Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy is a healthcare specialization that has come into high demand and jobs in the field exist at all levels of the healthcare spectrum. Occupational therapists (OTs) are responsible for addressing issues with a patient’s musculoskeletal system, and in many cases, pain and difficulty with mobility may be chronic. An occupational therapist’s goal is to help patients gain physical strength and pursue the rehabilitation of key musculoskeletal systems that are crucial for a self-sufficient lifestyle at home and work.

OTs assist injured individuals in successfully performing daily tasks, prevent premature loss of physical functions, maintain or even improve mental health, and facilitate workarounds for lifestyle disruptions caused by physical or musculoskeletal injury. Apart from these essential duties, occupational therapists work collaboratively with physicians and other healthcare professionals.

As injuries of the musculoskeletal system will continue to need attention, the role of certified occupational therapists will remain critical to healthcare, combining best health practices with physiology, anatomy, wellness, and a purposeful mindset.

Occupational Therapist Specializations & Degree Types

Occupational therapy is used along with other approaches to physical health to address the highly-specialized needs of a wide variety of patients. There are a number of specializations and career types available to prospective occupational therapy professionals. Formal specialties and certifications are offered by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) in two types: board certification and specialty certification. Individual types of certifications include:

  • Occupational Therapy Instructor (vocational or community college level)
  • Residential Occupational Therapist (in businesses where physical injury is a possibility)
  • Developmental Occupational Therapist
  • Gerontology (BCG)
  • Mental Health (BCMH)
  • Pediatrics (BCP)
  • Physical Rehabilitation (BCPR)
  • Driving and Community Mobility (SCDCM or SCDCM-A)
  • Environmental Modification (SCEM or SCEM-A)
  • Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing (SCFES or SCFES-A)
  • Low Vision (SCLV or SCLV-A)
  • School Systems (SCSS or SCSS-A)

Some degree programs focus on various types of OT populations or skills to prepare future OT professionals for work in a specialized area.

Admissions Requirements for Occupational Therapy Programs

The typical entry-level requirement to qualify for OT certification exams is a master’s degree. Application requirements include submitting official undergraduate transcripts with a competitive GPA and proof of qualifying courses, personal essays, and letters of recommendation, among others.

Qualifying coursework may include eight hours of anatomy and physiology, four hours of physics or kinesiology, and three hours of the following: general psychology, general sociology or anthropology, abnormal psychology, and statistics. In many cases, a program like the pre-OT plan at the University of Tennessee, Martin is ideal, covering all of the requisite areas of study needed prior to enrolling in an OT graduate program.

Occupational Therapy Program Accreditation

Aspiring occupational therapists should research a school’s accreditation status prior to applying to a degree program. Accreditation ensures that a school and/or program has met a set of peer-reviewed standards.

There are nearly 200 university-level occupational therapy programs available at the national level. The curriculum and authority of these programs are validated by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), the accrediting agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). While accredited, campus-based master’s programs in occupational therapy are numerous, there are currently no accredited fully online programs. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) does maintain a list of programs with a distance learning component or offered in a hybrid/blended format.

Regional accreditation may also be held by a school or program, and a full list of regional accreditation entities is available on the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website.

On-Campus Occupational Therapy Degree Programs

Sacred Heart University

Sacred Heart offers a master of science in occupational therapy (MSOT) that combines classroom instruction with clinical practice. The curriculum is designed with a developmental approach steeped in the values of humanism, community-based practice, and service. The program trains students in meeting the social, emotional, and physical needs of patients in addition to addressing cognitive and spiritual aspects of care; it is geared towards individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a non-OT field.

MSOT students complete 76 credits over four trimesters and two, full-time supervised clinical practice of 12 weeks each. Sample courses include functional and neuroanatomy, human conditions across the lifespan, therapeutic use of self, topics in mental health, and health policy and law. In addition to classroom study and fieldwork, other requirements include a portfolio, capstone project, poster presentation, and defense. Interested and eligible students may participate in a domestic or global service learning experience to gain a deeper understanding of occupational and social justice in addition to developing skills in cultural competence.

SHU also offers an accelerated “three plus two” degree option for students of exercise science, health science, or sociology that entails completion of a BA or BS degree and OT prerequisites in three years and qualifying graduates for the MSOT.

Traditional and accelerated MSOT graduates are eligible to sit for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam upon program completion to earn the Occupational Therapist, Registered (OTR) credential.

  • Location: Fairfield, CT
  • Duration: 24 months
  • Accreditation: ACOTE
  • Tuition: $12,950 per trimester

University of Washington

UW’s master of occupational therapy (MOT) degree offers an interdisciplinary curriculum focused on real-world application. Among this program’s attributes are a small student-to-faculty ratio of 4:1 and community-based clinical learning experiences that complement coursework. Fieldwork begins during the second year of study (one week per quarter) and continues with 24 weeks of full-time fieldwork during the last two quarters of the program.

