become an occupational therapist

What does an Occupational Therapist (OT) do?

An occupational therapist is a health care professional who helps individuals accomplish day-to-day tasks. This career field can be termed as a holistic profession because of its all-inclusive caring of an individual in their everyday responsibilities, needs, and wants. The primary goal is to help individuals enhance their quality of life after illness or injury that may prevent them from doing things they did or had before.

Watch a video to learn what an occupational therapist does.

How to Become an Occupational Therapist

To become an occupational therapist you ultimately need your master’s degree. You’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a field that includes biology, sociology, or psychology coursework and then apply for an occupational therapy master’s program. Some universities offer a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Make sure you pick a school and program that is nationally accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education. You can find a list of accredited programs on the American Occupational Therapy Association website. The program you attend must be accredited in order to sit for your National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists exam.

Most master’s degree programs are 2-3 years long and include several weeks of fieldwork. Once you earn your master’s degree in Occupational Therapy you are eligible to sit for the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists exam. Upon passing this exam, you will be certified and will have the license to practice occupational therapy. In order to maintain your license you must complete continuing education during your career, which also allows you to specialize in other areas of interest such as hand therapy, pediatrics, technology, vision, or mental illnesses. Some occupational therapists may elect to earn their doctorate degree though over 70% of occupational therapists hold a master’s degree according to O*NET OnLine.

Read an interview with a licensed occupational therapist.

How did you become an Occupational Therapist

I became an Occupational Therapist (OT) after being exposed to this career field when my mother had a stroke. I had not heard of this job title prior. My mother lives in Germany and I resided in the United States at the time. My mother’s recovery was long and she kept talking about how her OT was helping her so much in her everyday activities when I spoke to her on the phone.

I became curious and did some career exploration as to what exactly an OT did. I was so excited I started to think about the impact that OT’s had on people’s lives and began to take steps in becoming one myself. I shadowed OT’s in various fields, took some basic medical classes, and looked for colleges that offered an occupational therapy degree. This is how I began my journey to becoming an OT.

What do you like about being an Occupational Therapist

As an occupational therapist, the thing I cherish the most in my job is the impact that I have on helping my patients during the stages of recovery – whether it is getting them back to what they did before their illness or injury or finding different ways to accomplish those same tasks.

What aspect of your career surprised you?

When entering the occupational therapy career field, I was most surprised by the wide scope of practice. An occupational therapist can work in a variety of settings. They work in hospitals, mental health programs, schools, burn centers, acute rehabilitation, nursing homes, home health care, orthopedic, pediatrics, and even outpatient settings.

What advise would you give others who may be interested in becoming an Occupational Therapist

My biggest advice in becoming an occupational therapist (or for any career field for that matter), is shadowing someone that does that works in your chosen field to ensure it is a good fit! This is the best way to find out if it is the right career path prior to starting.

Is there any other information about the profession you’d like someone to know?

If you like to help people, it is an amazing career field to go into and so rewarding!

Job Description of an Occupational Therapist

An occupational therapist has a diverse job description. At the basic level, occupational therapists help a person with a condition inhibiting their activities of daily living (or ADLs). Holistic health care is integral to occupational therapy and they discuss work-related problems, family issues, and psychological or emotional concerns with their clients. Any problem that a person has with his or her health, personal and social life, profession, and leisure can be addressed by an occupational therapist.

Occupational therapists work with a variety of individuals ranging from infants to the elderly population. Their primary goal is to get their patients or clients back to what they were doing prior to an injury or illness if possible. An occupational therapist rehabilitates, teaches techniques to compensate for a condition, or finds new ways to complete tasks that are important to their patients or clients. They usually work full time and can be found in mental health facilities, schools, rehabilitation centers, vocational centers, burn units, hand clinics, skilled nursing homes, and hospitals.

Free Teacher and Student Resources

The American Occupational Therapy Association has a host of free posters and resources for those interested in a career in Occupational Therapy. All resource links open in a new tab.

They also list scholarships for Occupational Therapy students to help offset the cost of Occupational Therapy school.

Occupational Therapist Career Video Transcript

Being self-sufficient in everyday life contributes to a person’s confidence and self-esteem. Occupational therapists (also called OTs) help people develop, recover, and improve their self-sufficiency and the ability to enjoy work and daily activities more fully. Patients typically seek out the help of OTs due to disability, illness, injury, or mental health issues. They help patients with daily living activities such as feeding themselves, getting ready for work without assistance, using public transportation, and participating in school.

OTs work with their patients to identify goals for treatment, then create treatment plans to reach them. Occupational therapists evaluate patients’ homes and workplaces to find ways to better prepare the environment for their needs; for example, labeling cabinets or removing fall hazards. They often educate a patient’s family and employer about how to accommodate the person’s needs and document patients’ progress throughout the treatment.

These therapists work at hospitals, clinics, schools, and nursing homes. They spend a lot of time on their feet, and may lift or move patients. Many travel to meet patients in different settings, and may work evenings and weekends. Being supportive and enthusiastic are important personal qualities for OTs. A master’s degree and a license are required to enter the field; though some positions require a doctoral-level degree. Occupational therapy is often a demanding career, but it’s one that offers a rich reward, helping people lead more active and independent lives.

Article Citations

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Occupational Therapists.

National Center for O*NET Development. 29-1122.00. O*NET OnLine.

The video is Public Domain from the U. S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.