How to Become an Occupational Therapist


Illustration showing the many things an occupational therapist does.

With all due credit to Oprah, occupational therapists make a career out of helping people live their best lives.

Occupational therapists work with people who have physical or psychological barriers to overcome, providing tools to help them function independently.

Patients range from premature newborns to adults. OTs assist school-age children with diagnoses such as Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder. Others work with individuals who have acquired an injury from a stroke or spinal cord injury. Above all, they develop and implement the kind of practical, tangible accommodations that can mean the difference in life between surviving and thriving.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapists often work in concert with a team of health care providers—physical therapists, speech pathologists and others. Occupational therapists focus on therapeutic adaptations and environmental adjustments.

Why is it called “occupational” therapy? The founders of occupational therapy developed the terminology more than 100 years ago, and it speaks to the main point of occupation: to analyze the many actions and activities that occupy one’s time.

These activities consist of actions that we “do”—starting the day by taking a shower, using the bathroom, preparing lunch to go, driving to work, using a computer, making dinner at home.

Many of these activities become difficult with an injury. So occupational therapists, working as a team with individuals and their family members, identify how clients can regain those skills—or adapt their environment to get back to the “doing” of everyday life.

Rarely does one day mirror the next for an occupational therapist. Nevertheless, the framework remains the same regardless of where they work and who they work with.

An occupational therapist’s responsibilities can be divided into three main services:

  • Performing individual evaluations to help clients set goals
  • Customizing interventions to improve their ability to perform tasks, go through daily activities and achieve their goals
  • Evaluating outcomes to ensure that goals are being met and updating plans as needed

What Do You Need to Do to Become an Occupational Therapist?

You can follow a few different paths to becoming an occupational therapist, but every OT must earn a master’s degree. Some dual bachelor’s and master’s programs exist, but most students tackle their bachelor’s first and then apply to graduate school.

Many pre-OT undergraduates major in biology, kinesiology, psychology or sociology. However, there is no particular major mandated as long as program prerequisites have been completed.

While you work toward your bachelor’s degree, consider bolstering your knowledge and experience to give you a leg up when applying to graduate programs:

  • Volunteer or work part-time in an occupational therapy setting.
  • Take advantage of a pre-occupational therapy program if your college offers one.
  • Join the American Occupational Therapy Association, which includes more than 35,000 OT students and professionals.

Graduate programs vary in length, with most taking two to three years. At Elmhurst University, you can complete the Master of Occupational Therapy in two years, in a hybrid format of online and on-campus classes.

How Much Do Occupational Therapists Make?

To become certified, new graduates must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam. But after putting in that effort, you will be joining a booming field, with job growth expected to increase by 24 percent through 2026 and a median average salary of $83,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And, most importantly, you’ll make a real difference in the lives of your clients and their families.

Learn More about Going to School for Occupational Therapy

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Posted June 18, 2019

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