Occupational therapy professionals work with clients who are injured, disabled or ill to help them understand and overcome any limitations on their abilities. The field offers three career choices, each requiring a different level of education: occupational therapist, occupational therapy assistant and occupational therapy aide. To help you choose the program that best suits your goals, this guide provides information about educational and employment requirements as well as insight from those working in the field.
Occupational Therapy Degrees and Certificates
This profession involves several levels of education. Entry-level programs offer certificates or diplomas for occupational therapy aides. A typical occupational therapist assistant school grants an associate or bachelor's degree based on academic studies and at least 16 weeks of fieldwork. These undergraduate degrees can lead to an occupational therapy assistant position or serve as a basis for further education.
Professional studies for occupational therapists at the graduate level include a master's degree or doctorate. The master's degree targets students aiming to work as occupational therapists. The Doctor of Occupational Therapy degree can involve specialized research projects and prepare occupational therapists seeking advanced roles as educators, managers or clinicians.
Occupational Therapy Aide Certificate
While the minimum requirement is a high school education, occupational therapy aides can earn a certificate in the field, or sometimes a certificate in physical and occupational therapy. These certificates and diplomas are usually offered at vocational or technical schools and community colleges. Aides work under the supervision of occupational therapists or occupational therapy assistants. Courses are designed to provide a brief overview that prepares students for entry-level positions.
Overview of the history, practice and philosophy of occupational therapy.
Introduction to Occupational Therapy
Focus on the correct procedures for documenting and reporting occupational therapy services.
Analysis of factors such as injuries, work duties, aging and disease that can result in occupational therapy.
Occupational Therapy for Adults
Course offers knowledge regarding best practices in the therapeutic process, in addition to an understanding of the structure of physician offices and clinics.
Practicing Therapeutic Interventions
Popular Online Certificate Programs
Occupational Therapy Associate's Degrees
Although requirements may vary by school, the Associate of Applied Science degree in occupational therapy generally requires 62 credit hours and takes about two years to complete. Occupational therapist assistant school can prepare students to find entry-level positions or continue on the path to obtain a bachelor's degree. Students in the associate degree program gain more in-depth knowledge of occupational therapy than in a certificate program and learn how to provide treatment and procedures to clients. In addition to general education requirements such as English and social sciences, courses in associate degree programs could include the following.
Course discusses how to treat clients who are physically and cognitively challenged.
Studies focus on how to help clients enhance functional ability to perform daily tasks.
Class explores human anatomy, the nervous system and occupation-related considerations.
Popular Online Associate's Programs
Occupational Therapy Bachelor's Degrees
Bachelor's programs are offered at four-year colleges and universities. These degrees can serve two goals: building a foundation for occupational therapy assistant careers, or preparing students to continue on to the master's degree program for occupational therapists.
Students in the bachelor's degree program gain extensive knowledge in physiology and neurology. They also study how the body works, experiences injury and can be repaired. Standard core requirements for college include courses to enhance communication skills such as English. Fieldwork is also a vital part of the program. It can take four years of full-time study to complete a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy, or approximately 120 credit hours.
Students learn about the body's physical, mechanical and biochemical functions.
Course focuses on the body's musculoskeletal anatomy and mechanics of movement and structure.
Class explore the body's nervous system, including cognitive development and neurological disorders.
Popular Online Bachelor's Programs
Occupational Therapist Bachelor's/Master's Combined Degrees
Occupational therapist school options include combined bachelor's/master's degree programs. Students enter as college freshmen and take about five years to complete the program, although it may be less depending on the applicant's prior experience. These students are awarded both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in occupational therapy.
Another choice is the bridge program for occupational therapy assistants moving to occupational therapist status. Prerequisites for admission vary, but usually include a bachelor's degree from an accredited occupational therapist assistant school. For most students, the program takes two to three years to complete and culminates in a master's degree.
Students study how to the nervous system affects human movement as well as the cardiorespiratory system that pumps blood to nourish the bones and muscles.
Anatomy & Kinesiology
Students learn the latest research and clinically relevant information in the areas of neural plasticity, motor learning, behavioral sciences and cognition.
The course focuses on teaching students strategies and interventions to improve motor function.
