an Occupational Therapist?

Yes, you typically need a degree to become an occupational therapist. In the United States, you must earn a Master’s degree in occupational therapy from an accredited program. 

These programs include coursework, fieldwork, and clinical experiences to prepare you for a career as an occupational therapist. Requirements may vary in other countries, but a degree in occupational therapy or a related field is generally necessary to become a certified or licensed occupational therapist.

Why is it Important to Get a Degree in Occupational Therapy?

Getting a degree in occupational therapy is important for several reasons:

  • Professional Competence: Occupational therapy is a specialized field that requires knowledge of anatomy, physiology, psychology, rehabilitation techniques, and other related subjects. A formal degree program ensures that you gain the necessary knowledge and skills to provide effective therapy to patients.
  • Legal and Licensing Requirements: In many countries, including the United States, being a licensed occupational therapist is mandatory to practice legally. To obtain a license, you typically need to graduate from an accredited occupational therapy program.
  • Ethical Considerations: As an occupational therapist, you’ll be working with vulnerable populations, such as individuals with physical or mental disabilities. A degree program emphasizes ethical considerations, professional boundaries, and best practices, ensuring you provide safe and responsible care.
  • Clinical Experience: Degree programs include hands-on clinical experiences and internships. These practical components are essential for applying theoretical knowledge, developing clinical reasoning skills, and gaining real-world experience under the guidance of experienced professionals.
  • Evidence-Based Practice: Occupational therapy is a science-based profession, and a degree program emphasizes evidence-based practice. You’ll learn to integrate research findings into your interventions, ensuring you provide the most effective and up-to-date care to your patients.
  • Career Opportunities: Many employers and healthcare facilities require occupational therapists to hold a degree from an accredited program. Having a degree opens up more job opportunities and may lead to better career prospects and advancement.
  • Continuing Education and Specialization: A degree serves as a foundation for further specialization or pursuing advanced degrees in occupational therapy, which can enhance your career and expertise in specific areas of practice.

In summary, obtaining a degree in occupational therapy is crucial for acquiring the necessary knowledge, skills, and credentials to become a licensed and competent practitioner in the field, ensuring you provide quality care to your patients and meet legal and professional requirements.

How long does it take to get a degree in Occupational Therapy?

The time it takes to get a degree in Occupational Therapy (OT) can vary depending on the level of degree you pursue and the educational pathway you choose.

Generally, there are three common degree levels for occupational therapists:

  • Bachelor’s Degree in Occupational Therapy (BOT or BSOT): This undergraduate program typically takes around 4 years to complete. However, it’s essential to note that the bachelor’s degree in OT is becoming less common, and most countries are now moving toward higher degree requirements.
  • Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy (MOT or MSOT): Pursuing a master’s degree is more common and often takes about 2 to 3 years to complete after earning a bachelor’s degree. So, in total, it might take around 6 to 7 years of combined undergraduate and graduate studies.
  • Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD): An OTD is the highest level of education for occupational therapists. It generally takes about 3 years to complete after earning a bachelor’s degree, totaling around 7 years of combined undergraduate and doctoral studies.

Keep in mind that program lengths can vary depending on factors such as the specific institution’s curriculum, whether you attend full-time or part-time, and if you have any transfer credits from previous education.

How much does it cost to study Occupational Therapy at a university?

The cost of studying occupational therapy at a university can vary significantly depending on several factors, the specific university or college you attend, whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student, and whether you receive any scholarships or financial aid.

Here are some recent approximate cost ranges for studying occupational therapy at a university:

  • Undergraduate Programs: In 2023, the average tuition and fees for the Occupational Therapist undergraduate program are $11,263 for in-state students and $32,322 for those from out-of-state.
  • Graduate Programs: For graduate students, the average costs are $11,368 for in-state and $23,777 for out-of-state attendees.
  • Private University: The annual tuition and fees for private universities can vary widely, ranging from $20,000 to $70,000 or more.

