Careers in Occupational Therapy

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 illness. If you want to have a career in occupational therapy, you have three options from which to choose. You can be an occupational therapist (OT), occupational therapy assistant (OTA) or occupational therapy aide. Each of these has differing educational and licensing requirements, as well as distinct duties and salaries.

If you want to help individuals live more independent lives, one of these occupations could be a good fit for you. Take a look at these descriptions and decide if you might enjoy a career in this field.

Occupational Therapist

The occupational therapist has the greatest responsibilities of all the people on the OT team. After evaluating a patient to determine his or her deficits and needs, an OT sets goals and develops a treatment plan. He or she 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 certain equipment be used in the workplace to help an individual perform his or her job.

A job with this level of responsibility requires the highest level of education of all three occupational therapy careers.  If you think you can handle this role, you must decide if you are willing to complete a Master's or Doctorate Degree in Occupational Therapy.

Before you can 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. Additionally, you may have to volunteer in an OT setting before you begin your master's or doctoral degree.

After you graduate, you will have to pass an exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).

Your preparation and hard work will be rewarded with a median annual salary of $80,150 (as of 2015). Occupational therapy assistants earn a little more than two-thirds of that salary, and OT aides' compensation is only one-third of it.

Occupational Therapy Assistant

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

You will need to earn an associate degree from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program at a community college or technical school. It will take two years to complete this program. 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.

The median annual salary for occupational therapy assistants was $57,870 in 2015.

This well-paying career is on the list of the top 20 highest paying occupations that require only an associate degree.

Occupational Therapy Aide

An occupational therapy aide sets up treatment rooms and prepares equipment and materials. He or she helps patients get to and from those rooms. An OT Aide also performs clerical duties such as answering the telephone and setting up appointments.

If you want to work in the OT field but don't want to or can't pursue a formal education, this career may be suitable for you. All you need is a high school or equivalency diploma and on-the-job training. Limited responsibilities and requirements mean a lower salary. Occupational therapy aides earned a median salary of $27,800 in 2015.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online.

Comparing Careers in Occupational Therapy
 EducationLicenseMedian Salary
Occupational TherapistMaster's or Doctorate DegreeRequired in all states$80,150
Occupational Therapist AssistantAssociate DegreeNational certification in most states$57,870
Occupational Therapist AideHS Diploma and On-the-Job TrainingNone$27,800