When you think of occupational therapists, you’ll likely think first of something working with a stroke victim or someone with a disability or in a wheelchair. But there is way more to the field than that. Let’s dive in.
It’s someone who primarily works directly with clients and patients to enable them to participate in life’s everyday activities—to live life to the fullest, if you want to be a little cheesy. This may include physical, behavioral, and cognitive exercises to expand the patient’s abilities, along with finding creative ways to modify the activity or environment to support their capabilities.
As an occupational therapist, your clients could be just about anyone, depending on what you specialize in. Stroke victims and those suffering from other neurological disorders, young children, people who were born with disabilities or who have suffered accidents and are now amputees or in wheelchairs. There are also tons of opportunities to work with companies, organizations, and government agencies and help them better meet the needs of their employees, customers, or citizens.
For occupational therapists, it’s not just about getting people to perform basic functions like walking and using the bathroom. Those are important, but the field takes a fuller view of health and wellness, recognizing that being able to engage in activities you want to do is vital to physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual health. It also looks at how environments impact people’s abilities.
Just about anything you can think of, including:
Occupational therapists are found everywhere: hospitals, outpatient clinics, academia, community agencies, government institutions, nonprofits, rehab centers, nursing homes, senior centers, and military groups.
Okay, before we get into this, the field’s education requirements are shifting and it’s a little messy. You need a graduate degree to get an entry-level job as an occupational therapist. Previously, most people earned either a Master’s (MSOT) or Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD). Either one was fine; the OTD degree takes up to a year longer and would put you in line for more leadership positions, but that was the only major difference.
Now, they are shifting away from the Master’s programs in favor of the doctoral program only. Some schools have already completed this shift and no longer offer the MSOT degree; others are still in the process of phasing it out. Danielle Kessler, who’s finishing her first year in the MSOT program at Washington University in St. Louis, chose the MSOT partly due for financial reasons: “For my financial benefit...I opted to do the master’s,” she said. “I don’t know if my career goals need that. I’m open to getting it [in the future] if needed.”
So take a close look at your top choice schools and figure out what they’re offering and if their programs might change. Talk to someone in the department or admissions office if you have questions.
Most schools do not have any requirements about your undergrad degree, as long as your GPA meets their minimum standard (3.0 for most). “There’s someone in my program who’s a dance major,” Danielle said. If you’re not in a health or science field, you’ll need to complete certain prereqs, which vary for each school but generally include four to six courses in anatomy/physiology, human development, psychology, statistics, etc. “Prepare yourself in every aspect possible. I know this isn’t required for most schools, but taking a medical terminology class [is helpful],” Danielle said. Check the requirements carefully to make sure you’ve taken all the right classes.
Finally, pretty much all schools strongly recommend getting some volunteer, paid work, or observation experience in occupational therapy settings. Some have a minimum number of hours required or want students to log their hours in multiple (different) settings. “Just get as much observation as possible,” Danielle said. “For research, none of the schools I applied to required it; however, in their supplemental applications they do ask if you have done it. I’m sure it would be helpful.”
Most, if not all, schools with accredited programs accept grad school applications through the OTCAS portal. You’ll submit all your application materials here and select which schools to send them to.
Of course, it’s still not easy. Schools still have different application deadlines and some require supplemental materials, like personal statements specifically geared towards their school or program. “Oh my gosh, apply early. I waited until the last minute for some of the deadlines and I wasn’t aware a lot of them had rolling admissions,” Danielle said. “Roughest few months of my life.”
It also may take several weeks for OCTAS to verify your documents before releasing them to schools, and many schools have rolling admissions (they start reviewing applications and notifying students before the application period closes), so the earlier you submit everything, the better.
If you look around at your school, community, office, whatever, you’ll see the work of occupational therapists everywhere. Given the huge range of profession—and the fact that it’s growing quickly, thanks to factors like aging Baby Boomers, returning military service members, and phenomena like rising autism rates—it’s so easy to pair your education and professional training with personal interests.
You can go into academia or become a public policy advocate. You can work with a hyper-specific, specialized population. You can lead studies and innovate new models. You can make a measurable difference on people’s lives in so many ways. If you’re considering occupational therapy, start exploring the field now. It probably won’t take long for you to find a great fit.