What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Occupational Therapist?

good majors for occupational therapy

You might think that the only career paths that embrace your creative skills are in areas of the arts. It may surprise you to learn that occupational therapy is a highly creative occupation. While you might not paint, sculpt, or draw, you can use your creative talents and resourcefulness to help injured or disabled patients of various ages and physical conditions.  You help them develop or relearn skills they need for day-to-day life and independence. Your creativity and hard work can make a direct impact on the life of every patient you help.

A Graduate Degree

Occupational therapists must earn an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree. Of course, students can’t begin their graduate or doctoral studies without first earning an undergraduate degree. No specific bachelor’s degree is required. But master’s degree programs in occupational therapy typically look for students who have a strong foundation of biology and physiology courses. It also helps if you have work or volunteer experience in occupational therapy. Popular choices of study for bachelor’s degrees among occupational therapy graduate students include:

  • anatomy
  • anthropology
  • biology
  • kinesiology
  • liberal arts
  • psychology
  • sociology

This is according to The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA).

Occupational therapy graduate programs are highly competitive. You will need to keep your grades high. A cumulative GPA of 3.5 or better will improve your odds of acceptance into top-ranked programs. Also, having work or volunteer experience may benefit your application. Undergraduate research opportunities or volunteering with a local nursing home or life care facility can help showcase your experience. It will definitely show your desire to work as an occupational therapist.

Once you complete your undergraduate work, you may set out to earn a graduate degree. You can pursue a:

  • Master of Arts in Occupational Therapy
  • Master of Science in Occupational Therapy
  • Master of Occupational Therapy degree

Once you have your master’s you will be qualified for entry-level occupational therapist positions.

The most important thing for you to consider when choosing a graduate program is accreditation. The AOTA’s Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education accredits nearly 150 degree programs –  mostly master’s programs – across the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Over two to three years of full-time study, master’s degree programs will cover subjects such as:

  • mental health
  • physical rehabilitation
  • the theory & practice of occupational therapy

You will also complete a minimum of 24 weeks of fieldwork experience.

Some schools offer dual degree programs that combine a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Dual degree programs often cut a year off the completion time for both degrees. A bachelor’s degree takes about four years to complete and a master’s degree takes two. Dual degree programs might allow you to earn both your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a total of five years.

Doctoral degrees in occupational therapy also exist. These programs prepare students to be leaders and experts in the field of occupational therapy. Master’s and doctoral degree programs require at least 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork. However, in doctoral programs, an additional 16-week capstone experience is required. Doctoral programs are ideal for individuals who want to teach at the college level. In fact, occupational programs at four-year institutions typically only hire faculty with a Ph.D. As with other graduate occupational therapy programs, doctoral programs are highly competitive.

Best Degree Path to Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Requirements Beyond Education

Having the right education is an important step toward embarking on a career in occupational therapy, but it’s not the whole journey. Graduates of these programs must also earn a state license before they can earn official recognition as “Occupational Therapist Registered.” In addition to a master’s degree from an accredited school and clinical experience, candidates must earn a passing score on the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapists’ examination. Since all states require occupational therapists to be licensed, therapists must pass the NBCOT exam. To sit for the NBCOT examination, candidates must earn a degree from an accredited educational program and complete all field requirements.

There are also a number of board and specialty certifications available to occupational therapists. These certifications are offered by the American Occupational Therapy Association. They are designed for therapists who want to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in areas of practice like mental health or pediatrics.

Qualities Needed for Occupational Therapy Jobs

In addition to education and licensing, there are important qualities an occupational therapist should have to be able to successfully work in the field. While these qualities are not required, they might help a new therapist succeed.

Compassion – Having compassion when working with patients brings comfort to the individual receiving treatment. A compassionate occupational therapist is sensitive to the needs of the patient while assisting them with personal activities to improve their quality of life. Since occupational therapists are often drawn to the career by a desire to help others, compassion is often a trait they already possess.

Flexibility and adaptability – Occupational therapists must be able to roll with the punches. They are flexible and adaptable when it comes to patient care. Therapists are creative when developing treatment plans, as every patient has unique challenges that must be addressed. An occupational therapist must design and develop treatment plans that best suit a patient’s needs and goals.

Interpersonal skills – Possessing strong interpersonal skills helps occupational therapists convey treatment plans and information to patients. An occupational therapist must communicate effectively, be an attentive listener, and pay close attention to details. Strong interpersonal skills help therapists earn trust and respect from their patients and others.

Patience – One of the most important qualities of a good occupational therapist is patience. When facing challenges that impact the ability to move and carry out personal activities, individuals often become impatient. When patients have a supportive therapist who understands these challenges, they are able to deal with disabilities and injuries better. Occupational therapists should possess patience in order to deliver quality care. They should be attentive to the needs of their patients and never get frustrated if a task takes longer than expected.

