Occupational Therapist: Career Summary, Occupational Outlook and Education Requirements

Research what it takes to become an occupational therapist. Learn about education, licensure and certification requirements, salary and job growth to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Occupational Therapy Assistant degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists (OTs) work with people who have difficulty performing tasks in their living and working environments due to illness, injury or disability. After creating an individualized treatment plan, OTs may help treat patients by demonstrating exercises used to relieve pain, recommending special equipment for the patient to use and educating the patient's family and employer on how to accommodate the patient. OTs may also need to evaluate the patient's living space to identify improvements. The following chart provides an overview about becoming an occupational therapist.

Degree Required Accredited master's or doctoral degree
Education Field of Study Occupational therapy
Key Responsibilities Review medical history; observe and evaluate patient disabilities; develop treatment plan and teach patients to perform treatment plan tasks; recommend auxiliary aids and services
Licensure or Certification All states require occupational therapists to be licensed; professional certification in medical specialties is available
Job Growth (2018-2028) 18%*
Median Salary (2018) $84,270*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Do Occupational Therapists Do?

An occupational therapist (OT) primarily focuses on providing quality-of-life care to those who are mentally, emotionally, developmentally and physically challenged. Patients suffer from a number of disabilities, including amnesia, paralysis, muscular dystrophy or hearing loss. Sometimes disabilities are lifelong conditions that patients have had since childhood, while others may be the cause of illness or injury, such as sudden vision loss or spinal cord injuries. These conditions may require the patient to make alterations to her or his lifestyle.

As an OT, you'll help clients manage a variety of tasks that many take for granted, such as decision-making, reasoning, memory and hand-eye coordination. You may also assist patients in learning how to perform daily activities such as dressing, brushing teeth, cooking, playing cards, sewing, driving, shopping or doing housework. Going to a new home or place of work can be stressful for a disabled person, and you'll prepare this new environment for your clients by adding new equipment or altering existing equipment to ease the transition.

What Can I Expect From This Career?

Between 2018 and 2028, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected to see a 18% increase in employment opportunities for OTs. An estimated 133,000 occupational therapy jobs were available in the U.S. during 2018, and an additional 23,800 jobs were expected to be added by 2028. The largest number of OTs worked in offices of other health providers in 2018. In May 2018, the median salary for OTs was $84,270.

What Should I Study?

Traditionally, you might earn a master's degree in occupational therapy; however, some schools offer an accelerated joint bachelor's and master's degree program. Many of the master's degree programs are geared to students who've completed a bachelor's degree program in occupational therapy. For that reason many of the subjects are advanced in neuroscience, occupational evaluation, OT among different age groups, technology in OT and occupational trends.

There are also Doctorate of Occupational Therapy degrees. These programs focus on the research, clinical and teaching aspects of the field, providing you with experience to advance your career.

Should I Seek Certification?

Besides state licensure, you may seek certification. Each state has its own requirements for licensing so check with your state licensing board. The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. has eight certifications for OTs, including specialty certifications in driving, swallowing, environmental modification and vision impairment. Also, the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy provides initial and renewal certification programs.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Recreational therapy is a related career that requires at least a bachelor's degree. Recreational therapists work with the same kinds of patients, but plan and coordinate treatment plans that involve crafts, aquatics and other forms of recreation. A similar career that requires a master's degree is speech-language pathology. Speech-language pathologists diagnose and treat speech and swallowing disorders in patients. Physical therapy is another closely related field, but requires a doctoral or professional degree. These professionals work to improve the movement and pain of ill or injured patients.

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