How Do I Become an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapy addresses issues with a patient’s musculoskeletal systems. In many cases, pain and difficulty with mobility may be chronic. Occupational therapists’ goal is to help patients gain physical strength and pursue the rehabilitation of key musculoskeletal systems that are crucial for a self-sufficient lifestyle.

They assist injured individuals in developing various methods to successfully perform daily occupations, help prevent premature loss of physical functions, maintain or even improve mental health, and facilitate workarounds for lifestyle disruptions caused by a physical or musculoskeletal injury.

Professionals in this role usually hold, at a bare minimum, a bachelor’s degree in biology, anthropology, psychology, anatomy, sociology, or another healthcare-related field. What matters most in gaining an entry-level position is the ability to demonstrate mastery in the knowledge of the human body, including how it moves, how injuries happen, and how to counsel patients on preventing further occurrences.

Occupational therapy professionals may also possess a marketable combination of a college degree, whether two- or four-year, and industry experience, either broadly or in the specific area of occupational therapy. Most go on to obtain master’s degrees in occupational therapy in order to increase potential earnings through a specialization. These programs typically range from one to three years. Some OTs go all the way and obtain a doctorate in occupational therapy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019) reports that occupational therapists nationwide make a median annual salary of $84,270. The organization expects that the American economy will add nearly 24,000 new occupational therapy jobs between 2018 and 2028. There are nearly 200 university-level occupational therapy programs currently available across the country approved by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education.

If, as an occupational therapist, you’re interested in staying abreast of industry developments and advancements, then consider applying for certification through these various occupational therapy organizations:

  • American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA)
  • National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, Inc. (NBCOT)
  • Occupational Therapy Association of California (OTAC)
  • Hand Therapy Certification Commission (HTCC)
  • American Society of Hand Therapists (ASHT)

Certifications such as these will usually require the applicant to have the requisite number of years of experience (which varies), in addition to any other educational requirements. Associations, organizations, and societies give professionals an opportunity to network with other people in the field and to tap into a rich body of knowledge.

There are also regional organizations such as the California Foundation for Occupational Therapy (CFOT).

Where Do Occupational Therapists Work?

Occupational therapists can find themselves working in an impressively wide array of medical, clinical, or office environments. A day in the life of an occupational therapist entails showing up at an office or clinic and working in professional, highly-technical environments where employees are expected to possess a deep and nuanced understanding of human behavior and activity.

Occupational therapists often work as rehabilitation managers, professors of practice at health science or medical institutions, clinic directors, or in one of the many OT specializations: pediatric, senior, and general physical therapy; acute care; speech-language pathology; or pain management.

Steps to Becoming an Occupational Therapist

There is a number of ways to pursue a career as an occupational therapist. Below we’ll cover an example of how to begin, complete mastery of the subject, and transition into a rewarding career.

Step 1: Earn an Associate Degree After Graduating From High School (Two Years).

As a high school student, a focus in chemistry, biology, physiology, physics, biochemistry, anatomy, health sciences, and the social sciences can serve prospective OTs well. Advanced placement and high school seminar courses in these subjects are recommended whenever possible at a given public or private high school.

However, as some occupational therapy professionals hold undergraduate degrees seemingly not related to the field of occupational therapy, you may be surprised which college majors can help you prepare. See the entry below for examples of some ancillary areas of study that might give prospective occupational therapists the background and skills they need.

Step 2. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in the Sciences or Liberal Arts (Two to Four years).

General requirements to apply for a bachelor’s degree are:

  • High school transcripts or GED
  • A letter or statement of purpose or intent
  • Completed application and fee
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Any letter(s) of recommendation, internship, or work-study experience

Aside from the more general education requirements, gaining bachelor’s degrees in the subject areas of biology, anthropology, psychology, anatomy, sociology, or even physically-focused liberal arts disciplines would be great places to start.

Examples of some of the types of courses found in these programs and courses which are recommended include medical terminology, physiology, mental health, human anatomy, physics, gerontology, and more. Most BS OT degrees require six months of supervised fieldwork in centers, clinics, or community organizations. This is so students are able to gain some first-hand experience before graduating.