The MOT is described as “lock-step” and students progress in a full-time format as a cohort. Course topics include functional anatomy, kinesiology, disease diagnosis, and interprofessional perspectives; the curriculum includes classes focused on working with specific populations such as pediatric and geriatric patients and individuals with physical or psychiatric challenges. Graduates are automatically qualified for the Educational Staff Associate (ESA) certification and need no additional training to work with children in Washington public schools.

UW describes its admissions process as “holistic” and, in addition to an applicant’s academic history, considers life experiences and personal attributes. Students are required to have at least 40 hours of OT-related volunteer or professional experience, a bachelor’s degree in any field with a 3.0 GPA, and GRE scores.

  • Location: Seattle, WA
  • Duration: 24 months
  • Accreditation: ACOTE
  • Tuition: Contact UW for a customized assessment

Indiana State University

Indiana State University’s MOT program is designed for students who have decided on an advanced graduate or doctoral degree track, with a focus on one of the many areas of occupational therapy specialization. The program holds the mission of improving access and quality of care for rural and underserved populations and admits 30 students per year. Program themes include interprofessional collaboration, excellence in practice, and professional responsibility.

Students earn a total of 81 credits and must have completed the following prerequisites: 12 credits in behavioral sciences (general psychology, developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, sociology or anthropology); six credits in biological sciences (human anatomy and physiology with labs); three credits in statistics; and one to three credits in medical terminology. Required courses for the MOT include advanced human anatomy, lifespan development, applied neuroscience, OT with children and youth, older adults and aging, rehab disability participation, assistive technology, and biomechanics of sports techniques.

Two applications are required of candidates seeking admission to the MOT program: one to the college of graduate and professional studies and one to the occupational therapy program. Requirements include a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of 3.0 (cumulative and prerequisite) earned within the last seven years, official transcripts, three letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and documentation of 40 observation hours. International candidates must submit TOEFL scores along with the other application materials.

  • Location: Terre Haute, Indiana
  • Duration: Two to three years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $419 per credit-hour (residents), $541 per credit-hour (non-residents)

Online or Hybrid Occupational Therapy Degree Programs

A.T. Stills University

ATSU hosts an entry-level, hybrid master of science in occupational therapy program. Based on the teachings of medical pioneer, Andrew Taylor Still, the curriculum has been aligned with the philosophy of osteopathic medicine and “whole person healthcare.”

It supports students in examining activities that involve patients in the home and community, at school or work, and at play. Students are trained to address healthcare needs where they are the greatest, and graduates are equipped with a foundation in critical inquiry that can be applied to the education, practice, and administration of occupational therapy.

Participants in the entry-level MS program can expect coursework in subjects such as pathophysiology, human anatomy and physiology, patient care, occupational therapy fieldwork, public health policy, public health concepts, and more. In addition to extensive fieldwork beginning in the second semester of the first year of study, students participate in “practice immersion” courses in mental health and psychosocial practice, children and youth, and adult physical rehabilitation. An optional certificate in public health is available to students without a master’s in public health degree, and a required, two-day certification exam prep course is offered at the end of the second year to prepare students for the credential needed prior to working in the field.

In addition to providing official transcripts, letters of recommendation, a criminal background check, CPR certification, and proof of 20 hours of OT experience, potential program admits will be invited to interview. Prerequisite coursework must be completed the term prior to matriculation and includes the following: English; humanities; introduction to sociology or cultural anthropology; an introduction to general psychology; lifespan human development; human anatomy and physiology; abnormal psychology; biology, chemistry, or physics; statistics; and medical terminology.

  • Location: Kirksville, Missouri
  • Duration: 27 months
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $541 per credit-hour

Cabarrus College of Health Sciences

The occupational therapy programs at Cabarrus are designed for practicing occupational therapy assistants (OTAs). The school offers two tracks: a master of occupational therapy (MOT) for OTAs with a bachelor’s degree and experience in the field and a combined bachelor of science in interdisciplinary health studies/master of occupational therapy (BSIHS/MOT).

Students in MOT track must be enrolled full-time, and the program is administered in a hybrid format. The first 27 credits of the BSIHS/MOT is offered online, and students have the option of part- or full-time study. Remaining coursework in the combined program is offered in a full-time hybrid format.

The Cabarrus OT programs are founded upon the belief that the ability to engage in meaningful occupations has a positive effect on a person’s health and wellbeing. The curriculum is designed around the following themes: health and wellness promotion, client-centered practice, critical thinking and clinical reasoning, communication and documentation skills, and professional development. Students engage in learning experiences that are reflective, collaborative, and self-guided.

