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: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $13,660 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: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $42,064 per year

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: $837 per credit 

A.T. Stills University

ATSU hosts an entry-level, residential 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: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $35,642 per year

Colorado State University

Starting in the fall of 2022, Colorado State University will be offering a new occupational therapy doctorate. This professional doctorate program will be an entry-level degree for aspiring occupational therapists. In total, students will complete 99 credits of coursework in classes such as the occupational therapy process, foundations for professional development, and occupational therapy research. This program has an impressive 100 percent pass rate on the national exam, which is a testament to their dedication to adequately preparing students for this career. 

Highlights of this program include small classes of 25 or fewer students, a supportive learning environment, and scholarships and assistantships available to many students. Students will complete intensive fieldwork experiences, and with over 200 placement options, there are ample opportunities to pursue specializations.  

  • Location: Colorado Springs, CO 
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $30,858 per year

Online or Hybrid Occupational Therapy Degree Programs

Due to the hands-on nature of occupational therapy school, there are no fully online Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) entry-level programs. However, there are several fantastic hybrid options that allow students greater flexibility with their studies. Already certified occupational therapists do have the option of completing additional studies through distance learning programs. 

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 the MOT track must be enrolled full-time, and the program is administered in a hybrid format. The first 27 credits of the BSIHS/MOT are offered online, and students have the option of part- or full-time study. The 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: $27,090 per year

Barry University – College of Nursing and Health Sciences

Occupational therapists who have a master’s degree and wish to advance their studies can complete the post-professional practice doctorate degree in occupational therapy at Barry University. This program is offered through a flexible distance-learning format, and students can complete all their coursework without having to visit campus. Students are required to complete a 16-week practicum; however, this can be completed at an approved site near the student’s home. 

Barry University recognizes the value of life and professional experience and offers students the opportunity to submit a portfolio of work for review. Upon review, students can earn up to 6 credits of coursework in research, leadership, or advanced practice. A portfolio review fee applies. Admission requirements for this program include already having an OTR certification and a master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution along with GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and official transcripts. 

  • Location: Miami Shores, FL
  • Duration: Four semesters
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $4,000 per semester

University of Cincinnati – College of Allied Health Sciences 

Graduates of the hybrid master’s of occupational therapy program at the University of Cincinnati College of Allied Health Sciences have completed the necessary training and education to sit for licensure. This program trains students to be competent clinicians who can independently diagnose and treat a variety of conditions. There is also a strong emphasis on caring for and understanding diverse clients and providing culturally appropriate and holistic care. Students are instilled with a strong sense of scholarship and lifelong learning that will help them be excellent practitioners for years to come. 

The first four semesters of this program are blended instruction that includes online learning, in-person classes, and labs. The last two semesters of this six-semester degree are in-person full-time fieldwork. The University of Cincinnati has partnerships with over 150 clinical sites in gerontology, pediatrics, mental health, and more, so students can find a placement in their field of interest across the country. 

  • Location: Cincinnati, OH
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $746 per credit 

University of Louisiana, Monroe

Occupational therapy assistants who want to become occupational therapists can complete the master’s of occupational therapy bridge program at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. With a hybrid online and onsite format, this is a flexible degree that allows students a unique learning experience. Every single class has an online component, but students should expect to have to travel to campus for face-to-face learning each semester. 

In order to be eligible for admission to this program, applicants must provide proof of an NBCOT certification as an occupational therapy assistant along with proof of state licensure. Other admission requirements include a current resume, statement of professional goals, three letters of recommendation, and a video submission where the candidate speaks to their interest in the field and their aspirations. 

  • Location: Monroe, LA
  • Duration: Two and a half years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $75,124.88 for the entire program

University of Minnesota

The entry-level occupational therapy degree at the University of Minnesota is an occupational therapy doctorate. Courses for this degree are offered online and in-person, providing a hybrid education that allows greater flexibility. This program also adheres to a cohort format through the first five semesters allowing students to develop strong relationships and work collaboratively. 

In addition to developing strong clinical occupational therapy skills, students in this program will learn how to be investigative researchers and leaders in their clinics. Clients are at the center of every year, with fieldwork starting the very first semester of studies. 

