Occupational therapy is so broad it sometimes looks like physical therapy and other times like speech therapy. The difference? In OT you work to restore or build a specific life function while the other therapies focus on strengthening isolated skills. It's about the why, not just the how. You can break into the field as an aide, an occupational therapy assistant or an occupational therapist. Each role has its requirements and responsibilities. Whichever you choose, be sure to bring loads of compassion, the drive to help others and a penchant for math and human sciences.
Occupational Therapy Aide
You don't need a specialized education to start work as an occupational therapy aide, and it's a good way to learn more about OT before dedicating years of study to become a practitioner. Aides are not licensed to administer therapy. They do work to support for therapy assistants and therapists by setting up for sessions, preparing and cleaning equipment and doing administrative work such as record keeping and checking patients in and out of appointments. Some vocational schools offer occupational therapy aide programs with classes on body systems, adaptive equipment and medical terminology, but the American Occupational Therapy Association warns that these programs are not accredited.
Occupational Therapy Assistant
The quickest route to working directly with patients is to become an occupational therapy assistant. Get ready for two intense years of science classes and practicums with a little liberal arts mixed in. Think human anatomy and physiology, psychology, mental health theory, occupational therapy functions, pediatric and geriatric theory, administration and management. More than 200 community colleges award two-year occupational therapy assistant degrees. Competition for spots in top-ranked programs is tough. Students spend most of the second year in clinical rotations.
The road to becoming an occupational therapist is longer, but it is paved with the same courses OTAs take plus additional classes to prepare you for evaluating, diagnosing and writing treatments plans. Occupational therapists need at least a master's degree, but most new graduates come into the field with doctorates. Many current master's level OTs continue their education, even after years of practice, to complete their doctorates. Admission to these programs is competitive. Concentrate on science as an undergraduate. Think human anatomy and physiology, kinesiology or biomechanics, psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, expository writing and statistics.
Occupational Therapy Assistant to Occupational Therapist Bridge Programs
You can make the move from occupational therapy assistant to occupational therapist through bridge programs designed for working professionals. The American Occupational Therapy Association has a full list of list programs that let students earn undergraduate and graduate degrees simultaneously in under four years by taking night and weekend classes while continuing to work. Expect a combination of online, classroom and fieldwork.
Job Outlook and Pay
"U.S. News & World Report" ranked occupational therapist among the 10 best professions in 2012. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth in the number of jobs for OTs, 33 percent, is expected to be slightly lower than that of OTAs at 41 percent, from 2010 to 2020. Both outpace average growth in all professions. OTs had a median wage of $70,790 in 2010, while the median for OTAs was $51,100. The top 10 percent of earners in each field made more $102,520 and $72,320 respectively.
Based in Portland, Ore., Holly Goodman began writing professionally in 1991. Her articles have appeared in "The Oregonian," "Dog Fancy," "High Times," First Wives World and on YouTango.com, among other publications. Her fiction has appeared in "The Journal" and at Literary Mama. Goodman has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from The Ohio State University.