  • Location: Concord, NC
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $54,990 total tuition

How Long Does it Take to Become an Occupational Therapist?

The length of the road to becoming an occupational therapy professional will vary for each individual. From the initial thought of becoming an occupational therapist, all the way to receiving a graduate degree and entering the workforce, expect a minimum of four years of schooling for a BS degree, with up to as much as seven years of schooling if pursuing an advanced degree.

Take into account a possible one to three years of clinical occupational therapy experience as well. In most cases, practicums and internships will count towards the requirement for industry experience.

How To Become an Occupational Therapist – Step-by-Step Guide

Becoming an occupational therapist, as mentioned above, should take students a minimum of four years, and up to as many as seven years if prospective occupational therapy professionals take longer to gain clinical and industry experience in real-life settings.

Step 1: Graduate High School (Four Years)

As a high school student, a focus on a natural science field will help build a solid foundation for occupational therapy undergraduate study. Specific courses to be sure to take include biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and the health sciences.

Step 2: Earn A Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

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 either a pre-OT program or a degree in a related field such as psychology, social work, sociology, anatomy, physiology, or kinesiology.

If you are able to enroll in an undergraduate degree program in occupational therapy, 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.

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

Step 3: Gain Industry Experience (Timeline Varies)

One way to advance a career as an occupational therapist is to gain work experience in the OT industry itself. This should help a candidate prepare for certification and more advanced positions, which are typically requisite for jobs in upper management or as clinical directors. Some graduate programs in OT require a certain number of hours of hands-on professional experience in the field as well.

Step 4: Earn a Master’s Degree (Two to Three Years)

Pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy, anatomy, physiology, or the biosciences with a focus on occupational therapy can open the door to the world of the top-achieving percentile of occupational therapists. Attending a master’s program in occupational therapy (MOT or MSOT) allows aspiring OTs to delve even deeper into the field and gain valuable industry knowledge.

Master’s-level students are prepared for a wide variety of career paths, such as clinic director, rehabilitation manager, professor of practice at a health sciences or medical institution, or an OT specialization in pediatric, senior, or general physical therapy. One can expect courses in various therapies, along with anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, health counseling, health education, and healthcare administration among others.

Step 5: Become a Certified OT Professional through AOTA (Time Varies)

The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA) leads the charge for professional occupational therapy organizations. Formal occupational therapy specialties and certifications are offered by the AOTA in two types: board certification and specialty certification. In order to begin working as a professional occupational therapist, OT graduates are required to pass the national NBCOT exam. (Learn more about this step in the certification section below.)

Step 6: Earn a PhD (Optional, Time Varies)

To increase earning potential, a doctorate in occupational therapy may be pursued. This credential will allow degree holders to teach, write textbooks, or lead clinics, offices, and university departments.

As in the case of master’s programs, there are currently no accredited, entry-level, online doctoral programs in OT. Accredited hybrid programs at the doctoral level are not as numerous as the master’s; however, over a dozen schools offer a distance learning component within their PhD programs in occupational therapy.

What Do Occupational Therapists Do?

Occupational therapists can be found working in a wide array of medical, clinical, or office environments. A day in the life of an occupational therapist will entail showing up to an office or clinic, and working in professional, highly-technical environment where they 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; speech-language pathology; pain management; or acute care. Depending on the industry, staffed occupational therapists are usually somewhat close by.

Occupational Therapist Certifications & Licensure

In terms of organizations of advocacy, training, and development, the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA) is the industry leader of professional OT 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, such as in the case of hand therapy 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. The exam is $555. Information about where to take the exam in your state can be found on the NBCOT website. Many OT graduate programs prepare students to take the exam upon completion of their studies.

Occupational therapy is regulated in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Puerto Rico, and Guam. Requirements for state licensure include:

  • Graduation from an accredited OT or OTA educational program.
  • Completion of fieldwork requirements.
  • Applying for and passing the NBCOT® Certification Examination.
  • Applying for a license and pay a fee for each state in which you plan to practice.

How Much Do Occupational Therapists Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019) reports that the field of occupational therapy is set to grow by 18 percent between 2018 and 2028, adding 23,700 jobs nationally. The BLS notes that the required, entry-level education for an occupational therapist is a master’s degree in occupational therapy, biology, psychology, sociology, kinesiology, health science, and even certain liberal arts degrees. As with most fields, a healthy combination of clinical or industry experience and the proper university credential will set up prospective occupational therapists to go far.

Here is the detailed salary and employment data for OTs, according to the BLS (2019):

Number of occupational therapists employed in the US: 133,000

  • Average annual salary: $85,350
  • 10th percentile salary: $55,490
  • 50th percentile (median): $84,270
  • 90th percentile: $120,750
Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker


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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