However, bachelor’s programs in occupational therapy are not as common as other fields. To this end, if you’re interested in the field of occupational therapy but cannot find programs in your area, consider degrees in related fields such as psychology, social work, sociology, anatomy, physiology, or kinesiology. Be sure to confirm that the program you’re interested in is accredited by ACOTE, the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education, a division of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc., or AOTA.

It should be noted that the vast majority of occupational therapists hold graduate degrees, with a bachelor’s degree generally being the absolute minimum educational requirement. As per employer discretion, a few years of industry experience could go a long way to making yourself a desirable candidate for employment if combined with a background of academic study.

Step 3: Gain Industry Experience to Prepare for More Advanced Positions (One to Five Years)

A position as an occupational therapist will at a minimum require a bachelor’s degree, and many jobs, institutions, or research centers will ask that candidates have a graduate degree as well. One way to advance in a career as an occupational therapist is to gain work experience in the industry itself. This should help you prepare for certification and more advanced positions, which typically require significant industry experience in candidates being considered for upper management.

Depending on the type of certification, the time commitment that is expected of a prospective occupational therapist could be anywhere from one to five years. Depending on state laws, this window of time can vary widely by region. Be sure to consult state and local laws to determine what license is necessary for an occupational therapist in your area.

Step 4: Apply for Certification or State-Required License Based on an Occupational Therapy Concentration (One to Two years)

In terms of organizations of advocacy, training, and development, the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA) leads the market of professional occupational therapy organizations. There is also the more general authority on OT practice, the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, Inc. (NBCOT).

From here, organizations begin to specialize, for example, in hand therapies, with the Hand Therapy Certification Commission (HTCC) and the American Society of Hand Therapists (ASHT) standing out.

California’s market for occupational therapy is so large that the state has its own association, the California Foundation for Occupational Therapy (CFOT). After obtaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree but before entering into the OT field, prospective professionals will need to pass the national NBCOT exam. More information on that is included in the next step.

Step 5: Earn a Master’s Degree (One to Three Years, Depending on Program)

Attending a master’s program in occupational therapy (MOT) can allow future OTs to delve even deeper into the field and gain valuable industry knowledge. Pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy will see students capable of choosing a wide variety of career paths, such as clinic director, a professor of practice at a health sciences or medical institution, rehabilitation manager, or one of the many OT specializations: pediatric, senior, and general physical therapy.

As a graduate student, one can expect courses in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, various therapies, health counseling, health education, healthcare administration, and more.

Remember that after obtaining a master’s degree prospective professionals will need to pass the national NBCOT exam. The exam is $555. Information about where to take the exam in your state can be found at that link.

Step 6: Become a Certified Occupational Therapist and Maintain Necessary Certifications (Timelines Vary)

Depending on which of the associations mentioned above you might have chosen for your future upskilling and reskilling needs, you will likely need to renew these various certifications periodically. Consult organization websites for renewal timelines and procedures.

Most occupational therapists’ certifications are valid for a minimum of two years, depending on the concentration, so be sure to keep track of when you’ll need to begin preparing to renew your credentials.

Helpful Resources for Occupational Therapists

  • AOTA List of Entry-Level Graduate Programs in Occupational Therapy (AOTA)
  • American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA)
  • National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, Inc. (NBCOT)
  • Occupational Therapy Association of California (OTAC)
  • California Foundation for Occupational Therapy (CFOT)
  • Hand Therapy Certification Commission (HTCC)
  • American Society of Hand Therapists (ASHT)
  • Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Therapy Ops Occupational Therapy Resources
  • OT Potential, blog about occupational therapy
  • Your Therapy Spot, blog about occupational therapy
  • The Anonymous OT, blog about pediatric occupational therapy
  • Occupational Therapy Hub, blog about occupational therapy
  • Holistic OT, occupational therapy blog with a focus on complementary and integrative health
  • Gotta Be OT, blog about occupational therapy
  • Seniors Flourish, an OT blog about senior’s occupational therapy
Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker

Writer

Kenneth is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by BustedCubicle.com, MedicalTechnologySchools.com, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.

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