I know I’m biased, but I stand by the statement that being an occupational therapy (OT) practitioner is one of the greatest career paths one could choose! I steal part of one of the American Occupational Therapy Association‘s (AOTA) many OT slogans when I say, “I get to live my life to the fullest as an OT by helping others to do the same”. As OTs, we help clients of all ages [not just children in school] be able to complete all the things that occupy their time (“occupations”). We use meaningful and purposeful activities to build skills that support our clients to be able to do all that they want and need to do in their lives. This looks different for everyone. By analyzing activities, truly getting to know and understand the client, and potentially adapting the environment, we seek to find the perfect match between the client and the activity so that the client finds success. Check out this page on AOTA’s website to learn more about what OT is as a profession. With such a wide scope, it’s hard to get bored within the field of OT! The possibilities are endless [for practitioners AND our clients]!
Once you’ve decided that occupational therapy is a the career path for you, I always encourage people to shadow LOTs in practice. Get into a variety of settings if you can! Ask all the questions, and weigh the pros and cons between OT and other career paths. In my experience, the best OT see the field as more than just a job: it’s a passion or a calling. Below is an overview of the next few steps to becoming an occupational therapist. For a full detail on how to become an OT, check out AOTA’s page on the topic.
1) Find a Program
Currently, te entry level degree for occupational therapists (OT) is a master’s degree. Certified occupational therapy assistants (COTAs) can practice with an associate’s degree. There are also entry level doctorate programs for OTs and bachelor level programs for COTAs. For common program formats and admission criteria look here. I was enrolled in 5 year accelerated bachelors-masters program. I obtained a bachelor’s degree in health science and a master’s degree on occupational therapy. However, there are many roads you can take to becoming an occupational therapy practitioner! Find one that works well for you!
2) Complete Fieldwork
If we were to compare this part of the “becoming an OT” process to “becoming a teacher”, fieldwork would be the equivalent to student teaching. After learning theory, concepts, conditions/diagnoses, interventions, etc. in the classroom setting, fieldwork is the time that you get hands on experience in the field under a fieldwork educator. All programs required a combination of Level I and Level II fieldwork experiences. Your college or university will help you to arrange them. For specifics, check out AOTA’s fieldwork page. My advice here is: DO NOT get hung up on where you are placed. Of course, we all have preferences for setting, population and/or location of our fieldwork places. This makes sense because you are going to be there for up to 12 weeks! However, there is something to be learning at ALL fieldwork sites even if they aren’t what you had initially what you thought you’d want.
For example, I requested to NOT have a school-based Level II placement because I had interned for a school-based COTA in high school, and thought I “already knew that setting”. I am SO thankful to have had that experience now! I learned so much invaluable knowledge that has supported me so well at my current job.
3) Pass the Board Exam & Get Licensed
Once you have graduated from your program and completed your fieldworks, you are eligible to sit for the certification exam. Passing this exam is required to apply for a state licensure. There are TONS of resources for board prep out there, so don’t worry! My advice would be to set a study schedule, and commit to it! There is a lot of information that you will need to know. Therefore, a systematic approach to studying is always helpful to make sure you cover all the content. On the day of the exam, relax, trust yourself, and know that it will all be worth it in the end!
And that is just about it! After the above three steps, you will be on your way to being a practicing occupational therapist! Once you’ve secured your first job, check out this blog for tips on being a new school based OT if you want to work in the school system like me! I can’t wait to see how OTs continue to change the world!
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