How to Become an Occupational Therapist

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6 Steps to Becoming 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.

FAQ on Becoming an Occupational Therapist

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 Mean wage annual: $81,390
Currently Employed: 1,200
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 28.30%
Alaska Mean wage annual: $82,810
Currently Employed: 270
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 11.50%
Arizona Mean wage annual: $86,530
Currently Employed: 1,800
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23.40%
Arkansas Mean wage annual: $79,220
Currently Employed: 1,090
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 31.20%
California Mean wage annual: $89,870
Currently Employed: 10,620
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 22.30%
Colorado Mean wage annual: $88,290
Currently Employed: 2,770
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 36.60%
Connecticut Mean wage annual: $90,760
Currently Employed: 1,990
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 14.20%
Delaware Mean wage annual: $84,450
Currently Employed: 460
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 23%
Florida Mean wage annual: $84,260
Currently Employed: 6,600
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 29.50%
Georgia Mean wage annual: $79,990
Currently Employed: 2,840
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 36.40%
view more

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.

  • American Occupational Therapist Association (AOTA)

    AOTA is a national professional association for occupational therapists and has a membership of over 60,000 occupational therapists, occupational therapy assistants and occupational therapy students. AOTA provides members with professional support, information and resources, discounted continuing education, legal advocacy, professional certification and credentialing and more.

  • Pi Theta Epsilon

    Organized by the American Occupational Therapy Foundation, Pi Theta Epsilon is a national honor society for occupational therapy students and alumni. The association allows students to collaborate and exchange information and provides research and continuing education opportunities.

  • University of North Carolina Student Occupational Therapy Association

    Students can look for student occupational therapy associations (SOTA) like this one at their schools. Students can also start their own SOTA with guidance from AOTA.

  • Washington Occupational Therapy Association

    This is an example of occupational therapy associations at the state level. Finding a local association can help professionals build strong connections with other occupational therapists in their community and open up job and education opportunities in their area.

  • World Federation of Occupational Therapists

    This international professional association connects occupational therapist from around the world and promotes the global advancement of occupational therapy. Members receive exclusive access to articles, bulletins, an online forum and other publications.

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.

  • American Occupational Therapy Foundation

    This organization aims to increase public understanding of occupational therapy and support current and prospective occupational therapists. The foundation promotes research and provides educational information, scholarships, conferences, expos and more.

  • Barbara Smith, Occupational Therapist

    Occupational therapists and author, Barbara Smith, compiles a variety of resources for occupational therapists on her website. Along with her books, visitors can find articles, videos and fun tools and toys to help in their occupational therapy practices.

  • Dexteria

    Dexteria is an app developer that has created a nice selection of highly-rated apps to help improve math, comprehension and fine motor skills.

  • Hear Their Stories - AOTA

    Those who are considering a career in occupational therapy may find it useful to hear why other people decided to enter the field. AOTA provides videos of occupational therapists explaining why they decided occupational therapy was the career for them.

  • OT's with Apps & Technology

    This blog’s primary purpose it to test and review apps and other technology for occupational therapists. Professionals can check out reviews for different apps and items to see if they are worthwhile before buying them for themselves.

  • Therapy Shoppe

    Occupational therapists can find a huge array of products and tools to help them help clients. Pencil grips, weighted vests, sensory pillows, strengthening tools and tons more can be purchased here.

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