A Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming an Occupational Therapist

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Occupational Therapists (OTs) are licensed professionals who treat injured, the chronically ill, and people with disabilities across all age groups. They evaluate the patient’s abilities and create treatment plans to provide pain relief and improve their living skills. To become an OT, students must complete the advanced courses and fieldwork toward their master’s degree. Following graduation, they take a national licensing exam to begin their practice. This comprehensive guide walks you through the education and training opportunities in occupational therapy. Learn how to proceed from the associate degree to the master’s degree, and from completing fieldwork requirements to interviewing for an OT job.

Decide on Occupational Therapy

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) reports that there are approximately 200 occupational therapy programs in the United States. OT master’s’ degree programs can last from two to three years. Applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree and have practical experience in an occupational therapy setting. To complete the OT, students must undertake a minimum of 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork. Given the extensive educational and clinical commitments, students should know whether they’re well-suited to the rigors of academic work and the demands of the profession. The BLS identifies the important qualities of successful OTs as adaptability, strong communication skills, compassion, patience, and interpersonal aptitude. In deciding if an OT career is right for you, consider the following questions:

  • Are you excited about developing relationships with patients and their families?
  • Can you remain comfortable working with patients who get visibly frustrated?
  • Are you a good observer?
  • Do you enjoy teaching (or re-teaching) people routine activities?
  • How are your writing skills?
  • Do you want to make a difference in people’s lives?
  • Are you a good organizer?
  • Do you have physical and emotional stamina?
  • Can you work with a diverse population including infants, children, adolescents, adults, and seniors?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be a great fit for occupational therapy. The following guide can help you find the ideal OT program that offers the classroom education and hands-on practice you need.

Research Occupational Therapy Programs Online

Occupational therapists are required to complete a master’s degree and up to half a year of supervised fieldwork. OTs are certified and must be licensed in the state where they practice. Depending on your current education and financial ability to pay tuition, you can start your training at an associate or bachelor’s degree program. Upon completion of the associate degree or bachelor’s program students are prepared to sit for national Occupational Therapist Assistant (OTA) exam. Along the way, students gather knowledge in the classroom and gain practical experience through voluntary work at a healthcare facility. From there, you can advance to a graduate program. How you plan to proceed depends on many factors, including where you currently are in your education, your existing work and family obligations, and your ability to attend classes on campus or complete your didactic training online.

Picking Your Degree Path

The first step is to identify which kind of program works best for you. There are many options, each tailored to your educational goals and career objectives. Training is sequential. If you’re still in high school, it’s wise to take classes in anatomy, mathematics, and psychology. Upon earning your diploma, you may choose to complete a two-year associate degree or enroll directly into a four-year baccalaureate program. Let’s examine each education option:

Starting as an occupational therapy assistant (OTA)

Completing a two-year associate degree is a sound option if you’re starting at the beginning. Many associate programs for OTAs prepare students for entry-level employment in the field. Coursework lays out the foundations of the profession, with studies in psychology, biology, pediatric anatomy and gerontology. Associate and bachelor’s degree programs offer students a choice of on-campus or online coursework. Upon completion of the two-year associate degree or four-year bachelor’s program students are prepared for the national Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) exam offered by The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Now you can begin OTA work and begin accruing at least one year of real-time experience essential for entry into most 2-3-year master’s degree programs. Accelerated OTA-to-OT bridge programs are available that lead directly from a bachelor’s to master’s degree or from a bachelor’s degree to doctorate. Most bridge programs require at least the completion of a bachelor’s degree however some accept associate degree holders if they can complete prerequisite courses prior to admission. Many bridge programs offer didactic training online, combined with on-site or weekend classes, weekend classes, and required fieldwork. Bridge programs are well-suited for busy adults who want to accelerate time-to-graduation and save money on tuition.

A bachelor’s degree in a related field

Prior acceptance into a master’s OT program, students should hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as exercise science, kinesiology, psychology, speech pathology, and biology. Some master’s programs do not stipulate undergraduate majors so long as the applicant holds a four-year degree. Bachelor’s-to-master’s bridge programs generally require students to complete two semesters of bachelor’s-level work before moving on to the post-graduate degree. The undergraduate degree may be offered on campus or through an online hybrid program. A bachelor’s degree program is best suited for students who intend to advance from their OTA education and employment to OT status.

