How to Find (and Land) Your First Occupational Therapist Job

Finally! Your occupational therapist program is over and it’s time to study for the NBCOT exam (congrats if you have already taken it!). After all your hard work you deserve a breather—but only a minute! Your next big task is to land your first OT job. Hopefully your clinical experience made you excited to dive right in and helped you narrow down your area of interest (pediatrics versus adults most likely). Dozens of opportunities pop up on your general Indeed search for occupational therapist jobs and the market seems deep, but depending on your location there may be a fair amount of competition for a desirable OT position. That means you need to rock your resume and cover letter and bring your A-game to your interview.

So…cover letter and resume are completed—but which jobs to apply to? As with any profession, not all jobs are equal, even though the relative occupational therapist services you’ll be providing as a new grad most likely won’t vary much. Here are some points to consider when sifting through OT openings:

  1. Don’t be completely swayed by a sign-on bonus. Does a big $5,000 bonus listed in a job posting sound too good to be true? It just may be. Some companies have a hard time keeping staff and offer candidates a sign-on bonus for a term commitment. The question you need to consider is, why? This may not be a job you want to keep for a long time (if this scenario is indeed the case), and you will have to repay your bonus if you leave before your contract is up. For an entry-level OT position, more money doesn’t necessarily mean the most desirable jobs on the market. Try to ignore those student loans knocking on your door and focus on longevity potential, rather than on financial potential.
  2. Think long and hard about the type of facilities that will help you develop your clinical OT skills. Try to be a little picky about what you apply to—you want to receive a variety of clinical experience in your first job to help you become an awesome occupational therapist. Facilities such as hospitals typically offer clinical rotation schedules, or at least the opportunity for therapists to “job share/shadow” and experience multiple levels of care.

Great news! You’ve been contacted for interviews. How should you prepare?

  1. A therapy manager will be interested in your clinical experiences, obviously. What diagnoses you are familiar with, how comfortable you are treating patients with a variety of abilities, maybe even where you see yourself in five years—you know, typical stuff.
  2. Make a mental note to talk about functional assessments you are familiar using. Healthcare and insurance companies stress objective assessment and its use will continue to grow as a means to measure patient improvement and quality of care in regards to therapy.
  3. Express your specific areas of interest—what do you wish to learn most and gain from the potential position? Interested in hand therapy? Driving rehab? Spinal Cord rehabilitation? Be specific on what you desire and not only will the manager be impressed, but you will improve your chances of finding the best fit for you.
  4. Be prepared to talk about what you would do if a patient doesn’t want to participate in therapy. This is a common reality in many facilities. You need to know how to advocate for yourself as a professional on why your OT services will benefit someone. It’s your typical conflict resolution question in a healthcare format.

You received an offer! Or better yet, multiple offers. How do you choose the right one?

  1. Ask to shadow an occupational therapist for a few hours (and bonus points to the facility if they offer this first!). This will give you a good idea of a typical day at work and a feel for how your potential new co-workers interact with each other. Take this a step farther and see if you can spend a lunch break chatting with the OT/therapy staff. This may be a long shot, but it would be an awesome opportunity to see if they seem like a fun crew. Healthcare is tough, and you want a team who sticks together through thick and thin and co-workers who have your back and are able and willing to help you out (with challenging transfers, showers, therapeutic ideas and advice). If the staff seems awesome and super tight during downtime (lunch and documentation time) most likely you will have a blast at work.
  2. Ask if any of the current occupational therapists have specializations. Continuing education is ongoing for us OTs, and you would do well to find a job that not only supports and values specializations, but has opportunities for you to learn and pick up some specific advanced skills.
  3. Ask about productivity requirements! When you are trying to focus on building clinical skills and are learning the ropes of documentation solo, the last thing you want to be is stressed out because you are unable to meet the productivity standards. These exist in nearly every OT job. It’s just a fact of life, but you will feel more comfortable when you know that this is not the primary focus of your new employer!
  4. If all else fails and you can’t figure out what to do, contact a clinical instructor you really admired or enjoyed. Ask their advice and I’m sure you’ll get their honest answer.

Again, a big congrats on graduating and best of luck in your job search—you got this.