Strong communication skills – The role of an occupational therapist requires effective communication skills. Occupational therapists must listen attentively and explain effectively how to address treatments. Being able to offer clear direction, and even clearer expectations, helps patients know exactly what to do. An important aspect of the job of an occupational therapist is to explain the treatment plan for a patient. They must also communicate the progress being made. Occupational therapists should be able to listen to complaints and address them in an effective and compassionate manner.

Best Degree Path to Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Earnings Potential for Occupational Therapists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for occupational therapists is approximately $86,000. A median wage is described as the wage that half of the workers in an occupation earned more than and half earned less than. According to BLS, the lowest 10% of those in this role earned about $57,300, and the highest 10% of earners made over $122,600.

Five industries top the list of high-payers, according to BLS. In these industries, occupational therapists earned higher wages than those working in other industries. Top-paying industries are as follows:

Nursing care and skilled nursing facilities: $92,260
Home healthcare services: $91,830
Local, private, and state hospitals: $86,910
Audiologist offices, occupational and speech therapy offices: $86,830
Elementary and secondary schools (local, private, and state): $76,560

Occupational therapists work full-time and earn full-time wages. Often, specifically for those working in hospitals, extended hours may be required. Occupational therapists in hospitals may work nights and weekends, as needed, to accommodate patient and physician schedules.

Certain factors, such as geographic location, specialized training, and experience, impact earnings. Typically, an individual with higher levels of education, training, and experience earns better wages than someone working in an entry-level position. However, geographic locations can also impact earnings for separate individuals working in the same role and industry.

Top-paying areas for occupational therapists include:

  • Nevada
  • California
  • Arizona
  • New Jersey
  • the District of Columbia

According to recent data published by BLS, Nevada occupational therapists earned an annual mean wage of $111,270. Annual wages were calculated by multiplying the hourly mean wage by a year-round figure and full-time hours figure of 2,080 hours.

The second highest-paying state for occupational therapists was California. Here, occupational therapists earned an annual mean wage of $101,080. Arizona was also reported as a top-paying state for occupational therapists. The state offers an annual mean wage of $99,950. Also in the running were New Jersey ($98,750) and the District of Columbia ($96,330).

Metropolitan areas pay better than nonmetropolitan areas. In The Villages, Florida, an occupational therapist earns an annual mean wage of $115,920, while in the nonmetropolitan area of North Texas, the median annual wage is $108,290. Other top-paying metro areas for occupational therapists include:

  • Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Modesto, California
  • Vallejo, California
  • San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, California

High-paying nonmetro areas, in addition to North Texas, include:

  • Southwestern Virginia
  • Southern Arkansas
  • Eastern Ohio
  • Northeastern Oklahoma

Job Outlook for Occupational Therapists

The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by  BLS reports a favorable job outlook over the next eight years for occupational therapists. In fact, BLS states that employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow 16 percent, much faster than the average for all other occupations. So, why the favorable job growth?

The need for occupational therapists comes from an aging baby-boom population. The generation is aging and individuals live a longer, healthier, and more active life. Occupational therapists will be needed to help senior citizens maintain their independence. While working with senior citizens, occupational therapists will help strategize how to implement home modifications that will make daily activities easier and more efficient.

Occupational therapists will also be needed to provide treatment plans for individuals suffering with various illnesses and disabilities such as:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • autism
  • cerebral palsy
  • limb loss due to diabetes
  • other diseases or injuries

Occupational therapists will especially be needed in:

  • long-term care facilities
  • nursing homes
  • residential care environments

Therapists also play an active role in the treatment of individuals after a stroke, or faced with the challenges of arthritis. Occupational therapists help design treatment plans for many conditions associated with aging.

Best Degree Path to Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Job Prospects for Occupational Therapists

With a favorable job outlook, job prospects over the next several years should be promising for licensed occupational therapists. Those seeing the best job prospects work in settings such as:

  • acute hospitals
  • orthopedic centers
  • rehabilitation facilities where elderly patients are treated.

Demand will also rise for occupational therapy services in schools. In educational settings, occupational therapists will be needed to work with students facing challenges associated with autism spectrum disorder. The role of an occupational therapist in treating autism is to help their patients improve social skills and accomplish routine and daily tasks.

Occupational therapists with specialized training and skills should see the best job prospects. These therapists will bring valuable, specialized skills into various workplaces, including:

  • hospitals
  • rehab centers
  • schools

Final Thoughts on the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Occupational Therapist

With an excellent job outlook and competitive wages, occupational therapy promises to be a solid career in the future. Occupational therapists work with various populations and become fully engaged in their patients’ daily lives.

If you enjoy working closely with people and helping to improve their daily routines and activities, a career as an occupational therapist might be a good fit. The occupation requires an earned master’s degree from an approved and accredited college or university. You won’t necessarily find occupational therapy jobs that accept an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, but for those with a master’s degree, there should be favorable job prospects in the future.

BDP Staff:
May 2021


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This concludes our article on the best degree path to becoming an occupational therapist.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris