Renee Leuschke is a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy Registered & Licensed with over 10 years of experience working in hospitals and outpatient clinicals. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Southeast Missouri State University and a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently works with clients with neuro-related diagnoses such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, and multiple sclerosis.
Occupational therapists help patients who face new and sometimes difficult circumstances related to illness, injury, or disability. They may help patients learn or regain day-to-day skills, or develop entirely news ones to manage new situations. Occupational therapists are in high demand given their specialized skills and the critical treatment they provide.
Becoming an occupational therapist requires a master’s degree. Fortunately, many schools are making it much easier to find a program with the right balance of quality, cost, and convenience. These programs combine online learning and face-to-face interaction to help students get the training they need to finish their degree in as few as two years. Check out the following guide to learn the ins and outs of occupational therapy master’s programs online.
The Best Occupational Therapy Master’s Programs Online
Not all schools are created equal. But what constitutes a “better” school for one person may not be the better school for someone else – what makes a school great depends upon your specific needs and circumstances. To help you narrow down the options for a master’s in occupational therapy online, we’re profiling a number of “Best in Class” programs, where we look at important factors such as academic quality, course offerings, and affordability. See which schools are making a different in OT in 2020.
University of St. Augustine
At the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, students get to choose from a wide selection of health related programs, including the Master of Occupational Therapy. In addition to its traditional full-time program, which can be completed in two years, the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences offers the Flex distance program. This online hybrid program allows students to complete all 93 credit hours both online and in-person, leading to their master’s degree in just three years. Graduates are ready to sit for the NBCOT Certification Examination.
The occupational therapy program is run on a trimester system, each consisting of around nine to 12 credit hours. This curriculum will cover a wide range of subjects, including:
Wellness and Health Promotion
Human Movement for Occupational Performance
Occupational Engagement and Theories of Practice
Patient/Client Care Management
Wellness and Health Promotion
OT Methods I: Assistive Technology
OT Methods II: Orthotics, Prosthetics and Modalities
Fieldwork IIA and IIB
Toward the end of the program, students obtain hands-on training through two fieldwork courses, each lasting 12 weeks. To provide maximum flexibility, students can choose to attend the University of St. Augustine for Health Science’s campus of their choice; they are located in Austin, Texas, St. Augustine, Florida, and Miami, Florida.
Belmont University is a private university that prides itself on helping others. So it’s no wonder that the school offers occupational therapy courses at the doctorate and master’s level. The Belmont University Master of Science in Occupational Therapy is particularly unique in its hybrid approach. Students can take many of their courses online, but every third weekend they receive instruction through a series of intense on-campus classes. As a result of this weekend component, students can complete their coursework at a full-time pace in six semesters, including summer sessions. A few of the courses students can expect to take include:
Neuroscience in Occupational Therapy
Developmental Influences on Living
Contemporary Issues in Occupational Therapy Practice
During the third and final year, the focus shifts to field and clinical work, but students have flexibility in where they obtain this in-person training. Belmont’s occupational therapy program has more than 800 approved clinical sites, but in a commitment to student success, program officials are willing to discuss alternate locations for hands-on training requirements that are more geographically practical for the student. Given this flexibility, it is little surprise that Belmont’s master’s program in occupational therapy boasts a graduation rate of 99 percent.
Elmhurst College’sMaster of Occupational Therapy program is tailored to incoming students who have little to no experience in the occupational therapy field. Despite many students starting from scratch, they can expect to graduate with a master’s degree in as little as 24 months of full-time study. This program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education.
After graduation, students will be on the cusp of becoming an Occupational Therapist, Registered (OTR) after they pass the NBCOT Certification Examination. Preparation for the exam is a rigorous part of the program; the 2018 graduating class can testify to that, as each one of them passed the exam.
Like most other occupational therapy master’s level programs, Elmhurst College offers a blended learning format, which combines online instruction with in-person training. Much of the lecture-based instruction is provided through remote learning formats while more hands-on teaching takes place on campus. To complete the full master’s curriculum, students will need to take 21 total classes, including:
Health and Occupation
Health Care Systems and Health Policy
Professional Practice Seminar
Evaluation I: Mental Health and Learning Challenges
Evaluation II: Acute and Chronic Physical Health Challenges
Earning Your Occupational Therapy Degree Online
Earning an occupational therapy degree online can have numerous advantages over the traditional on-campus program. While online learning isn’t perfect for everyone, it has benefits that are pretty hard to beat for some.
The ability to take OT courses on your own schedule is a major benefit of attending an online program. Even blended programs that have in-person curriculum requirement make obtaining a master’s degree in occupational therapy so much easier when the bulk of the curriculum is available online. When completing these in-person requirements, many online programs still keep things convenient by allowing you to find a nearby location where you can complete the field requirements. Since this hands-on training takes place near the end of the program, you’ll already have the knowledge and skills to hit the ground running.
