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How to Become an Occupational Therapist

From accidents to injuries, disease to old age, there are many people on the road to physical recovery. Clinics, hospitals, and assisted living centers need knowledgeable experts to help these people down this path with knowledge and compassion.

Occupational therapists are specialists that help those in need of recovery. They assist these patients by evaluating their condition, reviewing their medical history, and then tailoring a physical therapy plan involving exercise, muscle memory, and sensory training to help them regain lost abilities. This physical and cognitive therapy helps transition these patients back into regular life.

In order to become an occupational therapist, one must get and maintain a license. Most states require substantial educational requirements as well. Further, these specialists are expected to possess a great degree of patience, empathy, and compassion.

Sample job description

We are looking for an occupational therapist to join our team at [Your Company Name]. The occupational therapist will be in charge of consulting with patients and assisting patients in the recovery of normal conditions. As an occupational therapist, you must have a beyond excellent communication ability as well as the ability to empathize and be understanding with difficult patients. You will be in charge of developing a treatment plan for your patients, setting goals and deadlines, and assisting the patient to reach these deadlines to the best of your ability. You must also be able to competently demonstrate exercises and therapy in order to educate a patient on the best method to follow their schedules and tasks. You may also need to occasionally recommend equipment that can assist the patient in daily activities as well as special diets and exercises the patient may find useful. If you are interested in joining our team and becoming an occupational therapist, please apply. Relevant certifications will be required.

Typical duties and responsibilities

  • Evaluate a patient’s condition and needs
  • Develop treatment plans, goals, and activities
  • Help patients with daily tasks such as getting dressed and making meals
  • Teach exercises that relieve pain and increase mobility
  • Evaluate a client’s home and workspace and suggest improvements
  • Advise patient’s family and employer about needs and care
  • Recommend helpful devices and equipment and teach a client how to use them
  • Monitor progress and adjust treatment as needed

Education and experience

Occupational therapists need a master’s degree from an accredited program. This coursework includes supervised clinical experience and usually takes two to three years to complete. All states require occupational therapists to pass an exam and be licensed. Some students decide to specialize in a particular field or earn a doctoral degree, although that is not required.

Required skills and qualifications

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Compassion, empathy, and a desire to help people
  • Strong analytical and observational skills
  • Flexibility and creativity to develop individualized treatment plans
  • Patience in working with people who may be frustrated or upset
  • Time-management skills
  • Keen attention to detail

Preferred qualifications

  • Master’s degree in occupational therapy
  • Experience working with young children
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Patience

Typical work environment

Occupational therapists will often work in healthcare clinics. An occupational therapist will be in charge of assisting injured, sick, or disabled patients with their daily activities as well as recovery in these categories. An occupational therapist will be in charge of assisting these patients to recover and deal with their illness or disability in order to regain a functioning daily routine. An occupational therapist will be required to develop a treatment plan for patients in order to assist those patients in full recovery by creating deadlines and daily routines to further that goal. Occupational therapists will likely work full-time or on a client-to-client basis, assisting the office when needed as well.

Typical hours

Occupational therapists work a variety of schedules, including nights and weekends, to accommodate the needs of patients. They also frequently travel from one place to another and might work in an office setting or a client’s home.

Available certifications

An occupational therapist may find use in a multitude of different certifications that allow the therapist to specialize in different aspects of occupational therapy. Because there is a large amount, the specific certifications an occupational therapist may look to acquire can vary greatly. Some of the more common certifications are: 

  • Assistive Technology Professional. Becoming a certified assistive technology professional will allow an occupational therapist to better consult and educate patients on assistive technology such as walkers or wheelchairs. This certification can be immensely useful for any occupational therapist and should be considered as a potential certification when going into occupational therapy as a career.
  • Board Certification in Mental Health. Having a board certification in mental health as an occupational therapist will assist the therapist in counseling patients on their mental stability and health. This certification can improve the care an occupational therapist may provide to clients and patients, and can be immensely beneficial due to this.
  • Certified Autism Specialist (CAS). Becoming a certified autism specialist can be beneficial to an occupational therapist when providing frequent care for a patient on the spectrum. This certification can provide and assist the therapist with a proper understanding of care and expertise in specific care for these patients.

Career path

The first step to becoming an occupational therapist is to earn a high school diploma or its equivalent. A bachelor’s degree is required, with classes in biology and physiology. Candidates then need to earn a master’s degree in occupational therapy from a program accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association. These programs typically last two or three years and include hands-on work in the field. Graduates are required to pass an exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. They also must be licensed and complete continuing education on the latest developments in the field. 

US, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job outlook

SOC Code: 29-1122

2020 Employment131,600
Projected Employment in 2030154,600
Projected 2020-2030 Percentage Shift 17% increase
Projected 2020-2030 Numeric Shift23,000 increase

Aging baby boomers who want to remain active will increase the demand for occupational therapists. Seniors who have suffered a stroke or are struggling with arthritis, for example, would benefit from occupational therapy. People with disabilities or chronic conditions, and children with autism are prime candidates for occupational therapy.

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, occupational therapist consistently ranks among the top jobs and is also a recession-proof career.