What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles: OT, Master of Occupational Therapy, MOT, OTR/L
Career Overview: Occupational Therapists help their patients improve upon, develop or recover the skills necessary to carry out daily life and work functions.
Career Salary Range: $54,200 to $119,720
Estimated Years of Schooling Required: 6
Required Minimum Degree/License: Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy
Become a Occupational Therapist
The role of an Occupational Therapist is to help patients of all ages overcome physical obstacles which prevent them from leading fully functioning lives. While some patients require the assistance of an Occupational Therapist because of developmental disorders or chronic conditions, others seek out their help after experiencing conditions such as having a stroke. In helping these patients regain functionality, Occupational Therapists, or “OTs,” first assess a patient’s medical history, then observes them engaging in a series of tasks while asking them questions about their overall physical functionality.
Next, an OT will evaluate a patient’s condition and then develop a treatment plan. This plan will incorporate activities helping a patient work toward goals and that will determine if special equipment (wheelchair, walker, eating aids, etc.) is needed. To help patients increase their function, Occupational Therapists may also evaluate their homes or workplaces to see what improvements, if any, could be made to these settings to help a patient function. Additionally, OTs may be needed to educate family members or friends of a patient on how to accommodate their needs.
“I am so in love with occupational therapy,” Cara Koscinski, an Occupational Therapist practicing in South Carolina, said. “Occupational therapy offers the flexibility and freedom to match a workplace settings with the personality of the practicing Occupational Therapist.”
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Education & Training
To become an Occupational Therapist, professionals must obtain a Master’s Degree in occupational therapy and become licensed. During an occupational therapy Master’s Degree program, which typically takes 2 to 3 years to complete, learners will take courses on biology, anatomy and physiology. To gain admittance into one of these programs, most learners must first obtain a Bachelor’s Degree, there are also some dual-degree programs where learners can earn both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in a combined 5 years. Regardless of the educational path, all occupational therapy Master’s Degree programs involve at least 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork.
After graduating from a Master’s Degree program, OTs must become licensed in the state which they wish to practice. While licensure requirements vary from state to state, all OTs must pass the exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) to become registered. When passed, professionals can then add Occupational Therapist Registered by the National Board and Licensed in state (ORT/L) to their name.
“When I went to school, most OT programs just moved from requiring a Bachelor’s Degree to a Masters degree,” Koscinski explained. “Now, an increasing number of practices are requiring that their Occupational Therapists have obtained a Doctoral Degree. Many in the field find this controversial but consumers really want the professional to have the advanced education and evidence base.”
To advance in a career as an Occupational Therapists, these professionals may choose to pursue a number of board and specialty certifications, demonstrating advanced or specialized knowledge in a particular area of occupational therapy (i.e. geriatrics, pediatrics, mental health, etc.). They can also choose to pursue their Doctoral Degree if they have not already.
“I’m currently going to school for my doctorate in OT, because I want to get what’s called a clinical doctorate degree, or OTD,” Kosckinski said. “There is also the option to continue on to a PhD in an area pertaining to health or a professional may choose to go right to the PhD. Whether a clinician chooses the OTD or PhD is 100 percent up to them, but both can lead to career advancements.”
Experience & Skills
“For all populations, OTs are uniquely trained to complete ‘activity analysis,’ or the breaking down of a task into steps and determining at which step the patient is having difficulty,” Koscinski explained. “We need to understand that disease and disability affect the whole person instead of focusing on just the knee or elbow. OTs look at the quality of a person’s life and what that means to each person.”
Also, to serve as an effective Occupational Therapist, these professionals should have strong interpersonal and communication skills. This is because, Occupational Therapists must be able to effectively communicate with patients to determine what they are experiencing and what treatments they could benefit from.
Additionally, because OTs usually are part of a team, including other healthcare professionals such as Occupational Therapy Assistants, they must also be able to communicate with their staff to explain procedures, treatments and other facility operations. Furthermore, Occupational Therapists should possess physical stamina, allowing them to move or transition patients and equipment as needed, and organizational skills. Without have clearly organized records, maintaining patient information would be extremely difficult.
The qualities of a successful Occupational Therapist involve being kind, compassionate and patient. This is because patients of Occupational Therapists are often experiencing functional challenges which can be both frustrating and upsetting. In their path to functional improvement, they need their OT to be supportive, sensitive and receptive of their needs. In providing quality care to patients, Occupational Therapists should also be adaptable and resourceful.
Not every treatment will work on every patient, and therefore OTs must often cater their patients’ treatment plans to best meet their needs while keeping them on the right track to meeting their goals. Lastly, Occupational Therapists should genuinely want to help their patients improve. This level of commitment and investment in each patient not only helps a patient to feel confident and supported in the service they are receiving, but at the end of the day also makes this career in healthcare feel unbelievable rewarding.
“I’d recommend that an Occupational Therapist have great interpersonal skills, a lot of creativity, flexibility and a fun-loving attitude,” Koscinski stressed. “Sometimes we create wonderful treatment plans and then the patient’s needs that day might change. So, thinking on the spot and being a good listener are great skills for OTs.”
