Rehabilitation Science Jobs: Career Options and Requirements

Sep 30, 2019

Rehabilitation science is the study of human ability and disability in relation to functional movement. Most careers involved with rehabilitation science require at least a master's degree. This article introduces two such careers: physical therapists and occupational therapists.

Essential Information

Entering the rehabilitation science field is ideal for anyone who enjoys science and healthcare. Degree programs to enter the field include kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry or physiology. A bachelor's degree is required to get started and career options for rehabilitation science professionals are growing at a faster than average pace. Continue reading for more information on careers in rehabilitation science.

Career Physical Therapist Occupational Therapist
Education Requirements Doctoral Degree Master's Degree
Other Requirements Clinical experience, license, continuing education courses to maintain license State license, national certification
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 22% 18%
Median Salary (2018)* $87,930 $84,270

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

Rehabilitation science professionals help patients recover from injuries or surgery and return to work. They also help the handicapped, the elderly and the developmentally challenged to lead productive lives. It is a growing field with increasing career opportunities.

Physical Therapists (PTs)

Physical therapy is a very common career in rehabilitation science. PTs diagnose and treat patients of all ages having diseases or injuries that limit movement and reduce quality of life. They help patients with amputations, back and neck injuries, work and sports injuries, sprains, fractures, arthritis, burns, strokes, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. PTs create individualized treatment plans to increase a patient's movement, reduce pain, restore function and prevent permanent disability. Therapeutic interventions used by PTs include:

  • Functional training
  • Therapeutic exercises
  • Manual therapy techniques

In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 247,700 PTs earning a median annual wage of $87,930. The BLS projects employment growth to be about 22% from 2018-2028. That projection is much faster than other professions. An increasing number of aging baby boomers becoming prone to injury and disease will require the services of PT's. Healthcare advances allowing the survival of trauma victims and babies with birth defects will further spur this demand.

Requirements to Become a Physical Therapist

Aspiring physical therapists will need to earn a bachelor's degree in order to go on to complete a graduate degree. Many graduate programs do not require a specific major; however, a bachelor's degree in one of the following areas would prove useful:

  • Kinesiology
  • Rehabilitation science
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Physiology
  • Exercise science

Most graduate programs will require applicants to have completed prerequisites prior to enrollment. Undergraduate courses in anatomy and physiology, basic sciences and statistics are usually required.

A post-baccalaureate degree in physical therapy is necessary to practice as a PT. The most common programs are 3-year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree programs. Some typical courses offered in a DPT program are:

  • Clinical pharmacology
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Clinical neurology
  • Musculoskeletal pathology
  • Disability studies
  • Motor control
  • Musculoskeletal examination and intervention

Clinical experience in a physical therapy facility is usually a requirement. State requirements vary; however, most states require graduates to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Many states also require continuing education after licensure is granted.

Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapy is another common rehabilitation science career. Occupational therapists help patients suffering from mental, physical, developmental or emotional conditions perform day-to-day tasks and work duties. They help maintain, recover or improve motor function, coordination and reasoning ability. They assess and modify a patient's work environment to optimize their performance. Therapists can specialize in treating children, the elderly, patients suffering from a single disorder or developmentally challenged individuals. They instruct patients suffering from spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy on the proper use of adaptive equipment, which they sometimes design and build.

Therapists have to maintain meticulous records of patient progress. They use computer programs to assess patients and to aid in therapy. This job requires creative thinking, problem solving skills and an ability to communicate well with patients.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018, there were 117,900 occupational therapists earning a median annual wage of $84,270. They forecast employment to increase much faster than average by 18% between 2018 and 2028. This is due to an increasing elderly and disabled population who are now able to survive debilitating diseases because of medical advances.

Requirements to Become an Occupational Therapist

A Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy is a good first step to becoming an occupational therapist. However, other related majors are usually acceptable as well. After completing general education and basic science requirements occupational therapy students take courses on:

  • Kinesiology
  • Neurology
  • Physical disabilities
  • Geriatrics
  • Pediatrics

Licensing requirements vary from state to state. All states have issued some sort of regulation for the practice of occupational therapy. Professional certification is usually voluntary. However, obtaining national certification through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) may help an occupational therapist gain professional credibility. Some states may use this exam to determine licensure.

In order to sit for the certification exam offered by the NBCOT, a master's degree is usually required. Several schools offer 5-year combined bachelor's and master's degree programs. Students typically take courses in:

  • Functional movement analysis
  • Health care management
  • Assistive technology

Extensive field experience in a healthcare facility is usually required. It is advisable to participate in master's degree programs that are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education and to research individual state's rules and regulations.

Both physical and occupational therapists are expected to be in high demand, especially in acute care hospitals and orthopedic settings. Many injured and elderly patients rely on these therapists to heal properly and resume daily function. Graduate education is required in both professions, along with meeting other state standards.

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