If you are looking for a creative career helping patients improve the quality of their lives, consider occupational therapy. There are two paths to practicing within this dynamic, growing, and well-paid field: the occupational therapist (OT) route and the occupational therapy assistant (OTA) route. In this post, we lay out the similarities and differences between these career paths—the educational requirements, job responsibilities, and growth opportunities—to help you explore which path could be right for you.
What Is the Difference Between OTs and OTAs?
There are three primary differences between OTs and OTAs: their education, level of responsibility, and requirements for supervision. OTs must earn an entry-level graduate degree, whether a Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) or a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD), and they evaluate patients without supervision from other clinicians. In contrast, OTAs complete an associate-level Occupational Therapy Assistant program, and they use evaluations from OTs to build plans for patients—or they evaluate patients under the guidance of OTs. The chart below lays out these and other distinctions between the two career paths.
Roles and Responsibilities
OTs and OTAs work together closely, and their responsibilities overlap in many respects. Both OTs and OTAs work hands-on with clients, create patient treatment plans, and report on patient progress. The main difference is that OTAs do not work independently; they must be supervised by OTs. The two roles break down as follows:
- Coach patients to use adaptive equipment and therapeutic techniques.
- Use testing and observation to evaluate patients and to lead OTAs in evaluating patients.
- Create treatment plans and supervise OTAs in creating treatment plans.
- Help patients find adaptive ways to perform meaningful activities of daily living according to their treatment plan.
- Write or sign off on patients’ progress assessments.
Occupational Therapy Assistants:
- Complete administrative and clerical tasks.
- Assist patients with navigating activities and exercises in their treatment plan.
- Report patient activities and progress to supervising OTs.
- Help OTs evaluate patients through testing, measurement, and observation.
- Under supervision, plan, implement, and document treatment plans for patients.
One of the most significant differences between the OT and OTA career paths is education. The OT career path requires earning a bachelor’s degree, then either a master’s or an entry-level doctoral degree in OT, for a total of 5–8 years of schooling. To become an OTA, you need only a two-year associate degree in OT. Both paths include passing a national exam.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in OT or a related field (3–4 years).
- Earn a Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) degree (2–3 years) or a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degree (3–4 years), on average.
- Pass the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) exam.
Occupational Therapy Assistants
- Complete an associate-level Occupational Therapy Assistant program at an accredited university (2 years).
- Pass the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) exam.
Thanks to their more intensive educational requirements, OTs earn an average of about $25,000 more1,2 than OTAs per year. Although salaries vary by institution, geographical location, and other factors, OTAs are almost always paid less than OTs.
- $84,950 per year
- $40.84 per hour
Occupational Therapy Assistants
- $59,200 per year
- $28.46 per hour
Job Market/Growth Opportunities
Both occupational therapy career paths are enjoying excellent growth rates. Both also offer great advancement opportunities. As they gain clinical experience, OTs can focus on earning certificates for the specialties they work in, or they can pivot to a teaching position. OTAs can work toward becoming an OT by pursuing additional schooling.
- 18% increase from 2018 to 2028
Occupational Therapy Assistants
- 31% increase from 2018 to 2028
How to Pursue an OT Career Path
1. Get a Relevant Bachelor’s Degree
If you know you want to become an occupational therapist, get your bachelor’s degree in a subject area relevant to OT. There are few occupational therapy–specific bachelor’s programs in the United States, but appropriate degrees include biology, psychology, and public health. In these majors, you will gain foundational medical knowledge to build on in your future education.
2. Pursue a Graduate Degree in OT
In the United States, you must earn an entry-level master’s or doctoral degree in OT3 before getting your license—so the next step is to enroll in a Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) or a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program. The MOT and OTD programs offered by the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) combine theory with hands-on practice in simulation labs, preparing you to work in schools, private practices, rehab centers, and other settings. Choose the MOT if you want a shorter program and you envision your career as mainly clinical in nature. Choose the OTD if you want the doctoral credential, additional coursework in OT leadership and advocacy, and the chance to contribute to the field through a capstone research project.
3. Pass the NBCOT Exam
All occupational therapists are required to pass the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) exam, administered by the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Once you receive a passing grade, you can submit your results to your state OT licensure board—along with complete transcripts from your university, an application fee, and the results of a background check—to complete the licensing process for most states. Be sure to consult your state’s occupational therapy regulatory agency for specific state licensing requirements. Once you have become licensed as an occupational therapist, you are ready to practice in this challenging and rewarding field!
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.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Occupational Therapists,” last modified April 10, 2020: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides,” last modified April 10, 2020: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm
- OT Potential, “How to Become an Occupational Therapist (2019)”: https://otpotential.com/blog/become-an-occupational-therapist