How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Aspiring healthcare professionals hope to make a lasting impact in their patients' lives. Learn how to become an occupational therapist.

portrait of Emily Gillespie-Lord
by Emily Gillespie-Lord

Published August 30, 2022

Edited by Colin Weickmann
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How to Become an Occupational Therapist
Image Credit: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Image


Occupational therapists make a lasting impact by treating pain and finding ways for patients of different backgrounds to regain or discover their independence. Those who are interested in a healthcare career that requires some level of creativity are perfect for this role.

In many cases, you must earn a master's degree to practice as an occupational therapist. After successfully completing a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy or a related degree and a master's program, you must become certified and earn a state license to practice. Keep reading to learn more about how to become an occupational therapist.

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What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is a treatment that focuses on the pain and mobility challenges patients experience while doing everyday tasks. Instead of helping patients regain movement, like in physical therapy, an occupational therapist (OT) helps patients regain independence. Occupational therapy patients focus on building fine motor skills, allowing them to perform tasks such as feeding and dressing themselves.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

OTs treat patients who may struggle with everyday activities, such as bathing, eating, walking, or dressing themselves. Some of their patients live with a long-term disability, while others may not. Occupational therapists evaluate patients and develop therapy plans based on their needs. They can work in hospitals, schools, mental health settings, and other areas of care.

A minimum of a master's degree and state licensure is required to become an occupational therapist. Most people begin their careers at the master's level. Although, some earn a doctoral degree.

Occupational Therapist Responsibilities

  • Review patient history and evaluate a patient's condition and ability to perform everyday tasks.
  • Develop a treatment plan, teach different exercises, and evaluate patient progress.
  • Evaluate a patient's home and/or work life and suggest helpful adjustments.
  • Recommend adaptive equipment and educate patients on safe usage.
  • Educate patient families and employers on necessary accommodations.

Occupational Therapist Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

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What Are the Steps to Become an Occupational Therapist?

To become an occupational therapist, you must complete the necessary education and become licensed in your state. After earning a bachelor's degree, you must complete a master's program and become licensed in your state. Most occupational therapists do not enter the workforce until after completing a master's program.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first step in becoming an occupational therapist is to earn a bachelor's degree in a related medical field. It typically takes four years to complete a bachelor's degree and costs an average of $19,020 per year, as per data from the National Center of Education Statistics. A master's in occupational therapy program requires a bachelor's in a health or science field, so undergraduates should choose one of these majors.

As the field relies on communication skills and understanding both the physical and psychological challenges patients may experience in therapy, a bachelor's in psychology is a popular choice for OTs. Earning a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy may allow you to work as an assistant to gain experience.

Step 2: Complete Observation Hours and Grad Exams

Some graduate programs require you to take the GRE. Programs may require you to earn a minimum GRE score as well as possible observation hours to gain admission. Observation hours can be completed at schools, skilled nursing facilities, and community centers. Some programs offer on-the-job training.

Step 3: Earn an Advanced Degree in Occupational Therapy

It's important to consider your expected salary before taking on the student debt associated with an advanced degree. The cost of a doctorate depends on the program you choose.

Occupational therapists earn a median salary of $85,570 per year as of May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Earning a doctoral degree in occupational therapy may qualify you for a management or directorial position.

Doctoral candidates study between 92-116 credit hours of kinesiology, psychology, and therapy techniques. Students may also complete fieldwork and a final project. Ph.D. students typically complete between 60-90 course credits and may take up to six years to complete their studies.

Step 4: Obtain State Licensure

After earning a degree from an Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education- approved program, you must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to become a certified OT. After passing the exam, you must fulfill your state's requirements, which can vary. Some states require background checks, transcripts from your completed program, and passing a state regulation exam.

You must also be licensed in your state to practice. Some specialty certifications, such as gerontology and pediatrics, may help advance your career.

