Launch Your Career: How to Become an OT

Last updated: April 12, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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Launch Your Career: How to Become an OT
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Ever found yourself wondering how you can turn your passion for helping others into a fulfilling career? Or maybe you’re just itching to dive into a profession that’s always in demand. If this describes you, then you should check out the world of occupational therapy.

Becoming an occupational therapist (OT) isn’t simple, but the rewards are worth every step on the path.

And if you’re new to the health field, you’re in the right place.

Our team at Jobcase has put together a guide that takes you through the steps you’ll need to take to become an OT, even if you’re starting from scratch.

We’ll explore the education and certification requirements, the qualities and skills you’ll need to excel in this field, and the job outlook and salary expectations.

So if you’re ready to embark on a fulfilling journey of helping others and creating a fulfilling career for yourself, then let’s begin.

What are occupational therapists?

OTs aren’t new in the medical field, but many people — maybe even you — are unsure of what they do.

Exploring the nitty-gritty of what OTs do, the motivations and rewards of the profession, and the diverse settings in which they work their magic seems like a great place to start.

What do occupational therapists do?

OTs help people of all ages overcome physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges that make daily tasks difficult. These challenges can present themselves in the form of injuries, anxiety, special needs, mental health, or learning difficulties.

An OT’s job is to assess the client’s needs and then create a customized plan to help that client manage their challenges. The intervention plan could involve teaching new strategies, recommending adaptive equipment, or even modifying the client’s environment to make it more user-friendly.

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But that’s not all. OTs also educate clients and their families. Knowing coping strategies, injury prevention techniques, and creative ways to adapt to everyday life are key to each client’s well-being.

In a sense, OTs are like coaches, guiding clients toward a more independent and fulfilling life.

What are the motivations and rewards of a career in occupational therapy?

Choosing a career as an OT means stepping into a world of endless possibilities for changing lives.

Occupational therapy is about having a genuine impact on people’s well-being, helping them regain control over their daily lives, and witnessing their progress first-hand. The smile on a client’s face when they rediscover their independence? Priceless.

Plus, the field of occupational therapy is ever-evolving. With new techniques, research, and technology constantly emerging, you’ll never find yourself stuck in a rut. There’s always something new to learn and apply in your practice.

No wonder OTs are considered everyday superheroes!

Where do occupational therapists work?

OTs can work in a wide variety of settings, making employment in this field a truly versatile career choice.

You can find these professionals in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, nursing homes, home health agencies, and even private practices.

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Some OTs even take their skills on the road, providing services to clients in their homes, workplaces, or community centers.

And for the tech-savvy, there’s the growing field of telehealth, where videoconferencing and other online tools facilitate the delivery of occupational therapy services.

Occupational therapy offers a dynamic, rewarding, and flexible path for those looking to meaningfully impact people’s lives. With countless opportunities to grow, learn, and adapt, this is a great career for anyone who wants to change the world!

So now that you know what they do, let’s dive into how to become an OT. It’s not an easy task, but we’re here to help. We’ve gathered the steps for your educational journey to keep you on course. These steps will take you from picking the right undergraduate degree to nailing that dream job.

Step 1: Lay the foundation with an undergrad degree

While there’s no specific undergraduate degree required to become an OT, most programs do have certain prerequisites. Common majors for aspiring OTs include psychology, biology, kinesiology, or health sciences.

Choose a major that aligns with your interests (e.g., pediatrics or mental health) and covers the required coursework for your future OT program. This usually includes anatomy, physiology, human development, statistics, and behavioral sciences.

Step 2: Choose the perfect program at grad school

Once you have your bachelor’s degree in hand, it’s time to level up with a master’s or doctoral degree in occupational therapy. There are many programs out there, so here’s what we suggest you look for when choosing the right program for you:

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  • Curriculum: Review the program’s curriculum to ensure that it covers the essential topics, including assessment and intervention, ethics, and research methods.

  • Fieldwork: Ensure the program includes a strong fieldwork component (more on that later).

  • Faculty: Look for experienced faculty with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise.

  • Pass rate: Check the program’s pass rate for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. A high pass rate indicates a strong program.

Why are all these factors important? Because you want your graduate OT program to prepare you as best as possible. You’ll also want to ensure that your program provides up-to-date therapeutic techniques and plenty of hands-on learning through fieldwork experiences.

Step 3: Gain hands-on experience in the field

Fieldwork is a pivotal component of your OT education, as it allows you to put your classroom knowledge into practice and fine-tune your skills in real-life scenarios. During fieldwork, you’ll gain invaluable experience working with clients and collaborating with other healthcare professionals.

Fieldwork is typically divided into two levels, each with its own unique focus and objectives.

In Level I, you’ll spend time observing seasoned therapists in action. You’ll gain insights into client interactions, therapeutic techniques, and the day-to-day workings of the profession.

