Occupational Therapists


Education and Training Requirements

High School

Since you will need to get a college degree, taking college preparatory classes in high school is a must. Courses such as biology, chemistry, and health will expose you to the science fields. Other courses, such as art and social sciences, will help give you an understanding of other aspects of your future work. Also important is a strong background in English. Remember, occupational therapy is a career oriented toward helping people. To be able to work with many different people with different needs, you will need excellent communication skills. Also keep in mind that college admission officers will look favorably at any experience you have had working in the health care field, either in volunteer or paid positions.

Postsecondary Training

To become an occupational therapist, you will need to complete an accredited program in occupational therapy. Accreditation is granted by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), which is a part of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). As of 2020, ACOTE accredited nearly 600 master's degree programs or combined bachelor's/master's degree programs. Anyone wishing to receive the professional credential, occupational therapist, registered (OTR), from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) must have completed at least a master's degree in the field.

As an undergraduate, you will need to take courses emphasizing biological and behavioral sciences. Your studies should include classes on anatomy, physiology, neurology, psychology, human growth and development, and sociology. Clinical subjects cover general medical and surgical conditions and interpretation of the principles and practice of occupational therapy in pediatrics, psychiatry, orthopedics, general medicine, and surgery. Many bachelor's degree programs require students to fulfill two years of general study before specializing in occupational therapy during the last two years. Graduate-level programs cover many of the same subject areas but in greater depth. In addition, emphasis is put on research and critical thinking. Management and administration are also areas covered more thoroughly in graduate programs.

In addition to classroom work, you must complete fieldwork requirements. According to the AOTA, students need to complete the equivalent of 24 weeks of supervised experience working with clients. This may be done on a full-time basis or a part-time (but not less than half-time) schedule. This training must be completed in order to qualify for professional certification.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

All states and the District of Columbia regulate the practice of occupational therapy through certification and licensing. National certification is granted by the NBCOT. In order to take the NBCOT exam, you must graduate from an accredited program and complete the clinical practice period. Those who pass this written test are given the designation Occupational Therapist, Registered, and may use the initials OTR after their names. Initial certification is good for three years and must be renewed every three years after that. Many hospitals and other employers require that their occupational therapists have the OTR designation. In addition, the NBCOT offers several specialty certifications, such as board certified in pediatrics. To receive a specialty certification, you must fulfill education and experience requirements as well as pass an exam.

License requirements generally include graduation from an accredited program, passing the NBCOT certification exam, payment of license fees, and, in some cases, passing an exam covering state statutes and regulations. License renewal requirements vary by state.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

The well-rounded occupational therapist (OT) must be able to plan, organize, and conduct OT programs in a variety of settings to help rehabilitate those impaired because of illness, injury, or psychological or developmental problems. This involves testing patients' abilities to determine rehabilitation goals, selecting activities that will help patients learn the skills they are capable of, and evaluating each patient's progress in learning those skills, as well as training caregivers to be able to provide for the needs of the patient during and after therapy, among many other interventions. These actions by the OT require basic skills in listening, critical thinking, social perceptiveness, time management, and active learning, among other skills, so that the patient's progress may continue. The challenges of the patient-OT relationship require that the OT be empathetic, flexible, cooperative, and creative in approaching his or her work with the patient.

In order to succeed as an occupational therapist, you should enjoy working with people. You should have a patient, calm, and compassionate temperament and have the ability to encourage and inspire your clients. Like your clients, you may encounter frustrating situations as a therapist. For example, it can be difficult and stressful when a client does not respond to treatment as you had hoped. In such situations, occupational therapists need to be persistent, not giving up on the client. Imagination and creativity are also important at such times, because you may need to think of new ways to address the client's problem and create new methods or tools for the client to use.