How To Become an Occupational Therapist: Steps, Jobs, & Salary

Become Team
Become Team
Updated July 28, 2022

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6 Steps to Become an Occupational Therapist

Step 1
Earn an associates degree.
Occupational therapy careers require advanced degrees, but an occupational therapy assistant associate's degree is a practical starting point. These two-year programs prepare students to sit for the Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant (COTA) exam, a national exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Students can gain knowledge and skills in subjects like biology; anatomy and physiology; mental and physical health theory and practice; pediatrics; and geriatrics. Programs typically include fieldwork, giving students hands-on occupational therapy assistant practice.
Step 2
Take the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) exam.
After completing their associate's degree program, graduates interested in becoming occupational therapy assistants can sit for the COTA exam. The COTA is a computer-based exam comprised of 200 multiple choice questions. Upon passing, examinees will receive an official NBCOT certificate and wallet card around 4-6 weeks after the exam is scored.
Step 3
Gain experience in the occupational therapy field.
Students who pass the COTA exam can seek occupational therapy assistant jobs to gain experience in the occupational therapy field. While it isn't necessary to work in the occupational therapy field as an assistant before applying to an occupational therapy degree program, having experience may increase the likelihood of getting into a master's program.
Step 4
Advance your education.
A master's degree is required to become an occupational therapist. Students can either earn a bachelor's degree in a related field, like biology or physiology, before advancing to a master's program, or they can apply for a combined bachelor's/master's program. In combined degree programs, students take undergraduate and graduate level courses in occupational therapy and can graduate with both a bachelor's and a master's degree. Master's degree programs combine theory and practice to give students a comprehensive knowledge of occupational therapy. Fieldwork is required and must be completed under the supervision of an occupational therapist. Master's degree programs in occupational therapy aim to prepare students to sit for the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) exam.
Step 5
Pass the Occupational Therapy Registered (OTR) exam.
A passing score on the OTR exam is required to become a licensed occupational therapist. Like the COTA exam, the OTR is computer-based. There are three clinical simulation problems and 170 multiple choice questions that are designed to evaluate a candidate's ability to make conclusions about client needs, get information about a client's occupational performance and the factors that play into it, choose appropriate therapies and manage and direct occupational therapy services. The exam application costs $515, or $555 for a paper application. Applicants need to submit either their school transcripts or their NBCOT Academic Credential Verification Form and undergo a character review. Once they pass the exam, prospective occupational therapists will receive an official certificate from the NBCOT and a wallet card.
Step 6
Gain state licensure.
Occupational therapists need to get licensed in the state in which they plan to practice. Licensure requirements vary between states, but they typically require an NBCOT score, academic transcripts and a background check. Licensing fees also vary and can range from around $50 to $240. There may be additional fees for things like fingerprinting and temporary licenses as well. To keep their licensure up to date, occupational therapists need to take continuing education units. They can also pursue doctoral degrees to become specialists and gain specialization certifications.

Occupational Therapist Salary & Job Growth

Knowing that they are helping people lead more fulfilling, healthy lives is gratifying in itself, but occupational therapists can expect to make a good living, too. According the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median wage for occupational therapists is $83,200 as of May 2017. This is more than double the average wage for all occupations. Salary survey and comparison site, Payscale, estimates that experience in the field and residence can greatly affect earnings. While entry-level occupational therapists tend to earn a little less than the national average of $72,000, mid-career professional earn around 6 percent more than the national average. That number jumps to a 19 percent increase for late-career professionals.

Earnings also vary depending on an where an occupational therapist practices. Prospective occupational therapists should check out state-specific wage information to get a more accurate picture of the field where they plan to work.

Alabama

Currently Employed: 1,200

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 28.30%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $81,390

Alabama

Currently Employed: 1,200

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 28.30%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $81,390

Alaska

Currently Employed: 270

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 11.50%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $82,810

Arizona

Currently Employed: 1,800

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23.40%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $86,530

Arkansas

Currently Employed: 1,090

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 31.20%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $79,220

California

Currently Employed: 10,620

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 22.30%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $89,870

Colorado

Currently Employed: 2,770

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 36.60%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $88,290

Connecticut

Currently Employed: 1,990

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 14.20%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $90,760

Delaware

Currently Employed: 460

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $84,450

Florida

Currently Employed: 6,600

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 29.50%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $84,260

Georgia

Currently Employed: 2,840

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 36.40%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $79,990

Hawaii

Currently Employed: 290

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 19.20%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $80,580

Idaho

Currently Employed: 430

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23.50%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $82,820

Illinois

Currently Employed: 5,210

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 14.70%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $82,290

Indiana

Currently Employed: 2,890

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 27.80%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $79,490

Iowa

Currently Employed: 1,010

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 28.60%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $77,910

Kansas

Currently Employed: 1,330

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 15.80%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $77,000

Kentucky

Currently Employed: 1,340

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 46.30%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $78,760

Louisiana

Currently Employed: 1,790

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 21.10%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $84,020

Maine

Currently Employed: 1,000

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 14.20%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $68,300

Maryland

Currently Employed: 3,300

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 31.40%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $85,620

Massachusetts

Currently Employed: 5,130

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 18.40%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $87,380

Michigan

Currently Employed: 4,780

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 16.30%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $80,110