These figures are only rough estimates so it’s essential to check the specific universities’ websites or contact their admissions offices directly to get the most up-to-date and accurate information on tuition fees and other associated costs. Additionally, remember to consider other expenses like accommodation, books, supplies, and living expenses when budgeting for your education.

Can I become an Occupational Therapist through online education?

It is possible to pursue some aspects of occupational therapy education online, but there are limitations. Becoming a licensed occupational therapist typically requires a combination of online coursework and hands-on clinical experiences.

Here are some important points to consider:

  • Online Coursework: Many universities and colleges offer occupational therapy courses online. These could cover theoretical aspects of the profession, such as anatomy, physiology, therapeutic techniques, and assessment methods.
  • Fieldwork and Clinical Experience: Occupational therapy is a practical profession that involves working with clients in real-world settings. To become a licensed occupational therapist, you would need to complete a certain number of hours of supervised fieldwork or clinical experiences.
  • Accreditation: When considering online programs, it is essential to ensure that the school or program is accredited by the relevant accrediting bodies and recognized by the occupational therapy regulatory bodies in your country or state. Accreditation ensures that the program meets certain quality standards.
  • Prerequisites: Occupational therapy programs often have specific prerequisites, such as certain undergraduate courses, volunteer hours, or relevant work experience. Ensure you meet these requirements before applying.
  • Licensing and Certification: After completing an accredited occupational therapy program, you would need to pass the national or state licensing exam to become a licensed Occupational Therapist. The requirements for licensure vary by location.

What are some web resources to learn skills to become an Occupational Therapist?

Web resources can play a significant role in helping you develop and refine your skills as an occupational therapist.

Here are some recommended online resources:

  • American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA): AOTA’s website provides valuable information about the profession, educational requirements, and resources for students and professionals. They also offer webinars and online courses.
  • World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT): WFOT offers global resources, conferences, and research in the field of Occupational Therapy. It’s a great place to stay updated on international best practices and advancements.
  • The OT Toolbox: A resource full of activities, strategies, and tools for pediatric OTs.
  • Occupied: An OT podcast discussing a range of topics from clinical practice to research, education, and advocacy.

These web resources can complement your studies and offer valuable insights into the field of occupational therapy. Always make sure to verify the credibility and legitimacy of any online courses or resources before investing your time or money in them.

Practical Experience

A Day in the Life of an Occupational Therapist | Video by FHFT Communications

Are there internship opportunities for Occupational Therapists?

There are internship opportunities available for occupational therapists. However, it’s important to note that internship availability may vary depending on the region and the current job market.

Occupational therapy internships can provide valuable hands-on experience for students or recent graduates to apply their theoretical knowledge in real-world settings, gain practical skills, and develop a deeper understanding of their profession.

To find internship opportunities for occupational therapists, you can explore various avenues:

  • University or College Career Services: Many educational institutions have career services that can help students and graduates find internships in their field of study.
  • Healthcare Facilities: Hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities often offer internship programs for occupational therapy students or fresh graduates.
  • Online Job Boards and Professional Organizations: Check websites that specialize in posting internship opportunities, as well as occupational therapy professional organizations, as they may have job boards or listings specifically for internships.
  • Networking: Connect with practicing occupational therapists, faculty members, and alumni to inquire about potential internship opportunities they might be aware of.
  • Internship Fairs and Conferences: Attend industry-related events, conferences, or career fairs, where you can meet potential employers and learn about available internships.

It’s essential to verify with up-to-date sources to ensure you are aware of the current internship landscape for occupational therapists in your region.

What Skills will I learn as an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapy is a dynamic field that requires a blend of clinical, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills to help individuals achieve their maximum level of independence and well-being.

