How to Become an Occupational Therapy Professional

Research the requirements to become an occupational therapist. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career in occupational therapy.

Should I Become an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists help people with disabilities, injuries and illnesses improve or recover their ability to perform everyday activities. They may develop interventions that help a disabled child participate in school and social situations, help the elderly lead more active and independent lives and make recommendations on how a person's home can be improved to better suit their health needs. An occupational therapist can find employment in hospitals, nursing care facilities, home health care services and the private offices of other health care professionals. Therapists may spend many hours standing and might need to lift or move patients. Some of them travel to provide their services at multiple sites.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree is required
Degree Field Occupational therapy
Licensure and Certification State licensure is required; CPR or Basic Cardiac Life Support (BCLS) certification may also be necessary; optional certifications in areas of specialization are available
Experience Some employers prefer applicants with 1-2 years of experience
Key Skills Excellent communication and interpersonal skills, compassion and patience, strong writing skills
Salary $78,810 per year (Median salary from May, 2014 for occupational therapists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, CareerBuilder.com job postings (August 2012)

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Since occupational therapists require additional education and training beyond the undergraduate level, candidates should first complete a 4-year degree program from an accredited university. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, a variety of majors can prepare aspiring occupational therapists for graduate-level study. Kinesiology, psychology, anthropology, biology and sociology are examples of a few common programs.

Students can also choose schools that offer a dual degree program or an accelerated program. Through these programs, a student can obtain a bachelor's and master's degree in occupational therapy after roughly five years of study.

Success Tips:

  • Have a competitive GPA in prerequisite courses. Many schools offering a master's degree in occupational therapy require that students meet specific GPA requirements before being admitted to the program. While this can vary for each program, schools commonly require a GPA of about 3.0 in prerequisite courses. This includes courses in chemistry, anatomy and physiology, statistics and psychology. A student with a strong GPA may have an advantage when applying to graduate programs.
  • Obtain volunteer experience. Previous experience working with individuals who have mental, developmental or physical disabilities is required for admission to many graduate programs. Some schools prefer applicants who have about 40 hours of experience in more than one occupational therapy setting. Students can contact local facilities that hire occupational therapists to inquire about volunteering.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

Master's degree programs in occupational therapy typically take two years to complete. During this time, students learn about functional anatomy, medical and social conditions, assistive technology, patient care concepts and research methods. Fieldwork in a variety of practice settings is an essential component of the curriculum. These experiences may take place in rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, acute hospital settings, school systems and private practices. Students can expect to spend an average of 24 weeks completing field experiences.

Step 3: Become Licensed

Occupational therapists must obtain licensure in their respective states. In order to become licensed, one must graduate from an accredited occupational therapy program, complete fieldwork experiences and pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. After meeting these requirements, the individual gains state licensure and is granted the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) credential through the NBCOT. Continuing education coursework is required in order to maintain the OTR designation.

Step 4: Consider Voluntary Certification

Occupational therapists who want to demonstrate their expertise in an OT specialty can pursue board or specialty certifications from the American Occupational Therapy Association in such areas as gerontology, low vision, pediatrics, environmental modification and physical rehabilitation. Certification requirements include the submission of a professional portfolio to be reviewed by practicing occupational therapists.

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