Occupational Therapist Master's Degrees
The master's degree in occupational therapy generally requires two or two and a half years, or 97 credit hours. This level of education is required for practicing occupational therapists. The degree can also serve individuals who wish to move into more advanced clinical or managerial roles. The program includes two semesters of fieldwork. Subjects cover topics such as systems theory and ethics as well as emerging research and trends relating to professional practice. In most programs, applicants must have a degree in one of the sciences, psychology, sociology or a related field for admittance.
Students learn to analyze theories, along with concepts of application and evaluation.
Theoretical Foundations of Occupational Therapy
Class focuses on understanding the value of occupation in the context of time, daily activities and performance.
Meaningful Living Through Occupation
This course examines the trends for teaching adult clients and possible learning difficulties.
Popular Online Master's Programs
Occupational Therapy Doctorate Degrees
The occupational therapy doctoral program typically lasts two to three years. This advanced practice degree is for occupational therapists who want to pursue roles in clinical research, education, and management. A doctorate is required for teaching and research at the university level. Students have the option of two tracks: Clinical (OTD/Dr OT) and Research (PhD/SciD) doctorate programs.
Admission criteria for some programs specify a master's degree in occupational therapy, while others accept a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy, science, psychology, sociology or a related field. In some programs, additional prerequisites may include classes in anatomy and physiology, abnormal psychology, sociology, physics, statistics, and human growth and development. The total credit hours range from about 42 hours for students who enter with a master's degree to 60 hours for those who enter with a bachelor's degree.
Clinical (OTD/Dr OT) Programs
Clinical doctorate programs prepare graduates to be expert clinicians in specialty or emerging practice areas. Students are given the opportunity to specialize in a specific area when working with clients. From mental health to cardiac rehabilitation, to hand therapy, students build their knowledge with evidence-based literature and assessments.
Students learn the role of physical agent modalities such as therapeutic ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and light therapy.
Hand Therapy and Physical Agent Modalities
Students explore the principles and practice of a variety of therapeutic communication skills to include motivational interviewing, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Focusing on the interaction between the worker, work tasks, and work environments, students learn how these relationships can be used to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders and improve occupational performance.
Research (PhD/SciD) Programs
Doctorate programs with an emphasis in research typically emphasize in occupational science and research methodologies. Students are trained to implement evidence-based studies in clinical settings and collect data. This education prepares students to better bridge research projects and clinical implementation upon graduation.
Beginning with an overview of qualitative research traditions, students get a basis for integrating qualitative and quantitative design components in a mixed methods study. Students gain experience with procedures for data collection, analysis, and strategies.
Qualitative and Quantitative Design in Mixed Methods Research
This type of course teaches students how to successfully work in a team science setting. They learn to pursue complex science questions and produce high impact research outcomes that results in helping society.
Foundations in Team Science and Clinical and Translational Science
Epidemiology studies the patterns, causes, and effects of health and diseases in society. OT students study how to improve the health of populations with research tactics.
Epidemiology for Clinical Research
Popular Online Doctorate Programs
Occupational Therapy Career Paths
The goal of occupational therapy is to provide rehabilitative and support services to clients who have lost certain abilities (i.e. through an injury) and help clients who have a developmental disability or a permanent condition (i.e. cerebral palsy) learn or re-learn how to perform daily tasks. Different roles in the profession come with varying levels of qualifications and responsibilities, as shown here.
Explore online degree programs
|Occupational Therapy Assistants
|Occupational Therapy Aides
|Master's degree or doctoral degree in occupational therapy
|Associate of Applied Science in Occupational Therapy
|High school diploma, with optional career certificate or diploma
|Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) Exam
|Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) Exam
|Salary (as of May 2014)
|Mean annual wage of $78,810
|Mean annual wage of $56,950
|Mean annual wage of $26,050
|Lead therapist and supervisor
|Assist with occupational therapy
|Aid with pre- and post-treatment tasks
|Observe clients to discover their functioning level, develop treatment plans and goals, demonstrate exercises, provide advice to family members, evaluate progress
|Help clients to perform such therapeutic activities as stretching and bending, teach clients how to operate special equipment
|Set up therapy equipment, transport patients, help patients fill out paperwork, schedule appointments, file medical records, answer phones
Occupational Therapy Aide
Occupational therapy aides provide support to licensed occupational therapists by cleaning and preparing treatment areas and equipment. Aides may also perform clerical tasks such as scheduling appointments, answering telephones, and help with billing and insurance forms. As of March 2016, aides are not eligible for licensure.
