Careers in Occupational Therapy

Who Is On the OT Team?

Occupational therapist with a patient
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Occupational therapy involves the rehabilitation of patients who have lost their ability to perform activities of daily living or work due to physical or mental illnesses. There are at least three people on an OT team: an occupational therapist (OT), an occupational therapy assistant (OTA), and an occupational therapy aide. Each of them had to fulfill different educational and licensing requirements and are responsible for carrying out specific job duties. Salaries differ as well. Compare these three occupational therapy careers to see if one is right for you.

Occupational Therapist

The occupational therapist leads the OT team and has the most significant responsibilities of all the people on it. After evaluating a patient to determine his or her deficits and needs, the therapist sets goals and develops a treatment plan. He or she also identifies ways to improve a patient's environment. For example, an OT may recommend doorways be widened in a patient's home to accommodate a wheelchair or may suggest equipment to use in the workplace that will help an individual perform his or her job.

This high level of responsibility requires the most education of all three occupational therapy careers.  To become an OT, one needs a Master's or Doctorate Degree in Occupational Therapy from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)  (Master's Degree Programs; Doctoral Programs).

To be admitted to a graduate program, you will have to earn a bachelor's degree that includes courses in biology and physiology. Plan to spend four years in college and then two to three years in graduate school. Many programs require work experience which can be fulfilled by working or volunteering in an OT setting. After graduation, you will have to pass an exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).

Median Annual Salary (2017): $83,200

Median Hourly Wages (2017): $40

Number of People Employed (2016): 130,400

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 24 percent (much faster than the average for all occupations)

Projected Job Openings (2016-2026): 31,000

Occupational Therapy Assistant

Becoming an occupational therapy assistant is a great option for someone who doesn't want to spend at least six years on post-secondary education or isn't sure this is the right choice at the moment. OTA is the second fastest growing of all professions that require only an associate degree, and it is one of the top 20 highest paying of those careers. 

An occupational therapy assistant's job duties come with less responsibility than an occupational therapist's but more than that of an occupational therapy aide. Working under an OT's supervision, he or she makes sure patients are correctly performing activities specified in their treatment plans and, depending on whether state law permits him or her to do so, helps the OT develop those plans.

You will need an associate degree from an occupational therapy assistant program at a community college or technical school program. It must be accredited by ACOTE. Find a list of them on the American Occupational Therapy Association website

It will take two years to complete your education. Your preparation will include clinical fieldwork. After you graduate, you will have to pass an exam administered by the NBCOT if you plan to practice in a state that requires OTAs to be licensed. Most do.

Median Annual Salary (2017): $59,310

Median Hourly Wages (2017): $28.51

Number of People Employed (2016): 39,300

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 29 percent (much faster than the average for all occupations)

Projected Job Openings (2016-2026): 11,400

Occupational Therapy Aide

Although an OT aide has the fewest educational requirements and receives the lowest salary of the OT team, his or her contribution is essential. An occupational therapy aide sets up treatment rooms and prepares equipment and materials. He or she helps patients get to and from those rooms and may also perform clerical duties such as answering the telephone and setting up appointments.

To get a job, you will need a high school or equivalency diploma.  Employers provide on-the-job training. Working in this job is a great way to learn about the field before investing in the education required to become an occupational therapy assistant or even an occupational therapist.

Median Annual Salary (2017): $29,200

Median Hourly Wages (2017): $14.04

Number of People Employed (2016): 7,500

Projected Job Growth (2016-2026): 25 percent (much faster than the average for all occupations)

Projected Job Openings (2016-2026): 1,800

Comparing Careers in Occupational Therapy
Education License Median Annual Salary Median Hourly Salary
Occupational Therapist Master's or Doctorate Degree Required in all states $83,200 $40
Occupational Therapist Assistant Associate Degree National certification in most states $59,310 $28.51
Occupational Therapist Aide HS Diploma and On-the-Job Training None $29,200 $14.04

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited December 13, 2018).