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Occupational Therapist Career Guide

How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Tying your shoes, brushing your hair, getting out of bed, and even walking are actions that many of us take for granted. Due to accidents, disabilities, health problems, or the effects of old age, many individuals may struggle with such activities. Thankfully, there are professionals who focus specifically on helping people perform these tasks so they can live fuller lives. They’re called occupational therapists.

If you’re compassionate and love working one-on-one with individuals to help them learn or relearn how to do everyday tasks, then occupational therapy can be a rewarding profession. Occupational therapists help their patients overcome challenges that interfere with their ability to live a more productive life. Occupational therapy focuses on areas including physical therapy, play therapy, self-care, and productivity. These professionals use therapeutic techniques to improve, rehabilitate, or maintain a patient’s ability to perform everyday activities.

A smiling, young nurse writes into her notebook.

What Is an Occupational Therapist?

An occupational therapist (or OT) is a licensed medical professional who works to help patients overcome the ailments that hinder them from performing everyday tasks or occupations. Since they provide a specialized service to patients, occupational therapists are considered part of the allied health professions, which include specialists like dietitians, physical therapists, and speech language pathologists. 

Some mistakenly think that occupational therapy deals with job coaching or something of the sort. However, the word “occupation” in this case refers to a daily task or activity. OTs work to restore, rebuild, and enhance lives by helping people regain their ability to perform their daily occupations.

An occupational therapist focuses on holistic patient well-being rather than specific injuries, ailments, or disabilities. They guide the patient through specific exercises that help them overcome physical, mental, developmental, and emotional conditions that get in the way of performing daily tasks. The goal of an occupational therapist is to increase people’s independence and quality of life so they can live with as few restrictions as possible.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

How exactly does an occupational therapist help people learn or relearn how to do their daily activities? Here’s a list of the day-to-day responsibilities of an occupational therapist:

  • Evaluating a patient’s condition and needs. Charting symptoms and progress is key for a patient’s improvement. Occupational therapists constantly evaluate and document how their patient is doing during each visit.
  • Developing treatment plans. The goal of an occupational therapist is to help each patient become self-sufficient. To help them reach this point, a plan must be developed. Treatment plans may include stretching, physical therapy, and specific cognitive or muscle strengthening exercises that relate to daily activities. 
  • Assessing a patient’s environment. At times, patients need certain adaptations and accommodations to their living environment to live a fuller life. For instance, an occupational therapist may assess whether a patient should have extra railings installed throughout their home to help them maintain their balance. Perhaps they may determine the patient requires a walker, or a ramp installed outside their home to improve independence.
  • Training patients and caregivers on equipment use. Occupational therapists may recommend specific equipment for certain conditions. For some, it may be a stationary pedaling machine for therapy. For others, it’s a treadmill in the home. And for those who struggle with sleep apnea, perhaps a CPAP machine is a necessity. Each requires specific knowledge and safety precautions. Occupational therapists ensure that patients and their caregivers understand how to use the equipment correctly and safely.
  • Complete necessary paperwork. Occupational therapists must complete charts and process the proper documents for evaluation, billing, reporting and insurance purposes. Official documents can be found on the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) website.

How Do I Become an Occupational Therapist?

To become an occupational therapist, you won’t need to earn an MD. However, there are specific steps you’ll need to complete in order to be a licensed OT.

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in healthcare or a related field. Start by obtaining an accredited bachelor’s degree in healthcare. Consider a bachelor’s degree in nursing, healthcare management, or health services coordination
  • Earn a master’s degree in occupational therapy. The AOTA website has a helpful page for finding a college or university with an OT school with programs for occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants. Your schooling will generally include fieldwork and rotations, where you’ll gain job experience. 
  • Pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. To become a certified occupational therapist, you must pass the NBCOT exam. NBCOT.org has information on how to prepare.
  • Consider a doctoral degree in occupational therapy. Earning a doctoral degree in occupational therapy enhances your credentials, allowing you to provide superior care and demand higher rates for service. Learn more here.
  • Think about specializing. Some occupational therapists choose to specialize in a specific area to improve their expertise and marketability within a specific niche. Specializations include gerontology, mental health, pediatrics, physical rehabilitation, driving and community mobility, environmental modification, feeding, eating, and swallowing, low vision, and pediatrics. Learn more about advanced certification.

