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.

Do I Want to Be 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.

Job Requirements

In addition to meeting state licensing requirements, an occupational therapist must possess at least a master's degree. Optional certifications in areas of specialization are also available. The following table contains the main qualifications for occupational therapists:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree is required*
Degree Field Occupational therapy*
Licensure State licensure is required*
Experience Some employers prefer applicants with 1-2 years of experience**
Key Skills Excellent communication and interpersonal skills; compassion and patience; strong writing skills*
Additional Requirements CPR or Basic Cardiac Life Support (BCLS) certification may be required**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ** 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.

Success Tip:

  • Maintain certification. Completion of the NBCOT certification exam is mandatory in order to obtain state licensure; however, the certification itself is technically voluntary. Despite being voluntary, many occupational therapists choose to maintain certification in order to stay competitive in this field. Continuing education coursework is required in order to maintain the OTR designation.

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