The master’s degree in occupational therapy

The master’s is the primary degree for launching a certified occupational therapy career and is the minimum educational attainment to become a licensed OT. The degree takes 2-3 years to complete. Five-year bridge programs combine bachelor’s degree/master’s degree curriculum and culminate with the award of the OT degree. The degree increases your earning power over the OTA designation. Salary.com reports a median wage for OTs from $83,662 – $87,758 compared to the $51,718 to $63,071 median wage for OTAs. Read more about hybrid and online master’s degrees in occupational therapy.

Considering the doctorate

According to the AOTA, the foundation curricula for the accredited entry-level master’s degree and entry-level doctoral programs may overlap. From there, doctoral programs add on additional semesters to cover advanced clinical practice and research skills, OT theory, program administration, policy development, and OT advocacy. To evaluate whether the doctoral degree is a good option, consider your career goals, the length of program, location, and costs. With your experience, you should know by now of the added managerial, research, and administrative aspects that come with OTD careers. The guiding question is whether you want to (or can afford to) spend money on doctoral tuition for an additional 16 months beyond the OT. According to PayScale, the median annual salary for an OTD is $73,000.

Selecting a School

Once you have decided on the best career pathway for your goals, compare OT schools and their programs. Some degrees are offered exclusively on campus. Hybrids combine online didactic components and location-specific clinical fieldwork. As you begin your investigation of suitable programs, use the following checklist to evaluate a good match:

  • Is the school regionally accredited, following the standardized AOTA Model Curriculum?
  • What is the school’s ranking?
  • How long does it take to complete your degree (including fieldwork)?
  • What are the class sizes or the professor-to-student ratio?
  • Is the cost of the program affordable?
  • Is financial aid available?
  • What is the completion rate for master’s students?
  • How many graduates pass their licensing examinations?
  • Is there job placement assistance?

Can You Become an Occupational Therapist Online?

Many students considering the profession want to know if there are online OT degree programs that fit well with their commitments to family or work. You may already hold a bachelor’s degree recognized by graduate OT admissions departments. The clinical experience from working as an OTA can improve your chances of getting into a post-graduate program. According to the AOTA, there are no accredited entry-level OT or OTA programs available entirely online. However, there are online and hybrid OT programs with the option to complete didactic courses online and complete fieldwork and labs at a clinical location. Online OT programs vary by requirement, but distance courses can comprise from 24 to 90 percent of the curriculum (based on the institution). Here are some common options for online students pursuing their post-graduate OT:

Mostly online programs

Many institutions offer a hybrid degree, combining an online component with a campus-based classes. Some programs can be completed in 24 months of full-time study. These online programs are well-suited for students who cannot compromise their existing obligations. The advantage of these programs is the flexibility of online scheduling and completing coursework at the time and place of your choice. Classes may be delivered through streaming video, multimedia, and voice conferencing. The fieldwork components are pursued at a clinical location convenient to the student. On the negative side, students must choose their OT program carefully to ensure that all online coursework is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). If they’re not, you may not be eligible to take certification and licensing examinations.

Partially online programs

Partially online or hybrid OT programs may be a good fit for students who can attend classes and seminars on campus in addition to online didactic instruction. On-campus segments may be held several days per week. There are also hybrid programs that hold their on-campus trainings in accelerated courses on weekends. Because of the greater number of on-campus visits, this option may not be best for busy students. At the same time, students have greater opportunity for face-time with faculty, advisers and peers. Flex online programs may take longer for students to complete, given their self-paced studies and the required extended time on campus. For example, a Florida-based institution requires three years to complete the courses and fieldwork.

To learn more about the online option, read our page dedicated to online occupational therapy schools and programs.

Submit Your Applications

Now that you’ve determined the best pathway into the profession, it’s time to create a list of optimal degree programs, the best college or university, and a checklist of application requirements. Note the application deadlines and enrollment dates for each institution you’re considering and create a to-do list to complete your application on time. You may want to apply for financial aid at this time as well. You can do that at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website. Here are a few things to focus on as you prepare your applications:

Satisfy the pre-requisites

Application process & fees

Pass Your Classes

Students need to pass all the coursework in their OT program to qualify for testing for certifications and licensing via the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) exam. Individual courses and requirements may vary by institution, but accredited programs follow the AOTA Model Curriculum mandates. They must meet the standards of educational accreditors such as the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education.