“OTs tend to be creative and love interpersonal interaction. We are active and strong since we often work on physical endurance and strengthening tasks,” Koscinski noted. “We teach our clients how to get back to their everyday life after an injury, so we are always looking for fun and exciting ways to make the ordinary, extraordinary!”
As an Occupational Therapist, these professionals tend to work full-time, although roughly 33 percent are employed part-time. To best accommodate patient schedules, they may be asked to work evenings, nights or weekends. Additionally, this career involves a large amount of time up one’s feet and the ability to lift, move or transition both patients and equipment. So, this career can definitely lead to a pretty physical lifestyle!
“This profession offers so many different areas in which professionals can work, and they can move from pediatrics to adult populations. They can also work anywhere from schools to nursing homes,” Koscinski said.
Also, Occupational Therapy careers are booming today! From 2016 to 2026, this career in healthcare is projected to grow 24 percent. This is much faster than the average for all occupations. So, why is this career expanding? Well, as the baby boom generation ages, more and more seniors are requiring occupational therapy services. Also, there is an increased awareness surrounding many chronic conditions, such as diabetes, and occupational therapy has proven to be an excellent service to these patients. Lastly, there is great research being conducted in regards to the autism spectrum, and occupational therapy is able to offer benefits to these patients by focusing in on their social skills.
Today, the vast majority of Occupational Therapists either work in state, local or private hospitals, or are employed by the offices of Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists or Audiologists. However, elementary schools, nursing care facilities and home health services also tend to employ these professionals. The state with the highest level of employment in this occupation is California, followed by Texas, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida.
When looking for an initial position after graduating from an occupational therapy program, Koscinski recommends searching the American Occupational Therapy Association website for helpful tips and insight. She also suggests checking career boards at local hospitals and outpatient centers, as well as taking to Facebook groups asking which settings, facilities and organizations are hiring.
“I find setting up an appointment with an Occupational Therapist in your area to be the best first step,” Koscinski advised. “They are often connected to their community and can recommend locations and facilities who might be hiring. Networking is a great idea!”
Want a career that brings reward and is also lucrative? Occupational therapy is perfect! As of 2016, the median annual wage for Occupational Therapists was $81,910. While the lowest 10 percent of professionals in this occupation were recorded to have made less than $54,200, the highest 10 percent earned more than $119,720. Additionally, the highest paying facility which employs OTs is nursing care facilities, followed closely by home healthcare services. The offices of Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists and Audiologists, hospitals and educational services are also high paying facilities of Occupational Therapy employers. The top paying state for this occupation is Nevada, followed by Texas, New Jersey, Virginia and Connecticut.
“We are not the highest paid healthcare professionals, but our career satisfaction is high overall,” Koscinski said. “The profession is definitely in a transitional period and we are finding our way through this. Most insurances reimburse for therapy services but many families still need to pay out of pocket or have high deductibles.”
She added that in additional to insurance reimbursements, earnings also depend on a professional’s workplace settings, population which they work with and their geographic location.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is the national professional association designed to represent the interests and concerns of occupational therapy practitioners and students of occupational therapy. The mission of the organization is also to improve the quality of occupational therapy services.
The World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) is an organization designed to promote occupational therapy as an art and science internationally. The organization supports the development, use and practice of occupational therapy worldwide, and also demonstrates relevance and contribution to society.
“Many groups are available on Facebook for all Occupational Therapy settings. Some awesome public ones are called ‘OT4OT’ and ‘MH4OT,’” Kpscomski said. “My blog is www.PocketOT.com, and others can be found by searching OT blogs on Google.”
- Spend time shadowing an Occupational Therapist in a variety of workplace settings
- Determine if the career path is ideal
- Gain related work experience or volunteerism
- Take science-based courses
- Apply to occupational therapy programs
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Cara Koscinski
Practice: The Pocket OT (self-employed)
Location: South Carolina
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Be prepared to explain what an OT does over and over! Sometimes I walk into a patient’s room and introduce myself. They say, ‘I’m retired, I don’t need a career or occupation.’ This can be frustrating so we suggest coming up with a short ‘elevator’ speech about what your role entails.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Take your time to decide which area in occupational therapy you would like to work. For a long time, I preferred working with adults. When l I had my own sons that I knew my path was to work in pediatrics. You can always learn by taking continuing education courses. They are many wonderful topics in all areas.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“The coursework is not easy, especially since the profession is now more often requiring a Doctoral Degree. Also, school can be expensive. Occupational therapy a career that can require physical strength to assist patients when helping them to transfer from their bed to another location. An OTs responsibility is to make sure they don’t fall. There is a great deal of responsibility that comes with that.”
Why did you choose to become an Occupational Therapist?
“I volunteered in an OT clinic and fell in love. The therapist was so creative and really enjoyed her relationship with the patients. They had fun and she incorporated a personal touch into her work. I have never considered another career. In fact, I applied to occupational therapy school when I was a junior in high school and haven’t looked back since.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would that be?
*Credentialing organization: Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education