How to Become an Occupational Therapist?

About Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists work with injured or ill patients, treating them with the therapeutic use of everyday activities. Occupational therapists help clients recover, improve, and maintain necessary skills for daily living. For example, a patient may need to learn how to move around using a wheelchair. The occupational therapist teaches the patient how to maneuver in the wheelchair to function more independently.  

Occupational therapists also work with patients born with cerebral palsy, for example. They may show patients how to properly use equipment such as eating aids and leg braces, or they may evaluate a child’s abilities to modify classroom equipment.

Those who work with patients who are older adults help them regain independence and be more active. An occupational therapist may come into a patient’s home, identify potential fall hazards, and help the patient determine a safe way to select items from a cabinet. 

In some cases, an occupational therapist may work in a mental health setting with patients who have developmental delays, emotional issues, or mental illness. The therapist may help a patient develop time-management and budgeting skills, teach them how to use public transportation, or help them deal with household chores.

Occupational therapy is a diverse career that allows those interested in the profession to specialize in areas of care where their interests may lie.

Education and Experience Needed

To become an occupational therapist, you need a master’s degree in occupational therapy. As of 2017, about 200 accredited occupational therapy programs in the United States that are part of the American Occupational Therapy Association exist. Admission into these programs requires a bachelor’s degree with undergraduate coursework in the subjects of physiology and biology. Some programs also require applicants to have worked or volunteered in an occupational therapy setting.

Completing a master’s program typically takes two to three years. Some occupational therapists choose to pursue a doctorate, which requires another 3 1/2 years of study. If you plan your career path early, you may be able to enroll in a dual-degree program where you can earn your bachelor’s and master’s degrees together in five years.

Getting your master’s or doctorate in occupational therapy requires a certain number of weeks in supervised fieldwork. During this time, you’ll gain clinical work experience that will be invaluable to future employers. Doctoral students must also complete a capstone experience, which generally lasts 16 weeks.

In addition to educational requirements, all states require occupational therapists to be licensed in the state in which they plan to work. While these requirements vary by location, all candidates must pass the national exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Before taking this exam, you must have received a degree from an accredited program and completed the clinical fieldwork requirements.

Average Salary

As of 2016, the median salary for occupational therapists was $81,910 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest-paid therapists earned less than $54,200 while the highest-paid therapists earned more than $119,720.

How much you can earn as an occupational therapist largely depends on where you are employed. Therapists employed in nursing care facilities and home health services tend to earn the most, while those employed in the education sector, both in private and public schools, tend to earn less compared to other professionals in other settings.

Average Duties and Tasks

During a typical workday, an occupational therapist may review patients’ medical histories, observe patients performing tasks, and evaluate their conditions. The therapist will develop a treatment plan based on those observations, identifying specific goals and activities that can help the patient reach those goals.

Occupational therapists demonstrate exercises they wish for patients to perform, such as stretching the joints. They may discuss a patient’s needs with a family or employer and suggest ways to best accommodate the patient at home and work. The therapists may also recommend specialized equipment, such as eating aids and wheelchairs and instruct the patient on how to use these devices.

Advancement Opportunities

Opportunities for advancement depend on an occupational therapist’s career goals and interests. Many professionals find that they enjoy working in skilled health care facilities with their favorite types of patients, whether those patients are children, injured adults, or older adults. In some cases, occupational therapists may want to open their own practice, a decision will require some investment capital and business knowledge.

After a few years of experience, you may find yourself in a supervisory position managing other occupational therapists at your workplace.