How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant: Education & Certification
Discover everything you’ll need to know to enter the popular occupational therapy assistant career field.
Occupational therapy assistants play a vital role in helping patients heal. Working under the supervision of an occupational therapist will also provide you with experience to determine if you want to advance your career. Here’s a look at both professions.
The Basics: Occupational Therapy Assistant
What you’ll do: You’ll work with patients to follow a rehabilitation plan developed by an occupational therapist. Duties may include teaching injured patients to stretch and strengthen muscles, skill developmentally disabled patients to help them work successfully in society and record patient improvements for the occupational therapist to review.
Where you’ll work: Hospitals, occupational therapists’ offices and residential care facilities, home health care agencies, family services, government agencies
Degree you’ll need to practice: Associate’s degree or 1-year certificate program
Median annual salary: $56,070*
The Basics: Occupational Therapist
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: Hospitals, clinics, public and private educational services, nursing care facilities, home health agencies, outpatient care services, community care centers, government agencies, private practice.
Degree you’ll need to practice: Master’s degree
Median annual salary: : $81,910*
Occupational Therapy Work Environment
An occupational therapy job will provide you with the opportunity to work in a number of different environments.
The chart below shows the relative distribution of the types of environments where occupational therapists and assistants generally work:
Nursing Care Facilities
In an occupational therapy assistant career, you will see patients with a wide variety of challenges. Some patients need help with daily tasks such as getting dressed or cooking, while others need assistance improving less tangible skills such as decision-making and memory.
An occupational therapy job provides wide exposure to different people, situations and issues that will tap into your compassion and creativity, making this a fulfilling career for those who are passionate about helping others.
As an occupational therapist or occupational therapy assistant, you can put your skills and knowledge to use in other industries. For instance, you may work with architects and contractors on how to improve building design and accessibility; or, you could consult with companies on ergonomic concerns for product construction. Related careers you may explore include physical and recreational therapy.
Education and Training
To qualify for a position as an occupational therapy assistant, students complete two years of study, including the following courses:
- Medical terminology
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Rehabilitation Theory
You’ll also complete supervised fieldwork in clinics or community organizations to gain hands-on experience before completing your program.
If you’re interested in becoming an occupational therapist, you’ll need to commit to a master’s degree program, which usually takes about two-and-a-half years to complete. Other options, including direct entry degrees, are also available. These are designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in another field.
In addition to your classes, you’ll have to successfully complete six months of fieldwork.
Licensing and Certification
In most states, occupational therapy assistants need to pass national certification exams before they can practice.
Although certification is voluntary, becoming certified as an occupational therapist shows a dedication and commitment to your work and will be attractive to potential employers. Passing the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists (NBCOT) exam will earn you the title of Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR). Licensing is required for therapists in all states; check with the state in which you plan to work.
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018-19 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Occupational Therapy Assistant and Aides.
*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 a variety of 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.