Careers in Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapist with a patient
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Occupational therapy (OT) involves helping people of all ages build or restore their ability to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities, or occupations.

There are three main types of practitioners in the field: occupational therapist (OT), occupational therapy assistant (OTA), and occupational therapy aide. Job duties, salaries, and educational and licensing requirements differ between the three roles.

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 their needs, the OT sets goals and develops a treatment plan. An OT may also identify ways to improve a patient's environment. For example, they 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 their job.

This high level of responsibility requires the most education of all three occupational therapy careers. To become an OT, you'll need at least a master's degree in occupational therapy from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). 

The American Occupational Therapy Association offers a list of OT master's degree programs accredited by ACOTE on its website.

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

Median Annual Salary: $84,950

Median Hourly Wage: $40.84

Projected Job Growth (2018-2028): 18% (much faster than the 5% average for all occupations)

Occupational Therapy Assistant

Becoming an occupational therapy assistant might be a good option for someone who doesn't want to spend a long time in school or is uncertain about an OT career.

An OTA'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, they makes sure patients are correctly performing activities specified in their treatment plans and, depending on whether state law permits them to do so, helps the OT develop those plans.

To become an OTA, you'll need an associate's degree from an ACOTE-accredited occupational therapy assistant program at a community college or technical school. It'll generally take two years to complete your education, which includes clinical fieldwork. After you graduate, you'll 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).

The American Occupational Therapy Association offers a list of OT associate's degree programs accredited by ACOTE on its website.

Median Annual Salary: $61,510

Median Hourly Wage: $29.57

Projected Job Growth (2018-2028): 33% (much faster than the 5% average for all occupations)

Occupational Therapy Aide

Although an OT aide has the fewest educational requirements and receives the lowest salary of the OT team, their contribution is essential. Working in this job can be a great way to learn about the field before investing in the education required to become an OTA or even an occupational therapist.

An occupational therapy aide sets up treatment rooms and prepares equipment and materials. They 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 the job, you will need a high school or equivalency diploma.  Employers often provide on-the-job training.

Median Annual Salary: $29,230

Median Hourly Wages: $14.05

Projected Job Growth (2018-2028): 19% (much faster than the 5% average for all occupations)

Comparing Careers in Occupational Therapy
  Education License Median Annual Salary Median Hourly Salary
Occupational Therapist Master's or doctorate degree Required in all states $84,950 $40.84
Occupational Therapy Assistant Associate's degree Required in most states $61,510 $29.57
Occupational Therapy Aide HS Diploma and On-the-Job Training None $29,230 $14.05

Article Sources

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  8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant or Aide." Accessed June 7, 2020.

  9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides: Pay." Accessed June 7, 2020.

  10. O-NET Online. "Summary Report for: 31-2011.00 - Occupational Therapy Assistants." Accessed June 7, 2020.

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