Level II fieldwork puts you directly in the world of client care. Much like an apprenticeship, you’ll work under the supervision of experienced OTs. Here, you’ll get the chance to develop intervention plans and work on your interpersonal skills with clients.

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As an added bonus, many OTs secure their first job through the connections and networks they establish during their fieldwork experiences.

So fieldwork is more than an opportunity to learn and grow — the connections you forge will remain a stepping stone toward your dream job in the occupational therapy field.

Step 4: Earn your ticket to the field through certification and licensure

Once you’ve completed your graduate program and fieldwork, you’ll need to tackle the big kahuna: the NBCOT exam. Passing this exam will earn you the title of Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR).

Once you’re registered, the requirements for licensure vary by state. Generally, though, they involve passing the NBCOT exam and submitting an application to your state’s OT licensing board.

Some states may also require background checks, fingerprints, or continuing education for OTs to maintain their licenses. So ensure that you brush up on the specifics for your state!

Pro tip: Start preparing for the NBCOT exam early, and consider using study guides or prep courses to boost your chances of success.

Step 5: Turn your dreams into reality with resumes and networking

You’ve made it through school, passed the NBCOT exam, and have your license. Now it’s time to conquer the job market! When crafting your resume, emphasize your fieldwork experience, OT-related volunteer work, and any special skills or certifications you’ve acquired.

Check out our resources on Jobcase for resume templates and tips for polishing a resume.

Since being a great OT requires a combination of knowledge (hard skills) and personality (soft skills), make sure you include both on your resume. Essential soft skills for OTs are empathy, adaptability, communication, and patience. Find places to showcase your hard skills, too.

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Use your network (think classmates, fieldwork supervisors, and faculty) to discover job openings and make connections. And don’t be afraid to tap into online resources, like OT job boards, professional associations, or even social media groups.

Becoming an OT is challenging. But with determination and passion, you’ll soon find yourself in a rewarding and fulfilling career that makes a genuine difference in people’s lives.

Determining your career opportunities

Occupational therapy is a dynamic and rewarding field, but what does the future hold in terms of job prospects and career growth? Let’s explore the opportunities and challenges, as well as the options for specialization and salary expectations.

A glimpse at the OT outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for OTs is on the rise. Even more exciting is that this projected growth is much faster than the average for all occupations.

Why the sudden change? Well, the aging baby boomer population, increased awareness of the benefits of OT, and advancements in healthcare are just a few of the reasons for the upward swing.

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However, current trends don’t always indicate smooth sailing in the future. Challenges such as changes in healthcare policies, reimbursement, and budget constraints can impact the job market. The key is to stay informed, adaptable, and open to new opportunities.

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As for salary, the BLS reports that the average yearly salary for OTs was $85,570 in May 2021. However, salaries vary — ranging anywhere from $60,680 to $123,840 yearly — with factors such as location, experience, and specialization.

Paths for growth and advancement

As an OT, you’ll have ample room to grow and advance in your career. You might start as a staff therapist before moving into a supervisory or managerial role. Or, perhaps you’ll opt to become a consultant, a researcher, or even a professor.

And don’t forget the entrepreneurial route. Many OTs choose to open their own private practices so they can provide specialized services, create their own schedules, and carve out their own niche in the market.

Options for OT niche specialties

Want to take your OT career to the next level? Consider specializing! There are numerous areas of expertise to choose from, including the following:

  1. Pediatrics: Working with children to address developmental delays, sensory processing disorders, and disabilities.

  2. Geriatrics: Helping older adults maintain their independence, cope with age-related challenges, and improve their overall quality of life.

  3. Mental health: Assisting individuals with mental health conditions in managing daily tasks, building coping skills, and fostering social connections.

  4. Hand therapy: Rehabilitating clients with hand or upper extremity injuries or conditions.

  5. Assistive technology: Developing, implementing, and adapting devices and technologies that enable clients to participate more fully in their daily lives.

In a nutshell, occupational therapy offers a wide range of career advancement opportunities, from climbing the professional ladder to pursuing niche specializations. So go ahead, dream big — the sky’s the limit in the world of occupational therapy!

Embrace the challenge and transform lives with occupational therapy

Since you’ve made it this far, we can’t help but feel that you’re more than just intrigued by the idea of becoming an OT.

You might be wondering if you have what it takes, if you can make it through the schooling, or if you’ll thrive in this career. Don’t worry — Jobcase has resources to help you along the way.

And let us remind you of something: with dedication, passion, and resilience, you can conquer any challenge. You have the potential to make a real difference in people’s lives as you help them regain their independence and live their lives to the fullest.

Remember, as an OT, you’ll be a guiding light — the hero others need to overcome obstacles.

Are you ready to start looking for a career as an OT? Visit our job board.

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