Occupational Therapy Assistant
Often referred to as OTA, occupational therapy assistants are directly involved in providing care to patients. Assistants help patients with therapeutic activities, such as stretches and other exercises. Those who work with children with disabilities use playtime as a time to teach coordination and socialization. In other areas, OTAs teach patients with disabling diseases how to use devices that make eating easier. Required to work under the supervision of an occupational therapist, assistants are required to complete an associate's degree at minimum and go through the licensure process.
People of all ages and abilities may need to seek the help of an occupational therapist (OT) someday. Therapists develop treatment plans, identify specific goals and activities to help a patient, and evaluate patients home and/or office space to identify potential improvements to aid a patient's progress. OTs help kids improve their cognitive, sensory, and motor skills. For adults facing injury or illness, OTs help them with day-to-day tasks like learning how to dress themselves again. To become an entry-level occupational therapist, prospective students must obtain a minimum of a master's degree in the field from an accredited graduate school.
Occupational Therapy Schools
You can pursue various careers in the field with an education from multiple different institution types.
Technical institutes and vocational schools offer training for high school graduates who want to study for a limited period of time and then enter the workforce. These programs may offer a certificate or diploma for occupational therapy aides, which can be completed in a matter of months. Such training can help individuals pursue a career as an occupational therapy aide or gain experience before enrolling in a degree program. Vocational schools offer targeted coursework in professional practices, instead of requiring other subjects such as English, math and history.
Community colleges with occupational therapy programs usually offer either a certificate or an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree. Students thinking about earning a certificate in occupational therapy should investigate whether they can apply those credits toward an associate degree program. Public colleges may provide non-credit certificates, such as Carroll Community College's continuing education program for physical and occupational therapy aides.
The AAS degree could pave the way for entry-level employment as an occupational therapy assistant. Compared to vocational schools, community colleges embrace a more well-rounded approach, and students are required to take more classes outside the major in academic subjects like math and history. At some occupational therapist assistant schools, all students have to take program prerequisites including classes as such as composition and reading, introduction to cell biology and medical terminology.
Graduates from a four-year school have two options: graduate and become a licensed occupational therapy assistant or pursue a master's degree and become an entry-level OT.
For aspiring OTAS, occupational therapist assistant programs have two main purposes. First, they can provide a competitive edge for graduates in the workplace. Secondly, such programs build a solid foundation for students who plan to continue their education at the graduate level in order to become occupational therapists.
Aspiring occupational therapists can take advantage of their four-year degree to get a well-rounded education. Many students pursue degrees in the sciences to set themselves up for success in graduate school.
Graduate programs award a master's or doctoral degree in occupational therapy. Master's degrees are designed for those planning a career as a practicing occupational therapist, while doctorates can serve a broader range of opportunities, from research to management to education. Applicants need a bachelor's degree to enter master's degree programs, and either a bachelor's or a master's degree to enter doctoral programs. Experience is often a prerequisite for admission to graduate programs. For example, an online post-professional doctorate from Boston University requires two years of clinical practice.
Must-Have List for Occupational Therapy Schools
While occupational therapy programs vary from school to school, certain common traits are desirable. These guidelines can help ensure that students are making the best possible use of their time, money and efforts.
Accreditation for occupational therapy programs is only available to graduate programs. When considering accredited programs, students can look to reputable organizations like the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) for guidance. Programs have to meet certain educational qualifications to be accredited, so this official endorsement is critically important when selecting a program. If the school is not accredited, those students will not be able to apply for federal student loans and other types of federal financial aid. In addition, earned credits may not transfer to another school.
2. Credit Transfer.
Just because a program is accredited does not automatically mean that credits transfer to another occupational therapist school. For example, certificate programs may award continuing education rather than academic credits. Transfer scenarios vary widely — perhaps you are working on an associate degree at one college and want to transfer to another institution to complete this degree. Or, you may have a bachelor's degree from an occupational therapist assistant school and now you wish to earn a master's degree at a different university. To be on the safe side, always find out in advance if credits will transfer to another school before you enroll.
3. Quality of Faculty.
Another important factor to consider when choosing an occupational therapy program is the quality of the instructors. The vast majority of the teachers should be professors, adjunct professors and instructors who are occupational therapists and have themselves graduated from programs that are accredited by organizations like ACOTE. The institution should also have an evaluation program that regularly critiques the performance of instructors.
4. Coursework and Fieldwork.
An occupational therapist school should offer relevant courses that provide the type of knowledge and skills necessary. Students should learn such information as the history, practice and philosophy of occupational therapy and the therapeutic process. Other key topics include differences in therapy for pediatric, adult, geriatric and other segments of the population as well as the role of mental health in occupational therapy. Occupational therapist assistant schools build additional skills in areas such as critical thinking and decision making, and programs should incorporate internships or other opportunities for students to gain experience in professional settings.
5. Career Services.
It's important for the program to have career placement services that can help students look for and find a job when they graduate from occupational therapist school. Some programs even place students before they graduate. Most good programs have forged relationships with employers at physical and occupational therapy facilities, as well as hospitals, nursing and resident care facilities, and other organizations. Additional services provided by career placement programs include helping students with writing cover letters and resumes, mock interviews and so on.
Advice From an Occupational Therapist
In order to be an occupational therapist, you have to be passionate about others and helping them problem solve to learn to be independent in daily life.
Joy D. Doll, OTD, OTR/L, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at Creighton University
Occupational Therapy Fieldwork Explained
Similar to fellowships and internships in other industries, fieldwork is where occupational therapy students observe and then apply the theoretical apply theoretical and scientific principles learned in the classroom to address actual client needs. It is a chance for students to develop a professional identity as an occupational therapy practitioner. Divided into Level I and Level II, the number of hours spent in the field prior to licensure varies on one's goals, their academic institution and state requirements. This is true for occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants. Discover the differences between level I and level II fieldwork.
Level I fieldwork is an introduction to occupational therapy in the real world where students meet with clients for the first time. During this time, students spend time observing and participating in select aspects of the process. While this level is not intended to allow students to work independently with clients, students have the opportunity to work in day care centers, schools, hospice, and homeless shelters among others. They may also have exposure to services management and administrative experiences while working with the disabled or well; age-specific or diagnosis-specific clients.
Geared for new students, participants are not required to have prior fieldwork experience. The length of time spent observing is determined by the academic program.
One of the key differences between level I and level II fieldwork is the required prerequisite time. To take part in level II, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) occupational therapy students must have completed the equivalent a minimum of 24 weeks full-time experience. For prospective occupational therapy assistants, they must have completed the equivalent of 16 full-time weeks. While students can complete level II fieldwork on a full-time or part-time basis, the AOTA dictates that it cannot be less than half-time.
In level II, students apply what they learned in classes as well as their previous field experience. This is an opportunity to strengthen their clinical reasoning practice and gain confidence in dealing with clients.
Occupational Therapy Checklist/Toolbox
- While on the occupational therapy path, students should learn how to do the following: Assist and care for others. Make decisions and solve problems. Work well with others on the team and with clients. Organize and plan work
- Skills essential to success in occupational therapy include empathy, physical endurance and flexibility. Others include: Patience: to be tolerant when dealing with clients who may be frustrated with their progress. Critical Thinking: to evaluate if the treatment plan is working or needs to be revised. Interpersonal skills: to communicate with clients and family members from a variety of backgrounds, and also motivate and engage clients
- Broad-ranging knowledge is needed by occupational therapy students: Psychology: to understand behavior, performance, learning and motivation. Therapy and Counseling: to diagnose and provide treatment. Education and Training: to teach and instruct clients and subordinates. Customer and Personal Service: to understand the client's needs and provide satisfactory service. Public Safety and Security: to know safety policies and procedures, along with proper equipment usage, to ensure the protection of clients and information.
Tools of the Trade
Since occupational therapy aides are involved in administrative services, they work with such tools as billing applications, data entry software and electronic medical records. Occupational therapy assistants and occupational therapists use such tools and equipment as arm braces and slings, gait and transfer belts, electric wheelchairs and exercise balls. Assistants and therapists also employ word prediction and writing support software – and other language arts and special educational software. In addition, they rely on a variety of customized software applications created for healthcare service providers.