When you’re working as an occupational therapist, persistence is the name of the game. Many patients will need guidance for quite some time; their advances might seem so incremental that it becomes frustrating for everyone involved. And some patients might not be willing or ready to receive your help, which means you must be even more persistent when convincing them, from one session to another, to stick with what they need to do. Having the discipline to remain persistent in helping a patient or finding alternative treatments is essential. Completing an online degree requires persistence, too. The self-directed nature of the program means you must have firm self-discipline to complete assignments on your own, often by creating a personal schedule that requires you to stick to the program.
Honing of multitasking skills
Online programs provide maximum flexibility, which is why they typically attract those with other obligations, such as work or family. As a result, online students quickly become masters of multi-tasking. Those multi-tasking skills can carry over to practice as an occupational therapist. It’s common for occupational therapists to juggle several things at once, such as keeping track of how many times a patient does a particular action, anticipating what activity the patient will choose to do next and figuring out how to apply that as a treatment. Then, while the occupational therapist is typing up notes following the treatment, they are planning what activities to suggest when working with the next patient.
Of course, there are also some challenges to choosing an online program. Here are some of the issues you might face:
More time until graduation
Depending on the program, online students may take the same amount of time to graduate as traditional, on-campus students. However, in many cases the online degree path for an occupational therapy master’s degree takes longer, sometimes up to a whole year. This added time in school can mean more money spent in tuition and a delay in when the first paycheck as an occupational therapist will arrive.
Finding a fieldwork location
Practically all occupational therapy online programs have a real-world component. These fieldwork courses usually take place in the final year of the program. How an online student completes these fieldwork requirements will depend on the specific program; many of them have predetermined locations where students can take their fieldwork courses. But these facilities don’t work for all online students. Therefore, sometimes students must work with their program officials to find a facility that can more easily accommodate the student’s needs with scheduling or geographic location. This can take some serious communication and coordination, potentially leading to extra time and frustration.
Now that you’ve seen the pros and cons, let’s take a look at how online programs for occupational therapy work. The vast majority of online occupational therapy programs are in a hybrid format, with both online courses and in-person requirements. The ratio between online and in-person requirements will vary among online programs. At the very least, an online program will require you to complete roughly a semester’s worth of fieldwork credits to complete their degree and be eligible to sit for the national licensing exam.
Where you obtain the field experience will also depend on the specific program you choose to attend. Most programs will have established arrangements with certain facilities or will allow students to choose an “outside” facility as long as it meets certain requirements.
When looking for an online occupational therapy program, there are options at several degree levels. Master’s programs are the most popular if you’re seeking initial OT licensure, but OTD and PhD doctoral programs are also available online to advance even further in OT. You can learn more details about online master’s OT programs in the section below.
Inside the Online Master’s in Occupational Therapy
The master’s degree is the minimum required to become a licensed occupational therapist. Most programs last between two and three years, and a growing number of programs provide a bulk of their curriculums online. There are currently no fully online entry-level master’s level occupational therapy programs, thanks to the mandate that graduates have a certain amount of hands-on experience. However, outside of these fieldwork curriculum requirements, many online programs offer the majority of their instruction through virtual means.
In Detail: the OT Master’s Curriculum
Each occupational therapist curriculum is unique; however, there are certain points that each one hits to ensure students are fully prepared for the expectations of the career. Broad subjects include anatomy, neuroscience, health and wellness and assistive technology. This covers a wide range of theory and practice in patient care, all of which will come in quite handy when it’s time to use those knowledge and skills in the clinical setting. Let’s take a look at some courses you’re likely to encounter while pursuing your master’s degree.
Patient/Client Care Management
The basics of patient care, beneficial communication and professional communication skills are addressed in this class.
Students learn how to apply what they know to patient care through the use of problem solving, as well as logical and critical thinking.
Anatomy for Occupational Therapy
The basics of human anatomy are taught within the occupational therapy context. Special attention will be given to understanding how physical problems relate to physical performance.
Occupational Therapy with Children
Effective means of providing occupational therapy to children are explained in this course. Subject matter will focus on individuals from birth to adolescence and include theory, practice methods, research data and regulatory considerations.
Occupational Therapy with Older Adults
As patients get older, their therapy needs change. Students will learn how illnesses, injuries and disabilities change with age and how current occupational therapies can be applied to meet the special needs of older patients.
Provides an overview of the occupational therapy profession, including a discussion of professional organizations, ethical considerations, professional roles and how societal views can affect treatment.
Leadership and Management
With the use of self-assessment tools and interactions with others, students discover how to effectively lead in a professional environment, including learning about marketing, budgeting and program evaluation.
Community-Based Fieldwork and Seminar
This class teaches students the basic theory and practical skills to safely and effectively manage and lead when treating a broader community.
Neurological Conditions and Occupational Performance
This course aims to teach students about neurological conditions, including how to evaluate and treat neurological issues patients may face.
Students will choose a topic to research, then collect and analyze data and learn how to apply their finding to the practice of occupational therapy.
How Long Does It Take to Graduate?
The amount of time it takes to complete an occupational therapy master’s program depends on several factors, such as number of credits required to graduate, course load (full-time versus part-time) and program format. Most students in an online program can expect to take about three years to graduate. The timeline below provides a rough outline to help visualize the process of earning an online master’s degree in occupational therapy.
Year 1, Fall Semester
Introductory topics relating to occupational therapy will be covered during the first semester. Courses will cover topics such as an overview of the profession and basic theories of practice.
Year 1, Spring Semester
More advanced occupational therapy professional topics are addressed now, including foundational concepts relating to the human body, research methodologies and providing patient care.
Students will take only one or two courses during the summer period.
Year 2, Fall Semester
Now courses get into the more substantial subject matter that will actually apply to occupational therapy practice. Introductions to research methods and techniques are usually used extensively during the final year.
Year 2, Spring Semester
The shift to advanced coursework continues and will include other related, advanced subjects such as clinical research, advanced treatment and evaluation techniques.
Students will continue their academic training through hands-on and real world instruction.
Year 3, Fall Semester
The third year consists of advanced level courses and hands-on instruction. There is a strong emphasis on fieldwork and clinical experience.
Year 3, Spring Semester
Depending on the program, there may not be a second semester during the third year. If there is, students can expect to continue their hands-on training and may have to complete a capstone project.
Admissions & Required Materials
Most occupational therapy programs evaluate prospective students based on their prior academic performance and what they can offer to the school in terms of student body enrichment. This means good grades are very important, although their overall importance will depend on the prestige and rigor of the program. Some programs look for certain types of students and thus may have additional admissions requirements, such as a certain amount of experience working as an occupational therapist aide or assistant. Let’s take a closer look at the core admissions and application requirements for these advanced educational programs:
Master’s program application
Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
A minimum cumulative undergraduate GPA, often a 3.0 or higher on a 4.0 scale.
Completion of the following prerequisite courses with a minimum grade (C+ or B-, depending on the school and course) in:
Human anatomy and physiology I (with lab)
Human anatomy and physiology II (with lab)
Introduction to psychology
Introduction to sociology or introduction to anthropology
Two or more letters of recommendation, with at least one coming from a licensed occupational therapist
Copies of undergraduate transcripts
Some schools may also require:
At least one year of experience working as a full-time and fully credential occupational therapist aide or assistant.
Completion of additional prerequisites with a minimum grade (C+ or B, depending on the school and course) in:
Human growth and development.
Core OT Master’s Knowledge & Skills
The specific skills and knowledge an occupational therapist must know to treat patients will be conveyed through a reputable program. The level of familiarity with certain skills and information will grow as you get more advanced training. Regardless of which degree you’re earning, you can expect to learn the following skills, all of which will be useful in the occupational therapy setting.
Occupational therapists must be able to communicate effectively with patients, family members of patients and colleagues. The ability to communicate with all parties involved with a patient’s treatment is critical because some patients may not be able to communicate on their own. Additionally, consulting with fellow occupational therapists may be required in situations where a team approach to treating a patient is useful.
Critical thinking is a bit of a buzzword these days, but that doesn’t diminish its importance. Occupational therapists should expect to deeply review research data, medical files and other relevant patient records to not only establish treatment models, but identify any unknown issues that must be also be addressed.
The ability to understand and feel what the patient is going through helps create a rapport. This is important not just to establish good communication, but also to build credibility, respect and trust with the patient. An occupational therapist will be far less effective when a patient is constantly second guessing the value or motivation of the assistance offered.
Patience is another must for occupational therapists. It might be nice to quickly treat and assist a patient, but often injuries, illnesses and certain medical conditions are simply so severe or complex that they cannot be easily treated. Therefore, occupational therapists must ensure they take the necessary time to deliver quality treatment while keeping the patient comfortable and at ease.
Every patient is unique, and even though they may have a “textbook” health issue, that doesn’t always mean a therapist can utilize a textbook treatment approach. And in some cases, a patient may present unique challenges that require the occupational therapist to devise some clever or unconventional treatments.
The ACOTE is the accrediting body of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). AOTA is the leading professional association representing occupational therapists and occupational therapy students in training. AOTA works to promote the professional and academic interests of those in the occupational therapy field.
ACOTE is recognized by both the US Department of Education as well as the Council for Higher Education (CHEA). It accredits more than 400 programs in the United States and its territories. ACOTE ensures that graduates of accredited programs have the necessary level of knowledge and training to treat patients as effectively, safely and ethically as possible.
When accrediting a program, ACOTE will look for a variety of factors at the school, such as inclusion of both classroom and fieldwork training, acquisition of foundational knowledge in scientific subjects and principles, familiarity with diversity issues, awareness of various forms of treatment models, the ability to develop treatment models to address many different types of patient issues and possession of effective interpersonal skills to communicate with patients and colleagues.
Do Occupational Therapists Need a License?
Getting a master’s degree in occupational therapy is not quite enough to become registered and start treating patients: all 50 states require occupational therapists to become licensed before they start practicing. Each state has its own requirements for licensure, but they all require taking and passing the National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination.
To be eligible to sit for the NBCOT exam, occupational therapists must graduate from an accredited occupational therapy program and finish all fieldwork requirements. Additional requirements for licensing will include completing and submitting a state-specific license application and paying an application fee. The current fee, as of 2019, is $515 via online application, and $555 via paper application. Exam applications are valid for three months. To learn more about what is required in your state, check with your state licensing board.