How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Education, Licenses, and Other Requirements

Occupational therapists (OTs) work with patients who have lost their abilities to perform daily living and work activities due to physical, mental, or developmentally or emotionally disabling conditions. They help individuals recover and improve their skills by showing them how to perform exercises and teaching them to use adaptive equipment. OTs supervise occupational therapy assistants and aides and may also work with physical therapists, speech pathologists, and social workers.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapist with a patient
An occupational therapist does strengthening exercises with a patient. Design Pics/Don Hammond/Getty Images

In addition to the hard skills you will learn through formal training, certain personal characteristics, also called soft skills, will help you succeed in this profession. Think about whether you have these characteristics before you begin your pursuit of this career. If not, consider whether you can acquire them.

Occupational therapists should be service-oriented. They need strong interpersonal and communication skills, including excellent listening and speaking skills. They must also be very good at problem solving, critical thinking and decision making.

Required Education

If you want to become an occupational therapist you will have to earn either an entry-level master's or doctoral degree from an OT program that has received accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Master's level programs award an MS, MA, MOT or MSOT degree. Doctoral programs award either a DrOT or an OTD degree.

Students generally spend between two and three years earning a master's degree or about three years in a doctoral program. There are some master's level programs that combine undergraduate and graduate study, awarding students a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree in occupational therapy. The length of time it takes to complete such programs varies.

In addition to classroom learning, students, regardless of whether they are pursuing a master's or doctoral degree, must also complete several fieldwork experiences which involve working with real clients under the supervision of OT professionals. Doctoral students' training includes a 16-week residency program during which they get in-depth training in one of seven areas specified by ACOTE: clinical practice skills, research skills, administration, leadership, program and policy development, advocacy, education, or theory development.

If you decide to go to school to become an OT, you can expect to take many of the following courses:

  • Contemporary Issues in OT Practice
  • Fundamentals of Health Care and Professional Practice
  • Kinesiology in Occupations
  • Functional Anatomy
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Occupational Therapy Models of Practice
  • Ethical Decision-Making
  • Cultural Awareness in Human Development
  • Physiology and Clinical Pathophysiology
  • Developmental Influences on Living
  • Assistive Technology for Human Performance
  • Occupation, Community Health, and Wellness
  • Adult Physical Dysfunction and Occupational Therapy Process
  • Integrative Health
  • Adapting Environments
  • Geriatric Evaluation & Intervention
  • Pediatric Evaluation & Intervention

Getting Into an Occupational Therapy Program

Admission requirements and procedures are different for each program and therefore you must get details about the ones to which you are interested in applying. Master's degree programs that do not combine undergraduate and graduate study, as well as doctoral programs, generally require a bachelor's degree for entry. In most cases, it can be in any subject but the student will most likely have to complete prerequisite courses. Combination bachelor and master's degree programs typically require applicants to have a high school diploma. You can find lists of ACOTE-accredited master's and doctoral level OT programs on the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) website.

What You Must Do After You Graduate

Once you graduate, you will have to apply for a professional license. Each state in the US is responsible for licensing OTs and has different requirements. To find out what they are in the state in which you want to work get in touch with the appropriate licensing authority by consulting the Occupational Therapy Regulatory Authority Contact List on the AOTA website.

One thing all states have in common is that they require all candidates for licensure to take and pass the NBCOT (National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy) Exam. Depending on where you want to practice, you may be able to begin to work while you wait to find out if you passed the exam.

Getting Your First Job

The next step is finding a job. Take a look at some of these excerpts from actual job announcements. They reveal what qualities employers want entry-level job candidates to have, in addition to the minimum job requirements.

  • "Excellent interpersonal skills are required."
  • "Able to lift up to 50 pounds, perform one person transfer under routine and emergency situations, reposition a bedbound patient alone and able to sit, stand, bend, stoop, kneel, pull, climb, reach, lift, and perform repetitive movements of the upper extremities.."
  • "Must have a high degree of analytical and problem-solving skills."
  • "Ability to provide age and culturally appropriate care."
  • "Must have excellent written and oral communication skills."
  • "Must excel in a team atmosphere."