Step 5: Get a Job as an Occupational Therapist

You must have a certification and license for the state you hope to practice in to begin entry-level roles. According to the BLS, OTs working in home healthcare earned the most, with a median salary of $98,700 as of May 2021. The lowest earners worked for schools and earned a median salary of $77,290 the same year.

The BLS also projects employment of occupational therapists to grow 17% from 2020-2030. This projection exceeds the average growth rate of 8% for all U.S. jobs. Some people may need to relocate to land a job after college.

Step 6: Maintain Licensure

Each state has its own requirements for maintaining OT licensure. Along with submitting an application and paying any required fees, many states require continuing education or competency hours. Practicing with an expired license may result in a fine or even a criminal charge. Some additional certifications and areas of expertise to consider include:

What to Know Before Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Accreditation

College accreditation is one of the most important aspects of your education. You will not be allowed to take the NBCOT exam without proof that you have completed an accredited program either online or on campus. After passing the exam and becoming certified, you can then apply for state licensure. It is illegal to practice as an OT without the proper state license. Each state has its own rules for licensure.

Cost

The average cost of a master's program varies depending on the school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, graduate tuition and required fees cost an average of $19,749 per year as of 2020-2021. Online program costs include fees for any required software programs and access to equipment. Be aware of hidden college costs not listed on program websites. For example, the fee to fill out the NBCOT exam application online is $515.

Salary

According to the BLS, the median occupational therapist salary was over $85,000 in May 2021. Earning a doctorate may enhance your skills and further your career and salary. For example, medical and health services managers earned a median salary of $101,340 as of May 2021, according to the BLS.

Location also impacts salary potential. As per BLS state data, OTs in Nevada earn the highest annual mean wage of $109,010 as of May 2021. Home health services pay the most in the field, with an annual mean salary of $102,640.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Is becoming an occupational therapist worth it? true

Yes. Occupational therapists focus on treating patient pain and restoring independence. This career involves caring for diverse patients, including those who have experienced strokes, have cerebral palsy, or are recovering from surgery. An interest in anatomy and physiology is helpful, as is a passion for making a lasting impact on people's lives.

Occupational therapy takes a level of ingenuity and problem-solving, making it an attractive medical career for creatives. Along with the median salary and potential for your earnings to grow while making a difference in the world, becoming an occupational therapist can be well worth it.

Are occupational therapists in demand? true

Occupational therapists are in high demand. The BLS projects the employment of OTs to grow 17% from 2020-2030. By comparison, the projected growth rate for all jobs is only 8% from 2020-2030. Even with high demand and job growth, new graduates may find it difficult to land the exact job they want. But by expanding your search by distance and specialty, you may have a better chance of finding a job you are passionate about.

What degree do you need to be an occupational therapist? true

In most cases, you need a master's degree to be a practicing occupational therapist. The first step is completing a relevant bachelor's degree. Some graduate programs require you to pass the GRE with a minimum score, as well as complete observation hours, write an essay, and sit for an interview.

Some students choose to earn their doctorate or Ph.D. While this is not a requirement to practice, an advanced degree may open up opportunities for you to pursue research, teaching, or higher-levels of employment.

How long does it take to become an occupational therapist? true

On average, it takes four years to complete a bachelor's degree. After that, completing a master's program typically takes two or three years. Some schools offer bridge programs that allow full-time master's students to complete a doctorate within 2-4 years. Entry-level doctoral programs take anywhere from 3-5 years to complete. Ph.D. programs offer students the chance to pursue research and teaching and can take up to six years to complete.

How much do occupational therapists make? true

According to the BLS, occupational therapists earn a median salary of $85,570 per year as of May 2021. The highest-paid occupational therapists work in home health services and earn an annual mean salary of $103,640.

Earning advanced degrees and completing continuing education to gain specialty certifications are another way to improve your salary. OTs who work for schools earned the least, with a median salary of $77,290. Nevada occupational therapists earn the most out of any state, with an annual average salary of $109,010.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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