How To Become An Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists (OTs) provide therapeutic services to individuals with a range of disabilities. Their clients or patients may be struggling with an illness, injury, or disability that prevent them from performing daily activities. OTs work over a period of time to help their patients develop according to their individual needs.

OTs use observations, tests, and interviews to assess their patients. From there, they determine their needs and create treatment plans. For more serious injuries and illnesses, like a car accident or muscular dystrophy, OTs may work with patients on a daily basis. For less serious issues, such as teaching children how to write or how to deal with sensory issues, OTs may work with students once per week. Their objective is to provide tools and accommodations to assimilate into the school, work, and home environments. They can show parents, teachers, and medical personnel how to properly assist the individual in need.

To be a successful occupational therapist, it is important to embody certain qualities and skills:

Why Become An Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists provide essential services to their patients, clients, and students, as well as family members and other professionals. They may be the reason why someone walks again. They may be the reason why a small child can learn how to cope with feeling overwhelmed at school. They may be the reason someone learns how to use scissors. They may be the reason someone gains mobility in an injured limb.

Not only do OTs help people with physical movement and learning to perform daily tasks, but they may also help individuals with mental disabilities or psychological traumas. While they are not medical doctors or psychologists, they can provide necessary services to people who struggle with alcoholism and substance abuse, depression, emotional regulation, or cognitive disabilities. They help people move past traumatic experiences. They help people cope with their struggles. OTs can take about any issue and provide a plan with tools that make living easier.

Occupational Therapist Work Environment

Because of the broad nature of this profession, an OT can work in any environment. People can struggle with many facets of their lives, which include school, work, and home. OTs can travel to where their patient needs help, or their patients can visit them at hospitals, clinics, or schools.

OTs can work inside or outside. Some patients may need help with using public transportation or driving a vehicle. They may struggle with leaving their homes, and so the OT may walk with them, sit with them, or travel with them wherever they may go.

Occupational therapists may work full or part time. They can be contractors or employees. Most often, they work in hospital settings or in clinics for physical, occupational, speech, or audio therapies. A large portion will work in school settings, where students can come to specialized facilities, or the OTs will travel to their students’ classrooms. Other places of employment include nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and homecare services.

Depending on their patients or clients, they may need to work on weekends, holidays, and evenings.

Occupational Therapist Salary

The median annual salary for an occupational therapist is $81,910 (May 2016). An OT’s compensation can range from $54,200 to $119,720, depending on experience and place of employment.

OTs can expect the highest level of pay while working in nursing care facilities or home healthcare services, earning an average of $90,000 per year. Clinics and hospital settings will pay the next highest salary at about $82,000 per year. OTs who work in school settings can expect the least amount of compensation, earning an average salary of $71,480 per year.

The above salaries are for full time employees; 1 in 4 OTs will work part-time.

Average Occupational Therapist Annual Salary


The average annual salary for occupational therapists is $84,640 a year. Salaries start at $54,560 a year and go up to $120,440 a year.

Average Occupational Therapist Hourly Wage


The average hourly wage for a occupational therapist is $40.69. Hourly wages are between $26.23 and $57.91 an hour.

Stats were based out of 126,050 employed occupational therapists in the United States.

Highest Paying States For Occupational Therapists

Top Paying Cities For Occupational Therapists

Data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Occupational Therapist Career Outlook

The career outlook for occupational therapists is excellent. This field is expected to grow 27 percent in the next 10 years, which is much greater than all other occupations. There are many reasons for this demand: As the baby boom generation ages, there will be an increase in need for services to assist seniors to live independently. OTs work with patients who struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, arthritis, and the effects of stroke.

The number of children born with autism has increased in the past few decades, and this increase will also cause the demand for OTs to grow. Occupational therapists play a large role in schools and homes, assisting families of and children with autism.

The need for OTs will also increase as more military service men and women come back from combat with injuries and trauma. Some will require services to help them walk, use a prosthetic limb, or rebuild muscle and mobility. Others will need OTs to help adjust back to societal expectations in the United States.

As more people gain access to health insurance, the ability to obtain occupational therapy will also improve. More individuals will be able to go to hospitals, clinics, and receive in-home care through using their insurance.

Occupational Therapist Degree

Occupational therapists need to have at least a master’s degree and license to practice. Some will have their doctoral degree.

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree. To earn a master’s degree, a person must first have a bachelor’s degree. There are no specific undergraduate programs for occupational therapy. It is important to have courses in biology, physiology, human development, and education. Programs do exist that allow a person to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree together. These programs typically take 5 years to complete.

Note: It is important to gain work experience through volunteering or working in an occupational therapy setting. Most graduate degrees will prefer a candidate with this history.

Step 2: Earn a master’s degree. Occupational therapists must receive a degree in occupational therapy to practice with patients, clients, or students. In OT programs, students will learn about how to assess a patient’s need and which techniques will work best for that individual. Students will also learn according to their specialization, whether working with the elderly, veterans, students, disabled, or chronically ill. The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy, of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc., provides over 200 accredited programs throughout the U.S.

Step 3: Earn a license. Occupational therapists must be licensed to practice. All states will vary on their specific requirements. Most will require graduates to pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. To sit for this exam, graduates must have at least a master’s degree and have completed 24 weeks of supervised field work.

Step 4: Advance with a doctoral degree and board certification. To maintain the title Occupational Therapist, Registered (OTR), it is required to continue education and renew licensure. A way to do so is to earn a doctoral degree. Typically, a Doctor of Occupational Therapy will be a professor or researcher.

The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. offers many board certifications, which will help an OT specialize in fields such as pediatrics, geriatrics, low vision, and trauma.

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