How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Learn how to become an occupational therapist in your state and see what certification you’ll need.

The Basics

What you’ll do: Occupational therapists treat patients with injuries, illnesses or disabilities through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. You’ll work with patients to develop, recover and improve the skills they need for daily working and living.

Where you’ll work: In private practice or in offices with fellow physical, occupational and speech therapists. Hospitals, schools, nursing homes and home health care agencies are also common places you can find employment.
Degree you’ll need to practice: Master’s degree
Median annual salary: $78,810*

Education and Training

Becoming an occupational therapist requires a master’s degree and licensing. Before you go after your master’s, you’ll earn a bachelor’s degree, likely in a related field. Your coursework should include biology and physiology classes.

Many master’s tracks will require academic coursework and one or two quarters of full-time clinical fieldwork.

You’ll study subjects such as these:

  • Functional anatomy
  • Neurobiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Foundations of occupational therapy
  • Theoretical concepts and practice areas
  • Occupation through the life span
  • Therapeutic communication skills

In addition to intensive fieldwork, which will give you hands-on experience in the types of places you’ll eventually work, you may also need to complete a master’s project or similar “Capstone” learning experience.

Licensing and Certification

Certification is voluntary, but shows you to be serious about your field. Occupational therapists must pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists (NBCOT) exam in order to become certified. The board’s mission is “to provide a world-class standard” for the field.

NBCOT certification allows therapists to use the title of Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR). You’ll also take continuing education classes to maintain your certification over time.

All states require occupational therapists to become licensed. To earn your license, you’ll need a degree from an accredited program and your NBCOT certification. Check the state you plan to work in for additional fees and requirements.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

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