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What is an Occupational Therapist (OT)?

An Occupational Therapist (OT) is a healthcare professional who works with a wide range of patients who need assistance learning or relearning various life skills. This career path is one of the most diversified in healthcare, as there is a vast spectrum of people who utilize OTs in their recovery. For instance, if you become an Occupational Therapist, you might work with elderly patients who need help coping with the onset of dementia, limited physical abilities, or injuries. You might also work on a psychiatric ward of a hospital or in the community, providing assistance to mentally ill patients who need support and care.

Ultimately, an Occupational Therapist is a healthcare professional who helps to make life better, even in circumstances that might seem overwhelming.

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Steps to Becoming an Occupational Therapy Professional

If you wish to become an occupational therapist, you have a great future ahead. The first steps to becoming an occupational therapy professional include deciding that this is the career for you. After you have decided that you can withstand the rigors of the occupational therapy job, you will need to find the best education you can find. To be a full occupational therapist, you will need to earn a master's degree and then satisfy state licensure requirements.

Along the way you will need to decide on a specialty area - such as geriatrics or mental health, join professional associations, and maintain your occupational therapy license.

  • Step 1: Is this career for me?

  • Step 2: Education

  • Step 3: Supervised Fieldwork

  • Step 4: Examination and Licensure


Step 1: Is this career for me?

Before you launch a career in Occupational Therapy, it is absolutely vital to know that this career is what you want for your life. You should have a range of skills and abilities that include a scientific mindset. To graduate with a degree in Occupational Therapy, you will need to master knowledge of a vast array of medical knowledge including anatomy, diseases, and more.

You will likely work in a hospital or other clinical environment, but you could also work in homes, or meet clients in the community. Thus, you should enjoy those environments as well as have a deep desire to help people overcome their difficulties. Not every patient will be in their best mindset when they meet you, and some may not remember you from day to day. Thus, one of the most important tools for an occupational therapy professional is their patience.

Step 2: Education

Occupational therapists are highly trained healthcare professionals. In order to become a fully licensed occupational therapist, you will need a master's degree. There are many programs that combine your occupational therapy graduate and undergraduate degrees so that you don't have a gap or need to reapply for a separate graduate program. Combined programs are typically five years long. There are other options for education, such as part-time programs and online degrees. No matter what sort of program you choose, make sure that it has received approval from the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education.

Step 3: Supervised Fieldwork

Once you have completed your master's degree, you will need to complete at least 24 hours of supervised fieldwork. If you have completed work for a doctoral degree, you will need to complete 16 additional hours of experiential learning.

While you might be eager to complete this part of the process, it's important to choose your supervised fieldwork carefully. This time is a great opportunity to establish a specialty. While you can always change the population you work with, when you start with a population that you love, your career can get off to a smooth start.

Step 4: Examination and Licensure

After you have completed your education and supervised time, you will want to schedule an exam provided by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). you will need to apply and qualify to sit for the exam by sending materials that include, an official academic transcript. The exam is broken down into the following areas:

  • Evaluation and Assessment (25%)
  • Analysis and Interpretation (23%)
  • Intervention Management (37%)
  • Competency and Practice Management (15%)

While applications to sit for the examination are taken online, the NBCOT also accepts paper copies of their application.

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What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapists do many, many things. Since the occupational therapy field is designed to address such a wide range of ages and infirmities, the daily work of two individuals is bound to be wildly divergent. However, every day occupational therapists will meet the patients in their caseload and assess where they are with regard to the goals of the therapy. If a mentally ill patient is striving to complete a high school equivalency degree, they might discuss how the illness is playing a role in helping or hindering study or classroom time. If, on the other hand, an occupational therapy professional is working with a stroke victim on his overall functioning, they might work on areas such as: catching the bus, getting dressed, or preparing nutritious meals.

Once the therapeutic session is over, occupational therapists need to complete and submit paperwork that details what areas were covered, what sort of progress was noted, and how they might approach a problem in the future.

As for the workplace environment, just as occupational therapists have a wide range of patients, they are also found in a wide range of workplaces. As an occupational therapist, you might work in a hospital where you wear scrubs every day and work with an ever-changing roster of clients. Hospital occupational therapists might work on any ward in the organization.

OTs also work in long-term care facilities or mental health facilities. Occupational therapists even have private practices where they create their own schedules and take the clients that they are best suited to serving. Thus, they might work in the home of youngsters who are struggling with Autism, adults with developmental disabilities, or injured patients who need help maneuvering their homes in a wheelchair.

Skills to Acquire

As an occupational therapist, you don't necessarily need any special technological or other skills. However, you will want to work on skills related to empathy and communication. You will need to focus on listening so that you hear what patients are experiencing. When you fully understand what a patient is going through, you can create a plan for addressing their concerns.

In occupational therapy, you will also want to work on your ability to adapt to new patients, problems, and situations. What works for one of your patients might be the opposite of what your next patient requires, even if they have similar problems. Further, individual patients might be experiencing wildly different things from day to day. You'll need to be able to work with how the patient presents on a day-to-day, if not hour-to-hour, basis.

Alternative Paths

The most straightforward way for you to begin a career as an occupational therapy professional is to work straight through your master's degree, complete the supervised period, and then pass your licensure examination. However, that is not necessarily the only, or even the best, way to achieve a successful career in occupational therapy.

