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How to Become an Occupational Therapist: Education & Certification

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

woman with occupational therapy senior citizen patient
Home » Specialties » Occupational Therapist

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: Master’s degree
  • Average annual salary: $86,210*

Types of OT Degrees

As you start your occupational therapy school search, there are a number of degree programs to consider. Find the program that makes the most sense for you in the list below:

  • Certificate in Occupational Therapy Assisting – These 1-year programs are rare, and may only prepare you to become an occupational therapist aide, rather than a certified occupational therapist assistant.
  • Associate’s Degree in Occupational Therapy Assisting – These 2-year programs prepare you to take the national certification exam for occupational therapy assistants.
  • Bachelor’s/Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy – Also called 4+2 or 4+1 programs, these joint bachelor’s/master’s programs allow you to earn both degrees on an accelerated schedule.
  • Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) Degree – Direct-entry MOT programs, also called graduate entry, direct entry, or master’s entry programs, are designed for students who hold bachelor’s degrees in other fields. These programs credit you for having completed your liberal arts requirements and allow you to complete an abbreviated schedule of undergraduate course work before moving directly into your graduate course work—combining preparation for licensure with advanced training in a graduate-level specialty area.

Education and Training

A master’s degree is the minimum standard for becoming a practicing occupational therapist, and admission to occupational therapy degree programs is competitive. The average master’s degree program takes a student two and a half years to complete.

The first year and a half is usually devoted to completing required course work in a classroom setting. In the last year, students gain experience in a clinical setting.

To get into the accredited occupational therapy school of your choice, focus on earning a high overall grade point average in your undergraduate work (above a 3.3 GPA) and volunteer or work as an occupational therapy aide. Some schools require up to 150 hours of clinical experience prior to admission.

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

Medical terminology

Physiology

Gerontology

You’ll also be required to do six months of supervised fieldwork in clinics or community organizations in order to gain hands-on experience before completing their program. In addition to this 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. You’ll need letters of recommendation from occupational therapists or science teachers. In addition, most schools require a satisfactory score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

Occupational Therapy School Accreditation

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is the accrediting agency for occupational therapy schools and programs. With their stamp of approval, students can be assured their coursework is in line with the AOTA’s standards.

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.

How About OT Assistant Careers? Can I Start There?

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.

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.

As an 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
  • Psychology
  • Rehabilitation Theory
  • Gerontology

You’ll also complete supervised fieldwork in clinics or community organizations to gain hands-on experience before completing your program.

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.

OT Employment Stats

An occupational therapy job will provide you with the opportunity to work in a number of different environments.

The chart below, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, shows the highest level of employment in environments where occupational therapists and assistants generally work:

Hospitals

26%

Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Offices

26%

Schools

12%

Home Healthcare

9%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics.

*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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