Overall common master’s degree coursework covers:

  • Pre-OT courses in human development, kinesiology, nervous system and musculoskeletal anatomy
  • Foundations of occupational therapy (theory and practice)
  • Biomechanical applications
  • OT research techniques
  • Public and professional engagement
  • Clinical neuroscience
  • Screening and evaluation
  • Clinical populations (family, pediatrics, adolescence, adulthood, gerontology)
  • Therapy interventions
  • Clinical applications in psychology
  • Orthotics and prosthetics
  • Community-centered OT
  • Seminar in OT topics
  • Health promotion and wellness
  • Professional development
  • OT management of services
  • A scholarly project in Occupational Therapy
  • Fieldwork

Fieldwork is typically comprised of two sequential courses.

Complete Hands-on Fieldwork

Hands-on fieldwork is an essential component required by graduate-level OT programs. AOTA has a breakdown of requirements for fieldwork. Level 1 fieldwork commences during the academic year while students are still attending classes. Level 2 fieldwork is undertaken near the end of the degree program. Students integrate their theoretical learning with real-life practice in a clinical setting. The AOTA reports that each program is allowed to establish hours required in their Level 1 fieldwork. But AOTA-approved Level 2 fieldwork requires a minimum of 24 weeks, full time. Assignments in Level 2 fieldwork grow increasingly difficult as students work with diverse clinical populations. At the same time, the fieldwork enables students to network with healthcare professionals to build a lifelong connection with peers, mentors and potential employers. Here are actual fieldwork courses and descriptions from OT programs:

University of St. Augustine. Fieldwork IIB:

“Students will demonstrate entry-level competency and standards of practice within this second practice area. Includes weekly online interaction with faculty to facilitate student learning through reflective practice.”

University of Florida, College of Public Health & Health Professions Fieldwork Level II:

“Includes an in-depth experience in delivering occupational therapy services to clients, focusing on the application of purposeful and meaningful occupation and research, administration, and management of occupational therapy services. It is recommended that the student be exposed to a variety of clients across the life span and to a variety of settings.”

Earn Your License (& Certifications)

OTs are required to be licensed in every state by passing the examination offered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). NBCOT test candidates must hold a master’s degree from an accredited institution and have satisfied the school’s fieldwork requirements. Upon passage of the examination, OTs can use the designation: “Occupational Therapist, Registered” (OTR). The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) maintains a listing of OT regulatory agencies and contact information for all states and territories.

While certifications are not typically required for entry into the profession, AOTA recommends earning them as a means of increasing your knowledge base and skill sets for specialized areas of practice. Certifications can also pave the way to advancement in the OT field. Because there are continuing-education requirements for maintaining certification, OTs should demonstrate to their employers the completion of ongoing specialty training. Available board specializations include:

  • Gerontology
  • Low Vision
  • Mental Health
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical Rehabilitation
  • Driving and Community Mobility

Apply to Jobs

Scour the job boards at national employment websites as well as specialized job listings at OT associations and organizations. Perhaps people in your network know of openings. Apply with a cover letter and resume. There is no single boilerplate cover letter and resume that will satisfy the OT hiring manager. Successful applicants will read the job description carefully and tailor their resumes, emphasizing their unique fit to the job requirements. The process includes learning as much as possible about each company or employer. As you prepare your resume for the job, discover how to emphasize qualifications that separate you from the pack. The narrative of your resume should be accomplishment driven, emphasizing how you contributed to fieldwork and professional roles. Be sure to cite educational achievement and applicable certification and licensure. Because some larger employers use an automated applicant tracking system (ATS) to ferret out unprepared candidates, you should note the keywords used in the employment listing and use them in listing your qualifications. The following websites offer sample occupational therapist resumes and tips to make them attractive to employers:

Face-to-Face Interviews

Landing the interview often means that you have passed the initial screening process and are in the competition for the OT opening. AOTA recommends that candidates put their best case forward by practicing for the interview. There are more generalized questions that come up early in the interview, and some are asked just to break the ice. But thereafter, the interview gets down to business and you should be prepared to support and expand upon the highlighted qualifications that you cited in your resume.

Here are 10 key questions you may face when interviewing:

  1. What are the best qualities to have as an OT?
  2. What OT certifications (or specializations) do you have?
  3. Why are you interested in this particular opening and why are you a good fit?
  4. What are your accomplishments in education or practice?
  5. How did you handle challenges from patients in your fieldwork?
  6. What would you specially contribute to our organization?
  7. How would your peers describe you?
  8. What motivates you to pursue a career in OT?
  9. Where do you see your career heading in the next five years?
  10. How do you handle feedback or constructive criticism?

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