The skills you’ll learn as an OT will vary depending on the specific populations and settings you work with, but some common skills include:

  • Assessment and Evaluation: You’ll learn how to conduct thorough assessments of a client’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social capabilities to identify areas of concern and develop appropriate intervention plans.
  • Treatment Planning: Based on your assessments, you’ll develop individualized treatment plans that outline specific goals and objectives for your clients to work towards.
  • Activity Analysis: You’ll learn how to analyze activities and tasks to break them down into manageable components, making it easier for your clients to achieve success and develop skills incrementally.
  • Adaptive Techniques and Equipment: OTs often work with individuals who may need assistance or modifications in performing daily activities. You’ll learn how to recommend and use adaptive techniques and assistive devices to support your clients.
  • Rehabilitation Techniques: For clients recovering from injuries or disabilities, you’ll learn a variety of rehabilitation techniques to improve mobility, strength, and functional abilities.
  • Cognitive Rehabilitation: OTs working with clients with cognitive impairments will develop skills to address memory, attention, problem-solving, and executive function deficits.
  • Sensory Integration: OTs often work with children with sensory processing disorders to help them manage sensory input and develop appropriate responses to stimuli.
  • Mental Health Interventions: OTs play a vital role in mental health settings, assisting individuals with coping skills, emotional regulation, and engagement in meaningful activities to improve their mental well-being.
  • Communication and Collaboration: Effective communication and collaboration with clients, their families, and other healthcare professionals are essential in OT practice to ensure a holistic approach to care.
  • Documentation and Record Keeping: You’ll learn how to maintain accurate and detailed records of client assessments, treatment plans, progress, and outcomes.
  • Client Advocacy: OTs often act as advocates for their clients, ensuring their needs are met and that they have access to appropriate resources and support.
  • Professional Ethics: You’ll develop a strong understanding of ethical principles and standards to guide your professional conduct and decision-making.

What is the Work-Life Balance of an Occupational Therapist?

The work-life balance for an Occupational Therapist (OT) can vary based on several factors, including the work setting, caseload, personal preferences, and employer expectations. Generally, the field of occupational therapy strives to promote a healthy work-life balance to ensure that practitioners can provide quality care while maintaining their own well-being.

Here are some key factors that may influence the work-life balance for an occupational therapist:

  • Work Setting: OTs can work in various settings, such as hospitals, clinics, schools, home health, rehabilitation centers, or private practice. The work-life balance may differ depending on the setting, as some may have more regular hours, while others might require more flexible or extended schedules.
  • Caseload and Patient Demands: The number of patients or clients an OT sees per day can impact their work-life balance. A larger caseload may lead to longer working hours and potentially more stress, while a more manageable caseload could provide a better balance.
  • Flexibility and Autonomy: Occupational Therapists with more autonomy over their schedules, such as those in private practice or certain community-based settings, might have better opportunities to balance work and personal life.
  • Weekend and On-Call Duties: In certain settings, OTs may need to work weekends or be on call, which can impact their work-life balance.

It’s essential for occupational therapists to find a balance that works for them personally. While some aspects of the work environment might be beyond their control, it’s essential to communicate their needs and concerns with their employers and seek opportunities that align with their desired work-life balance. Setting personal boundaries and being able to disconnect from work during off-hours can also help improve work-life balance. Ultimately, taking care of one’s well-being is crucial to providing the best care for clients and patients.

What’s the Career Outlook for Occupational Therapists?

The career outlook for occupational therapists looks promising. According to the BLS, the employment of occupational therapists is anticipated to rise by 14 % between 2021 and 2031. This growth rate is considerably faster than the average growth for all other occupations.

An average of 10,100 job openings for occupational therapists is projected annually over the 10-year period. A significant portion of these openings will be due to the need to replace professionals who transition to other careers or leave the workforce, including those retiring.

Here are some employment factors driving this growth:

  • Treatment Needs: Occupational therapy remains crucial for treating individuals with various conditions and disabilities, including Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, autism, and limb loss.
  • Aging Population: The aging of the sizable baby-boom generation and the trend of staying active in later years will bolster the demand for occupational therapists. These therapists play a key role in aiding older adults to retain their independence, suggesting modifications to their homes and strategies that facilitate daily tasks.
  • Preference for Noninvasive Treatments: As people continue to opt for noninvasive outpatient therapies for long-term disabilities and health conditions, the role of occupational therapists will grow. Their expertise will be particularly important for individuals on the autism spectrum, assisting them in honing their social abilities and navigating day-to-day tasks.
Occupational Therapist Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists have a range of job opportunities in various settings due to the versatile nature of their profession.

