When Cheryl Sheffield, an occupational therapist with 26 years of experience in the field, moved from her native Canada to the United States, she needed to update her credentials. She earned her Post-Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (PPOTD) from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) in 2018, which opened the door to an exciting position on the academic side of OT.
After graduating in 1993 from Queen’s University in Ontario with her bachelor’s degree in OT, Cheryl launched a career in pediatrics and assistive technology. She became a specialist working with people who have complex seating and mobility needs.
Then in 2012, Cheryl’s world changed when her husband got transferred. The couple and their two kids, who were 9 and 12 at the time, moved from Vancouver to Orlando, Florida. Cheryl had to leave her meaningful role, and move to a place with no connections to help her find a new role. As a foreign-trained therapist with a bachelor’s degree, Cheryl was unsure about her eligibility for certification in the United States and began researching PPOTD programs. She wanted to not only meet requirements, but also to further her education. She embarked on her OTD journey in September 2013.
A New Journey Towards a Unique Career Path
“I chose USAHS because it offered a flexible and personalized course schedule,” Cheryl says. “I could take the courses, even the core courses, when they worked for me. I took fewer credits summer term so I could spend time with my children during their summer break. And I could match course content with my caseload demands.”
She took on some short-term local contracts while earning her degree, and was able to match the courses she was taking to the areas of practice she was engaging with. For example, she worked in early intervention OT while she was taking a pediatrics class, then worked in adult home health while taking a course related to older adults.
Cheryl also appreciated the fact that USAHS’ PPOTD program has no travel requirements. Her husband was often away on business, and she needed to stay home with the kids. She did, however, choose to take a weekend continuing education seminar in animal assisted therapy, taught on the St. Augustine campus by one of her PPOTD professors. Cheryl went on to complete an independent study project on animal assisted therapy, and her dog became a certified therapy dog. “It was great how I could mesh the needs of my personal life with my professional life and studies,” she says.
For her capstone project, Cheryl studied how occupational therapists use social media in a professional capacity. She examined a closed Facebook group of about 37,000 OTs, analyzing conversation threads to investigate why people turn to this community. She found that discussions focused on practice knowledge, workplace politics, and current issues in OT such as physician and media misconceptions about what OTs do. She notes that OTs don’t tend to have conversations around the water cooler like they used to, given that even in traditional facilities, therapists’ hours are staggered and productivity demands are high. Thus, the need for online communities where members can share their diverse perspectives.
In Vancouver, Cheryl worked as an adjunct clinical professor at the University of British Columbia, where she gave lectures about assistive technology to students in medicine, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, and engineering, as well as OT. She enjoyed teaching, so near the end of her PPOTD program, she began looking for teaching roles.
In 2018, Cheryl took a position in an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) program at Keiser University’s campus in Orlando. Starting out as the academic fieldwork coordinator, Cheryl matched students with settings for their fieldwork training. She examines the teaching methods and style of each onsite clinical instructor in order to ensure a good match between student and site. “My therapist skills come into play,” she says. “I analyze the students’ needs and environment, and I step in if issues arise.” Then when the program director left, she was promoted; she says that having her doctorate supported this advancement. Now she is managing the campus’s entire OTA program, including staff and students.
Cheryl is happy with her educational and career path to date. “Pursuing my doctorate allowed me reconnect with my profession,” she says. “I had been in such a narrow field of expertise. My studies reminded me why I choose OT as a career.”
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers an online PPOTD program designed for working clinicians and healthcare educators, with optional on-campus immersions and an annual interprofessional trip abroad. Specializations include Executive Leadership and Teaching and Learning. Complete coursework when and where you want and earn your advanced degree while keeping your work and life in balance.