For instance, you might start your career working as a Certified Nurse's Assistant in a hospital or other environment. From there, you could return to school and complete a degree in occupational therapyand start work as an occupational therapy assistant.

OTAs are required to be licensed, so you will have to sit for the appropriate examination and complete any required supervised hours. In this position, you will gain a lot of experience and knowledge of the occupational therapist job while helping a licensed occupational therapist. Thus, if you decide to move on through a bachelor's degree to a master's, you are likely to find admissions counselors who are impressed by your preexisting familiarity with the occupational therapy field.

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Occupational Therapy Careers and Salary

Where Might You Work?


Occupational therapists work for a range of employers and environments. One of the most common workplace environments for occupational therapy is a hospital setting. Most occupational therapists work in private hospitals as vital staffers on various wings. On the other hand, you could work in one of the Veterans Administration hospitals and assist wounded soldiers who need help dealing with a range of problems.

It is also possible that you find work in a long-term care facility where you will work with elderly people. These facilities exist along a spectrum that has assisted living at one end and infirm care at the other. Your assisted living patients might be elderly widowers who find that they don't understand how to boil water for pasta or women who face the early stages of dementia. The infirm patients may need help with their walkers or maneuvering with a wheelchair.

You could also work for an independent agency and visit clients in the community. These clients could be teenagers that suffer with mental illness, autistic individuals, or developmentally disabled persons. In these positions, you will likely drive from appointment to appointment and balance your weekly caseload according to everyone's variable schedules.

Potential Career Paths

One of the great things about working in occupational therapy is that you can forge your own unique career path. You could start out in a hospital, wearing scrubs and working on a ward. From there you might travel abroad and use your occupational therapist skills to assist needy communities in a third-world country.

Upon re-entry to the United States, you could switch gears again and take occupational therapy work in the community. You might even decide to seek a whole new population altogether and work with developmentally disabled individuals who might live on their own, but who need help with various tasks such as cooking, catching the bus, making new friends, and even learning new games or sports.

Occupational therapists can even strike out on their own. If you are licensed and experienced, you can start an occupational therapy independent care agency that employs other occupational therapists in a variety of settings. You could hire out your professionals as temporary workers in hospitals or clinics, or you might fill contracts with the state.

It's rare to find a healthcare occupation with this degree of flexibility. If you wish to get into occupational therapy, you might be overwhelmed by your choices.

Occupational Therapist Career Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Occupational Therapist $51,000 $67,000 $87,000
Occupational Therapy Aide/Associate $30,000 $46,000 $63,000
Physical Therapist $60,000 $72,000 $91,000
Physical Therapy Aide/Associate $39,000 $50,000 $69,000
Speech-Language Pathologist $47,000 $62,000 $83,000
Recreational Therapist $33,000 $42,000 $58,000
Rehabilitation Services Coordinator $31,000 $69,000 $94,000
Athletic Trainers $34,000 $44,000 $59,000
Chiropractor $39,000 $61,000 $108,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

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Career Outlook

Since occupational therapists are in the healthcare sector, they are enjoying a bright outlook. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that this occupational sector is slated to experience 24% growth through 2026. This growth is noted as much faster than the national average. Thus, you might find that the occupational therapy field is increasingly competitive.

When fields become more popular and competitive, you need to make sure that you study extra hard in a program that is well-respected and that has full accreditation. The good news is that, once you start work, your employer is likely to appreciate you. In fact, the median salary for occupational therapists is $83,200. Given the rapid aging of the overall population, and the increased access to healthcare in many states, occupational therapists are sure to enjoy years of high demand for their skills, salary increases, and a rapid evolution of profession best practices.

Advancing From Here

Once you become an occupational therapist, it's likely that you will remain in that job description for the rest of your career. That is not to say that you will stagnate. Since the occupational therapy field is so diversified, you can continually acquire new skills and means for helping your patients. You can also change the population you work with, a practice that will ensure that you maintain the attitude of a lifelong learner.

You could also start your own business and fill state contracts for patients in need of occupational therapy services. That business can be as large or small as you like. You could be the only employee, or you could hire a team of occupational therapists and spend your days reviewing their treatment notes, organizing schedules, and being more of an administrator than a practitioner.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What do occupational therapists do?

Occupational therapists are in charge of giving people exercises, adaptations, and tools to help them function in a more independent way. Occupational therapists help people relearn how to do any part of daily living. They help people who have lost mobility and strength due to injury or illness.

What is the workplace of an occupational therapist like?

Some occupational therapists work in physical offices or hospitals. Many occupational therapists will travel from one facility to another throughout their work day. Occupational therapists may also work in private practices or patients homes.

How long do you have to go to school to learn how to become an occupational therapist?

To become a fully licensed occupational therapist, you will need a master's degree. After you get your master's degree, you will need to complete at least 24 of supervised work hours. You will also need to take and pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

What are the skills necessary to become an occupational therapist?

Occupational therapists need to be compassionate, flexible, patient, and interpersonal. Occupational therapists also need to have excellent writing and communication skills.

What are the benefits of becoming an occupational therapist?

Occupational therapy has a good mix of stability and flexibility. Most employers offer the option to work part or full time as well as over time options. Another benefit of occupational therapy is that you get to choose the specialty that you enjoy. You also have the chance to help others in a career as an occupational therapist.

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