The career path of occupational therapy involves hands-on work helping many different types of patients get back to doing meaningful everyday activities. It’s an exciting and rewarding field that improves the lives of patients every day.
In order to become an occupational therapist, you will need to complete certain education and licensure requirements. This post outlines what occupational therapy is and the steps you need to take to become an occupational therapist.
What Is Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy is a branch of rehabilitative medicine that uses assessments and interventions to help patients who have various cognitive and physical conditions. It emphasizes developing and maintaining the skills to perform the meaningful activities, or “occupations,” of daily life. Occupational therapists (OTs) apply their ingenuity to find customized adaptive movements and technologies that help patients participate more fully in occupations such as work, play, leisure time, education, social participation, and more. OTs also work with patients on activities of daily living (ADLs), such as eating, bathing, getting dressed, and toileting.
What Do Occupational Therapists Do?1
Occupational therapists work with people of all ages who have physical and cognitive disabilities and differences. They begin by communicating with the patient and caregivers to understand the patient’s needs. Next, they assess the patient’s physical, sensory, emotional, and cognitive abilities in order to develop goals and a treatment plan. Together, the OT and patient work on developing and improving skills, and they continue to evaluate the patient’s progress on an ongoing basis.
The responsibilities of an occupational therapist may include:
- Helping patients learn new ways to perform ADLs
- Creating customized solutions for patients to promote independence and healing
- Supporting patients in creating a daily routine, learning memory tricks, and problem-solving
- Teaching patients how to use assistive technology
- Teaching patients to perform tasks without pain
- Working with patients who have developmental and cognitive conditions such as autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy
- Helping patients who have physical changes due to aging or injury, such as stroke, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or amputations
What Are the Benefits of Becoming an Occupational Therapist?
Many occupational therapists appreciate the stability and flexibility of their work. Because occupational therapy is a growing field (see Occupational Therapy Job Opportunities and Outlook below), new opportunities are opening all the time, and you can create your own creative niche within the field or even open your own practice. Many employers offer flexible part-time or PRN (when necessary) work. Working as an OT is also rewarding, because you have the chance to help people improve the quality of their lives.
Once you are working as an occupational therapist, you can choose to specialize in a particular area, such as pediatrics or gerontology. A variety of settings are available to you, from schools to residential facilities to acute care.
What Skills Do You Need to Be an Occupational Therapist?
In OT school, you will learn hands-on assessment and treatment skills. But before you begin, there are certain personal and professional qualities you can cultivate. The best OTs have strong communication skills and know how to work effectively in teams. They are creative problem-solvers, designing customized solutions for clients. They have empathy for their clients and display flexibility and patience.
How to Become an Occupational Therapist
To become an occupational therapist, you will need to earn both an undergraduate and graduate degree and pass the required licensure exams. You can expect to spend six to seven years in school: four years for an undergraduate degree and two to three years for a graduate degree (if attending on a full-time basis).2 Below are the steps to becoming an occupational therapist.
1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
If you’re looking to pursue a career in occupational therapy, it’s best to earn your bachelor’s degree in a relevant area, such as biology, health science, or psychology. If you earn your bachelor’s in an unrelated field, you may need to take prerequisite courses before applying to grad school.
If you wish to become an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) rather than an OT, you need only earn your associate degree in OT.
2. Earn a Graduate Degree
The next step is to earn a graduate degree from an accredited university. You can choose between a Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) or a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degree. In addition to the required coursework, the curriculum for both the MOT and the OTD will also include the fieldwork hours you need to sit for the licensure exam.
If you are interested in advocacy and leadership roles as well as clinical practice, it’s a good idea to pursue an OTD rather than an MOT. If you are attending school full time, an OTD typically requires three years to complete, while an MOT may take only two years to complete. Both are entry-level degrees.
Some schools, such as the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS), also offer a Post-Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (PPOTD). This degree is for practicing OTs who have either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in occupational therapy and who are looking to expand their knowledge and credentials with a doctorate degree. The PPOTD offers advanced studies in the areas of research skills, practice skills, administration, leadership, program development, and education.
To help prepare for a graduate program interview, see our post on occupational therapy interview questions.
3. Become Certified
After completing either a MOT or OTD, you must pass the National Board of Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination in order to practice in the United States.
State licensing requirements may vary, so it’s important to consult your state’s occupational therapy regulatory agency.
4. How Long Does It Take to Become an OT?
Assuming that candidates already have a bachelor’s degree, it takes two to three years to earn a graduate degree in OT, depending on the program and institution. Graduates should spend between 30 and 90 days studying for and taking the NBCOT exam.
Opportunities for Specialization Within Occupational Therapy
After receiving your license to practice, you may consider working toward certification in a specialty area. Popular occupational therapy specialties include physical rehabilitation, driving and community mobility, gerontology, pediatrics, and mental health. Keep in mind that most specialties require significant job experience (the AOTA proposes 3,000 hours) within that area.3
Occupational Therapy Job Opportunities and Outlook
The profession of occupational therapist is ranked #17 in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 Best Healthcare Jobs list. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for occupational therapists was $84,950 in 2019, and employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow 18 percent from 2018 to 2028. An estimated 23,700 jobs are expected to open up during that period.
About 27 percent of occupational therapists work in hospitals, while 26 percent work in rehabilitative practices that may include physical therapists, audiologists, and speech therapists. The remaining 47 percent work in schools, home healthcare services, skilled nursing facilities, and other settings. These numbers demonstrate that there is a growing need for occupational therapists and that this field offers competitive pay in multiple environments.
Additional Resources for Occupational Therapists
The following organizations and websites can help you learn more about becoming an occupational therapist:
- American Occupational Therapy Association
- OT Potential
- OT Career Path
- National Board Certification in Occupational Therapy
If you’re interested in the related occupation of physical therapy, see this post on how to become a physical therapist.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers hands-on Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degrees. Practice with mock patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with patients across the lifespan, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and Flex (online/weekend) paths are available. We also offer an online Post-Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (PPOTD) program designed for working clinicians and healthcare educators, with optional on-campus immersions and an annual interprofessional trip abroad.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Therapists,” last modified April 10, 2020: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/mobile/occupational-therapists.htm
- OT Potential, “How to Become an Occupational Therapist,” Aug. 21, 2019: https://otpotential.com/blog/become-an-occupational-therapist
- AOTA, “AOTA’s Advanced Certification Program,” https://www.aota.org/Education-Careers/Advance-Career/Board-Specialty-Certifications-Exam.aspx