What Do Occupational Therapists Usually Major In?

Occupational therapists work with disabled or impaired patients. They assist patients with rehabilitation services and provide workplace and home improvements. Occupational therapists may specialize in treating a particular disability, age group, or environment. Many schools offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs in occupational therapy. View article »

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  • 0:59 Undergraduate Programs
  • 2:01 OT Master's Degrees
  • 3:19 OT Doctoral Degrees
  • 4:25 Licensure & Career Options

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Video Transcript

Occupational Therapy Majors

A master's degree is required to work as an occupational therapist, but those interested in this field can choose from a variety of relevant majors to help them prepare for graduate studies. Here we'll explore major options for aspiring occupational therapists and also look at graduate programs and career stats for the field.

Some schools offer occupational therapy degree programs at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. Universities with graduate programs may require applicants to have a bachelor's degree in a related field or, at a minimum, prerequisite coursework in subjects like psychology, chemistry, physiology, and anatomy. Example majors include, but are not limited to, biology, psychology, health science, and exercise science. More important than the specific major, however, is to meet prerequisites for admission to an occupational therapy master's degree program.

Undergraduate Programs

Before heading to graduate school, aspiring occupational therapists (OTs) might pursue an undergraduate program in the field. These pre-professional training programs focus on basic skills and prepare students to advance to a graduate program. Most four-year schools offering an occupational therapy program include a bachelor's degree as part of a dual-degree program, allowing students to earn their bachelor's and master's degrees in occupational therapy simultaneously. These programs typically take five years to complete.

Other options include occupational therapy assisting associate's degrees designed to allow students to segue into a graduate program or enter the field as an occupational therapy assistant. Pre-professional programs often include internship opportunities, as well as academic courses in topics such as:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Occupational therapy foundations
  • Activity assessment
  • Occupational issues across the lifespan
  • General and abnormal psychology
  • Medical ethics

OT Master's Degrees

Those who want to work as licensed OTs will either earn a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy or Master of Occupational Therapy. Students accepted into a master's program learn evaluation and intervention procedures for disabled patients. Programs typically include active fieldwork, often requiring students to obtain an updated CPR certification, current inoculations, a physical examination, and health insurance. Many master's programs introduce students to research practices that become central if graduates intend to pursue a doctorate.

Curriculum topics can include:

  • Occupational activity
  • Advanced anatomy and neuroscience
  • Basic and advanced patient care skills
  • Therapy and use of the human body
  • Childhood development and disabilities
  • Legal and ethical issues of management
  • Rehabilitation medicine and procedures
  • Prosthetic uses and limitations

At some schools, students may be able to participate in a dual-degree program that allows them to earn master's degrees in occupational therapy and public health. In these cases, graduate students work towards both degrees simultaneously, combining courses on occupational therapy, treatment, and psychology with public health courses in environmental science, social medicine, and public policy.

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OT Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral programs in occupational therapy confer either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Occupational Therapy (O.T.D.). The programs often limit class sizes, making admissions highly competitive. The Ph.D. programs focus primarily on research, preparing students for a career in academics. The O.T.D. programs also include research studies, together with specialized training in areas such as childhood disabilities, public health, or occupational advocacy.

Students entering a doctoral program with a master's degree in occupational therapy may complete the program in a shorter time period than students with only a bachelor's degree. Some doctoral-level course topics may include:

  • Advanced occupational therapy theory
  • Leadership concepts and practices
  • Population evaluation and OT program development
  • Occupational therapy group practices
  • Changes in learning and behavior
  • Occupational and social laws and policies
  • Technological advances in occupational therapy
  • Ethical and analytical thinking and decision-making

Licensure & Career Options

All states require licensing of practicing occupational therapists. Licensing requirements may vary by state, but all occupational therapists must pass a certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Occupational therapy assistants must also register with their state and obtain proper licensing.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipated a 27% increase in occupational therapist positions between 2014 and 2024. Licensed graduates of an occupational therapy program may find jobs in retirement or nursing homes, corporations, private practice, or educational institutions. In May 2016, the BLS reported the median salary for occupational therapists as $81,910. The highest levels of employment were in health practitioner offices, hospitals, and elementary and secondary schools.

While specific state licensure regulations vary, all states require that occupational therapists have a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy or Master of Occupational Therapy. Bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees are available to prepare individuals for this in-demand role.

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