Minnesota

Currently Employed: 2,820

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 15.10%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $73,680

Mississippi

Currently Employed: 960

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 24.20%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $81,400

Missouri

Currently Employed: 2,380

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 24%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $77,460

Montana

Currently Employed: 340

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23.90%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $77,070

Nebraska

Currently Employed: 890

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23.40%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $75,780

Nevada

Currently Employed: 730

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23.90%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $103,280

New Hampshire

Currently Employed: 1,060

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 21.30%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $81,010

New Jersey

Currently Employed: 5,240

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $94,100

New Mexico

Currently Employed: 690

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 27.40%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $81,310

New York

Currently Employed: 9,080

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 22.30%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $87,260

North Carolina

Currently Employed: 3,330

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 26.20%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $83,100

North Dakota

Currently Employed: 430

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 29.50%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $67,930

Ohio

Currently Employed: 4,670

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 26.70%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $85,480

Oklahoma

Currently Employed: 920

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 21.10%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $83,150

Oregon

Currently Employed: 1,260

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 24.60%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $90,060

Pennsylvania

Currently Employed: 7,310

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 21.40%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $79,860

Rhode Island

Currently Employed: 380

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 17.50%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $77,570

South Carolina

Currently Employed: 1,280

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 21.90%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $78,610

South Dakota

Currently Employed: 410

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 14.90%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $66,990

Tennessee

Currently Employed: 2,100

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 35%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $82,940

Texas

Currently Employed: 10,170

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 33.70%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $94,530

Utah

Currently Employed: 880

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 32.70%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $83,650

Vermont

Currently Employed: 290

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 15%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $77,650

Virginia

Currently Employed: 3,000

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 28.70%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $90,720

Washington

Currently Employed: 2,800

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 25.30%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $80,590

West Virginia

Currently Employed: 610

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 14.50%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $85,090

Wisconsin

Currently Employed: 3,250

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 11.60%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $70,670

Wyoming

Currently Employed: 290

Change in Employment (2016-2026): 24.90%

Amount: Mean wage annual: $80,380

Like the national median wage per year, the projected job growth for occupational therapy is considerably higher than the average for all occupations: a 24 percent increase is expected between 2016 and 2026. This growth is largely due to increased need for occupational therapists as the Baby Boomer population ages and requires more assistance. Jobs in various medical settings, including hospitals and rehabilitation centers, will likely provide many opportunities for occupational therapists. There is also consistent demand for treatment of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, especially the non-invasive, long-term outpatient treatments provided by occupational therapists. Working in schools with students on the autism spectrum may be a good option for occupational therapists as well.

While demand for occupational therapists is expected to be high, it also depends on patients' ability to pay for services, either through insurance or out of pocket. Legislative developments and changes in the healthcare system can affect the job outlook for occupational therapists in the future.

Finding an Occupational Therapist Program

There are many things students should consider when looking for an occupational therapy program. Students should always make sure their program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education , but beyond that, students can account for different variables, like cost, delivery method, program length and combined degree programs versus standalone ones, to tailor their school search. Search tools like the one below can help students narrow down their options and find an occupational therapy program that meets their needs.

Occupational Therapist Associations & Groups

Networking is an important part of being an occupational therapist. As a student, networking can help with landing internships, supervised fieldwork, job shadows and future career and education opportunities. For established professionals, networking helps occupational therapists meet others in the field, make job connections, learn about changes in the industry and best practices, promote their services, gain new skills and learn about classes and other opportunities. Organizations like the ones below can open experienced and prospective occupational therapists to a range of networking opportunities to help them thrive in the field.

Resources for Occupational Therapists

Because they help all types of people improve their functionality in day-to-day activities, occupational therapists can benefit from having a large arsenal of tools and educational resources. Whether they are looking to brush up on developments in the industry or for apps and activities to use with clients, occupational therapists can get started on their search by browsing through these resources.

1. Is financial aid specific to occupational therapy available?

Along with receiving financial aid by filling out the FAFSA, occupational therapy students can find OT-specific scholarships and grants through the American Occupational Therapy Foundation and the American Occupational Therapist Association (AOTA).

2. How do I find occupational therapy careers?

The American Occupational Therapy Association has various job search and prep tools to help occupational therapists and occupational therapist assistants build resumes, prepare for interviews and find jobs in their area.

3. Where can I meet other occupational therapists?

Joining professional associations can help occupational therapists build their professional networks and learn more about the changing landscape of occupational therapy.

4. What are continuing education units, and how do I take them?

Continuing education units (CEUs) are education credits professionals earn by periodically taking classes after they have become licensed. Each state specifies how many CEUs occupational therapists need to take before they can renew their license. Students earn CEUs by taking approved courses, which are often available online. AOTA offers continuing education courses for occupational therapists and offers a database of approved, non-AOTA continuing education providers.

5. Where can I learn more about different types of fieldwork and what the requirements are for my degree or certification?

AOTA's guide to fieldwork is a comprehensive resource for prospective occupational therapists looking for specific information about their hands-on practice requirements.

6. Can I specialize in my master's program?

A master's degree is considered an entry-level degree for occupational therapists. This means that, at the master's level, students will get a generalist education. Students who want to specialize in certain areas of occupational therapy typically have to earn a doctorate or gain specialized certifications after working in the field for a while.

Become Team
Become Team
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