Because this is a rigorous professional program, students must have completed extensive prerequisite coursework prior to applying for admission. These classes include anatomy and physiology, physics, statistics, psychology, human development, technical writing, and sociology. Other admission requirements include letters of recommendation, a personal statement, 20 hours of observation in an occupational therapy clinic, and additional writing samples. 

  • Location: Minneapolis, MN
  • Duration: 37 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • Tuition: $1,543 per credit

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 typically two years for a master’s, for a total of six years. However, it can take up to seven years of schooling for more advanced degrees.

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 six 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 in 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 required 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 biosciences with a focus on occupational therapy is required and 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 health science 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 a 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 2021) reports that the field of occupational therapy is set to grow by 17 percent between 2020 and 2030, adding 23,000 jobs nationally. 

The 131,600 occupational therapists earn $87,480 on average (BLS May 2020). The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $57,330
  • 25th percentile: $70,880
  • 50th percentile (median): $86,280
  • 75th percentile: $103,060
  • 90th percentile: $122,670

Occupational Therapist Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to a career as an occupational therapist. 

Become a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a doctor providing direct patient care. They can work in emergency rooms, family practices, outpatient clinics, and even in operating rooms. While they have to work under supervision, they can provide a similar level of care as a physician and even prescribe medications. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree 
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)

Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists provide similar care as occupational therapists but focus on improving a single movement or set of movements instead of the ability to perform everyday activities. Physical therapists can diagnose mobility issues, make recommendations for treatment, and apply appropriate therapies, including exercises, manual manipulations, braces, and athletic tape.

  • Typical Education: Doctor of physical therapy degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Physical Therapist Specialties

Become an Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers help elite athletes meet their fitness and competition goals. They are a typical part of an athlete’s team that also includes coaches and brand managers. Typical responsibilities include evaluating injuries, writing exercise plans, applying braces and tape to prevent injuries, and working one-on-one with athletes. 

  • Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree (required for certification)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer (BOC)
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.

Related Articles

  • 24 September 2021

    National Physical Therapy Month: An Expert’s Advocacy Guide for PTs

    What started as a profession primarily concerned with getting war veterans and casualties back up on their feet is now a highly scientific and broad-ranging field that helps people manage pain, recover from injuries, reduce the risk of future injury and chronic disease, and improve overall life quality.

  • 16 April 2021

    Speech-Language Pathologists: The Fight for Universal Licensure & Better Hearing & Speech Month (BHSM)

    The salaries among New York-based SPLs are attractive, ranking the fifth highest in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For students in speech pathology looking to begin their careers in New York, this is welcome news, but for the medical community and citizens of the state, the sharp projected increase in demand for SLPs presents a forthcoming challenge to fill new positions that needs to be addressed.

  • 5 May 2020

    Respiratory Health & Vaping: Interview with an Expert

    Replacing tobacco with vape liquid means there are numerous new substances being inhaled into the lungs, and they can be extremely detrimental to a user’s health. One major offender appears to be vitamin E acetate. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 48 out of 51 EVALI patients had vitamin E acetate in the fluid collected from their lungs.

  • 23 March 2020

    Exercise Physiologists in Michigan: Fighting for Access to Exercise in School

    “It’s an exciting time to be an exercise physiologist because there are so many ways and places to apply this knowledge to help people,” Paulson says. “Now is the time when it serves us all to know more about exercise, not less!”

  • 13 March 2020

    Mentors in Health: Interview with a Physical Therapist Assistant

    Britany Cunningham is a licensed physical therapist assistant (also known as a PTA) who works at several clinics in Nampa and Caldwell, Idaho. As a “PRN” (short for the Latin phrase pro re nata), she has a floating schedule and works with multiple clinics as needed.

  • 26 January 2022

    Kids ENT Health Month: An Expert’s Advocacy Guide

    The primary focus of Kids ENT Health Month 2022 is on preventing noise-induced hearing loss in children. Between 12 to 15 percent of children have some level of hearing loss.

  • 18 November 2021

    Guide to Nursing Careers in Long-Term Care

    Geriatric nursing in long-term care can prove a rewarding career with many roles and room to grow. Nurses are the heart of long-term care and older adults are a unique population with whom to work.