Best Degrees for an Occupational Therapist

Nursing (RN-to-BSN Online) – B.S.

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking...

An online BSN degree program for registered...

An online BSN degree program for registered nurses (RNs) seeking the added theoretical depth, employability, and respect that a bachelor's degree brings:

  • Time: 66% of graduates finish within 18 months.
  • Tuition: $3,998 per 6-month term, plus a Health Professions Student Fee of $350.
  • Transfers: On average, students transfer 81 credits.

With over 35,000 BSN alumni, this is one of WGU's most popular online degree programs. View our RN to BSN degree guide.

If you don't currently have an RN and don't qualify for your nursing prelicensure program, consider getting our Bachelor's Degree in Health Services Coordination instead. This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry in a unique way.

Healthcare Management – B.S. Business Administration

You can become a healthcare industry leader:...

You can become a healthcare industry leader:...

You can become a healthcare industry leader:


Compare with B.S. Health Information Management

  • Time: 73% of graduates finish within 30 months.
  • Tuition: $3,575 per 6-month term.

Sample careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • Health information manager
  • Community service manager
  • Clinical manager
  • Medical records manager
  • Social service manager

The online courses in this career-focused business degree program will prepare you with management-level skills and an up-to-date understanding of our healthcare delivery system.

Health Services Coordination – B.S.

An online health degree program for students passionate about...

An online health degree program for students...

An online health degree program for students passionate about value-based care and dedicated to helping others.

  • Time: 60% of graduates of similar programs finish within 3 years.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,650 per 6-month term, plus a one-time Health Professions Student Fee of $350.

Sample careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Care coordinator
  • Patient advocate
  • Health services coordinator
  • Patient educator
  • Community health educator

This degree allows you to work inside the healthcare industry, while also directly working with patients who need help.


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No need to wait for spring or fall semester. It's back-to-school time at WGU year-round. Get started by talking to an Enrollment Counselor today, and you'll be on your way to realizing your dream of a bachelor's or master's degree—sooner than you might think!

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What Skills Does an Occupational Therapist Need?

A nurse helps an elderly woman stand from a chair.

An occupational therapist needs these hard and soft skills to succeed:

  • Compassion and empathy. Occupational therapists will benefit from treating their patients with love and respect. Compassion and empathy go a long way toward building a relationship of trust with patients.
  • A people-oriented mindset skills. Being an occupational therapist is about helping people. OTs must be good at planning ahead and thinking about future outcomes centered around people. They must see the big picture, build relationships, and have positive interactions that lay the foundation for a better life for patients.
  • Communication skills. The way OTs speak to patients has a big impact. Being mainly positive and constructive will build confidence in patients. Occasionally being firm and straightforward with feedback is also necessary at times.
  • Problem-solving abilities. No two patients are the same. What worked with one may not work with another. Being able to think quickly and solve problems is key to success as an occupational therapist.
  • Patience and flexibility. It takes a lot of patience to work with patients of all ages who struggle. Often, patients who need occupational therapists can be challenging to work with because they are processing their own emotions associated with not being able to do their daily activities. Being patient and flexible helps OTs keep their cool and produce better outcomes for those they work with.

How Much Does an Occupational Therapist Make?

$85,570

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for occupational therapists in 2021 was $85,570. The highest 10% earned more than $123,840. Pay can also vary depending on experience level and specialty.

What is the Projected Job Growth?

17%

Employment of occupational therapists has been projected to grow by a healthy 17% from 2020 to 2030 per BLS predictions. More than 10,000 openings for occupational therapists are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Where Does an Occupational Therapist Work?

Varies

Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings, including:

-Homes

-Long-term care facilities

-Hospitals

-Rehabilitation centers

-Schools

 

 

 

Interested in Becoming an Occupational Therapist?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.

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