Some of the common job opportunities for occupational therapists include:

  • Hospitals: Occupational therapists work in hospitals, where they provide rehabilitation services to patients recovering from injuries, surgeries, or medical conditions. They may help patients regain their independence and perform everyday activities.
  • Rehabilitation Centers: Occupational therapists play a crucial role in rehabilitation centers, assisting individuals recovering from strokes, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and other conditions to regain functional abilities.
  • Private Practice: Some occupational therapists choose to establish their own private practices, catering to clients with various needs, such as children with developmental delays or adults requiring specialized therapy.
  • Pediatric Centers: Occupational therapists may work in pediatric-focused centers, providing services to children with developmental disorders, sensory processing issues, and other conditions.
  • Mental Health Settings: Occupational therapists may work in mental health facilities, assisting individuals with psychiatric conditions to develop coping strategies, life skills, and promote their mental well-being.
  • Industrial and Ergonomic Settings: Occupational therapists are involved in improving workplace ergonomics and ensuring that employees can perform their job tasks safely and efficiently.
  • Research and Academia: Some occupational therapists pursue careers in research or academia, contributing to the advancement of the field through studies, teaching, and training future therapists.
  • Community-Based Programs: Occupational therapists may work in community-based programs, helping individuals with disabilities or older adults to participate in social activities and community life.

As the field of occupational therapy continues to evolve, new opportunities may arise, offering therapists a diverse range of career paths to explore.

What Types of Companies Hire an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists are in demand across various industries due to their expertise in helping people improve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being to perform everyday activities.

Some of the types of companies and settings that commonly hire occupational therapists include:

  • Hospitals and Medical Centers: Occupational therapists play a vital role in hospitals, clinics, and medical centers, providing rehabilitation services to patients recovering from injuries, surgeries, or medical conditions.
  • Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities: Occupational therapists work with elderly individuals in nursing homes and assisted living facilities to maintain their independence and improve their ability to carry out daily tasks.
  • Educational Institutions: Schools often employ occupational therapists to work with students who have developmental or learning disabilities to enhance their school performance and participation.
  • Rehabilitation Centers: Specialized rehabilitation centers hire occupational therapists to assist individuals recovering from strokes, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, or other neurological conditions.
  • Mental Health Facilities: Occupational therapists contribute to mental health settings, helping clients cope with mental illnesses and improve their functional abilities and life skills.
  • Home Health Care Agencies: Occupational therapists may work for home health care agencies, providing services to patients who require care in their own homes.
  • Corporate Wellness Programs: Larger companies may hire occupational therapists to provide wellness programs for employees, promoting health and safety in the workplace.
  • Sports Medicine Clinics: Occupational therapists may work with athletes to facilitate injury recovery and enhance performance through specialized rehabilitation techniques.
  • Government Agencies: Some government agencies, such as departments of veterans affairs or social services, employ occupational therapists to support veterans or individuals with disabilities.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Various nonprofit organizations and charities may employ occupational therapists to deliver services to under-served populations or specific groups with unique needs.

Should I become an Occupational Therapist?

Choosing a career path is a monumental decision, and venturing into the field of occupational therapy is no exception. Becoming an occupational therapist offers a unique opportunity to make a profound difference in people’s lives by enhancing their skills and allowing them to live more independently. The journey to becoming an OT, while demanding in terms of education and training, is met with a rewarding career filled with diverse opportunities, specialties, and the tangible impact of bettering lives daily.

If you’re drawn to a profession that combines the science of medicine with the art of holistic care and are eager to forge meaningful relationships with your clients, then the role of an occupational therapist might just be the fulfilling path you’ve been searching for.

Careers Related to Occupational Therapist


Jessica Wallace

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