Have you been told you have an empathetic, patient, and creative nature? Imagine having a career that would let you use your ability to connect with others as you help them adapt and thrive in their daily lives. As an occupational therapist, you’ll use your special traits to develop personalized strategies that empower people to overcome challenges and live life to the fullest.
Occupational Therapists (OTs) are licensed professionals who treat injured and chronically ill people and those with disabilities across all age groups. They evaluate a 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 U.S. Applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree and have practical experience in an occupational therapy setting. OT master’s’ degree programs can last from two to three years. To complete the OT degree, 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 in 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 in your journey is determining the program that best aligns with your educational goals and career aspirations. With a variety of options available, you can find one tailored to your needs. The training follows a sequential path. In high school, taking anatomy, mathematics, and psychology classes is beneficial. After obtaining your diploma, you can pursue a two-year associate degree or enter a four-year baccalaureate program. Now, let’s explore each educational option in more detail.
Selecting a School
Once you’ve figured out the ideal career path for your goals, it’s time to compare OT schools and their programs. Some degrees are only available on campus, while hybrids mix online learning with location-specific hands-on experience. As you start looking into the right programs for you, here’s a handy checklist to help you find the perfect fit:
- 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 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 24–90% of the curriculum, depending 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. It’s imperative that students 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 occupational therapy programs provide convenience and accessibility, allowing students to complete the online portion of their studies from anywhere. They combine the benefits of online learning, such as flexibility and self-paced study, with hands-on experience through in-person sessions. This blended approach caters to diverse learning styles while allowing students to receive the same rigorous education and training as those who attend fully on-campus programs. On-campus segments in some programs might take place multiple days a week, while hybrid programs offer accelerated weekend courses for on-campus training. Although this option may not be ideal for busy students due to more frequent campus visits, it does provide increased face-to-face interaction with faculty, advisors, and peers. With their self-paced studies and extended on-campus time, flexible online programs could take longer to complete. For instance, a Florida-based institution requires three years to finish the coursework 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, you’re ready to create a list of optimal degree programs, the best colleges and universities, 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:
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 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, and 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 states that each program can set its required hours for Level 1 fieldwork. However, for AOTA-approved Level 2 fieldwork, students must complete a minimum of 24 full-time weeks. As you progress through Level 2, assignments become more challenging, allowing you to work with diverse clinical populations. This hands-on experience also offers valuable networking opportunities with healthcare professionals, helping you establish lifelong connections with peers, mentors, and potential employers. Take a look at some fieldwork courses and descriptions from OT programs.
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 of 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 not required to enter the profession, AOTA recommends earning additional certifications 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:
- Low Vision
- Mental Health
- Physical Rehabilitation
- Driving and Community Mobility
Apply to Jobs
When it comes time to apply for jobs, there are many ways to find ones you’d like to apply to. Check 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. While you’ll 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:
Landing the interview usually means you’ve passed the initial screening process and are in the competition for the OT opening. AOTA recommends that candidates put their best foot 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:
- What are the best qualities to have as an OT?
- What OT certifications (or specializations) do you have?
- Why are you interested in this opening and why are you a good fit?
- What are your accomplishments in education or practice?
- How did you handle challenges from patients in your fieldwork?
- What would you specially contribute to our organization?
- How would your peers describe you?
- What motivates you to pursue a career in OT?
- Where do you see your career heading in the next five years?
- How do you handle feedback or constructive criticism?