All states require a license for occupational therapists, and most have a licensing requirement for occupational therapist assistants. Professional recognition through the National Board of Certification for Occupational Therapy is a key prerequisite for earning a license.
The Certified Occupational Therapy (COTA) exam is intended for graduates with an Associate of Applied Science degree in the field. The Occupational Therapy Registered (OTR) exam is designed for those with a master's or a doctoral degree in this discipline.
Occupational therapy assistants and occupational therapists take certification exams in order to be licensed or registered professionals, and some states have additional requirements. Aides, however, are not required to obtain a license or pass certification exams.
Occupational therapy assistants and occupational therapists take continuing education courses to apply toward maintaining their respective certifications and keeping their skills sharp. They accrue these professional development units through a number of ways, including attending workshops and taking courses, presenting information, providing field supervision, publishing articles and volunteering their services.
Occupational Therapy Specializations
There are various specializations in occupational therapy. For example, the American Occupational Therapy Association offers specializations such as the following:
- Pediatric Rehabilitation Explores developmental theories and how illnesses and injuries affect growth and development in children.
- Geriatric Specialization Focuses on aging individuals, with ways to reduce or prevent falls and encourage continued mobility as long as possible.
- Mental Health Examines assessments and treatment options in a mental health setting.
- Physical Rehabilitation Analyzes physical performance in relation to rehabilitation.
In addition, some graduate schools offer advanced practice certificates in areas such as the following, with programs that usually consist of 12 credit hours:
- Leadership in Autism Practice and Research Examines autism spectrum disorders and skills needed to work with clients.
- Teaching OT in the Digital Age Provides the fundamental knowledge and technological expertise needed to teach occupational therapy curricula.
- Neuroscience — Advanced Concepts for Evidence-Based Practice Delves deeper into neuroscience and neuro-based strategies for rehabilitation.
- Neurocognitive Disorders and Innovative Practice Allows students to gain advanced knowledge regarding the new research and practice trends in treating neurocognitive disorders.
After Occupational Therapy School: What's Next?
The main goal of any graduate is to find a rewarding job. Good news-among the fastest growing occupations in the country, occupational therapy assistant ranks as No. 8, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The national average growth rate for all U.S. occupations is projected at 14 percent for the 2012-2022 period. Growth of employment opportunities in OT should far outpace the norm, at 43 percent for occupational therapy assistants, 36 percent for occupational therapy aides and 29 percent for occupational therapists.
But what does it take to enter this expanding field? The first step is education, followed by certification for occupational therapists and most occupational therapy assistants. Related fieldwork or volunteer experience can be helpful for job applicants. Those interested in occupational therapy aide positions can explore the qualifications required at places where they would like to work.
Occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants and aides can find openings in a variety of locations. The BLS notes that there were 8,570 occupational therapy aides as of 2014, and they earned an annual median income of $26,550. The employers with the most occupational therapy aides are as follows:
- 33%: Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists or audiologists
- 32%: Hospitals (state, local and private)
- 13%: Nursing and residential care facilities
- 5%: Social assistance
- 4%: Educational services (state, local and private)
There were 32,230 occupational therapy assistant jobs in 2014, and they earned an annual median income of $56,950 at that time. These professionals found the most employment in these areas:
- 35%: Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists or audiologists
- 22%: Nursing and residential care facilities
- 21%: Hospitals (state, local and private)
- 6%: Educational services (state, local and private)
- 4%: Home healthcare services
The 110,520 occupational therapists in the U.S. in 2014 earned a national median income of $78,810 as of 2014. The highest employment rates for OTs were in the following settings:
- 28%: Hospitals (state, local and private)
- 22%: Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists or audiologists
- 12%: Elementary and secondary schools (state, local and private)
- 9%: Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)
- 9%: Home health services
The Pros Weigh In:
Interviews with Occupational Therapists
This advice on careers and education comes straight from two experts in the field. Joy D. Doll holds a doctorate in occupational therapy (OTD) and is a registered/licensed therapist (OTR/L) and Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at Creighton University. Cara Koscinski has a master's degree in occupational therapy (MOT) as well as the OTR/L credential, and is author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist.