How to Become an Occupational Therapist in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become an occupational therapist. Learn about education, licensing requirements and training 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 Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapists help people with disabilities perform day-to-day life tasks more easily. Their patients may be suffering from injuries, illnesses or disabilities that prevent them from working a job or living independently. Occupational therapists review their patients' medical history, observe their patients and develop an individualized treatment plan. Treatment plans may include exercises or stretches meant to manage pain and increase mobility.

These professionals also recommend any special equipment the patient may need, as well as educate the patient, their employer and their families on their condition and how to make accommodations. Occupational therapists monitor their patients' progress closely and make adjustments to the treatment as needed. Often these therapists will specialize in a particular population, such as children or the elderly. The following chart provides an overview about becoming an occupational therapist.

Degree Required Master's degree or doctoral degree
Training Required 24 weeks of supervised field work
Education Field of Study Occupational therapy
Licensure or Certification Licensure is required by all states; professional certification is available
Key Responsibilities Test patient abilities and determine achievable goals; devise plan of therapy; train and supervise patient in performance of therapy tasks; assess efficacy of therapy and maintain patient records
Job Growth (2014-2024) 27%*
Median Salary (2015) $80,150*

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

What is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists help clients who suffer from physical, mental, developmental or emotional disabilities improve their abilities to do tasks in work or living environments. To become an occupational therapist, you must have a master's degree in occupational therapy, complete six months of supervised fieldwork, pass a national exam and obtain a state license.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

To gain admittance to a master's degree program in occupational therapy you first need to earn a bachelor's degree. Many master's programs accept any undergraduate background, but biology, psychology, anthropology or sociology are relevant areas of study. Bachelor's degree programs are typically completed in four years.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree in Occupational Therapy

Master's degree programs train you to observe how patients perform their daily activities, identify areas where they are have having difficulties, analyze the root causes and implement plans that improve their abilities to function. Course topics might include task analysis, musculoskeletal anatomy, neuroscience, physical interventions and mental health therapy. Some programs offer joint bachelor's and master's degrees. Stand-alone master's programs may be completed in two years.

Step 3: Complete Fieldwork Requirements

As part of the master's degree program, you will be responsible for completing six months of supervised fieldwork either in a clinic or community center. This requirement provides an opportunity for you to put theory into practice, receive patient feedback on the effectiveness of your approach and prove that you have met professional standards.

Step 4: Obtain a License

After earning a master's degree, you need to register for the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) exam, which is required by all states (www.nbcot.org). Passing the OTR exam will qualify you for licensure. Each state maintains its own eligibility requirements. Some states may have additional licensure requirements, such as certifications or courses, especially if you plan to work for a school or early intervention program.

Step 5: Specialize in a Clinical Area

Consider specializing once you've gained some experience and expertise in treating a specific kind of patient or ailment. This may require you to earn a doctorate in occupational therapy with a concentration in a specific area, such as gerontology, mental health, pediatrics or physical rehabilitation.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Speech-language pathology is a related career path that requires at least a master's degree. Speech-language pathologists work with patients suffering from swallowing or communication disorders. They diagnose and treat these conditions to improve a patient's ability to swallow and communicate with others. Physical therapists are also professionals with similar job responsibilities, but they require a doctoral or professional degree. They work with injured and ill patients, and use therapy techniques to help manage their patients' pain and/or increase mobility.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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