An occupational therapist is someone who cares for those who struggle to care for themselves, including tasks like cooking, transportation and companionship. The job requires plenty of empathy and compassion and is a calling for many people.
If you feel that occupational therapy might be a career you want to pursue, it makes sense to investigate the steps to getting there and learning as much about the profession as possible. This guide should help you decide if getting started is your next big step.
Earn Your Associate’s Degree
The first step you’ll take in the journey to becoming an occupational therapist is to earn your associate’s degree. While you may need to pursue an advanced degree at some point, an associate’s degree allows you to get started as an occupational therapy assistant while you pursue your higher education. You’ll take courses in biology, pediatrics, anatomy, physiology, geriatrics and physical health theory. These will prepare you for the work you’ll eventually be doing.
Sit for the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Exam
Once you complete your degree, you’ll need to take the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) exam. The test consists of 200 multiple choice questions and a passing grade must be obtained to earn your certificate. Once you pass the exam, you’ll get your certificate and a card for your wallet declaring that you are certified to be an occupational therapy assistant.
Find a Job and Gain Experience
Provided you have passed the COTA exam, you can now begin applying for jobs as an occupational therapy assistant. At this point, you can also go ahead and apply for your Master’s degree. However, many people find that gaining some work experience in the field before pursuing a higher degree helps. The choice is yours, but spend some time weighing the pros and cons of each path so that you can choose the one that works best for you and the career goals you have.
Get Your Master’s Degree
To be an occupational therapist, you’ll need to have a Master’s degree. Some students get a Bachelor’s degree in biology or a similar field first, then go for their Master’s degree. Others choose to do a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degree program, which allows you to take undergraduate and graduate courses at the same time, earning both degrees at once. Part of your coursework will be spent in the field under the supervision of an occupational therapist. The path you choose depends on the time you have to commit to schoolwork and the end result you’re hoping for when you earn your degree.
Take the Occupational Therapy Registered Exam
After completing your Master’s degree, you’ll need to pass the Occupational Therapy Registered (OTR) exam. You cannot become licensed without passing this test, which consists of 170 multiple choice questions and three clinical simulation problems. The exam ensures that you are able to determine a client’s needs, choose the proper therapies for those needs, manage services and understand each client’s occupational abilities and barriers. In addition, you’ll need to submit your transcripts and have a character review done. Once you pass the test, you’ll receive your hard copy certificate for display, as well as your wallet card.
Get Your State License
You will need to be licensed in the state where you’ll be working and practicing. The requirements for being licensed vary by state, but usually require a license from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, your academic transcripts and a passing background check. There are typically fees that you’ll have to pay to become licensed and you may also need to have your fingerprints on file and pay for a temporary license while you wait for the real thing. In addition, you’ll have to complete continuing education credits to keep your license valid and up to date and to stay on top of the latest innovations and trends in occupational therapy.
Many occupational therapists go on to get doctorate degrees so they can specialize in certain aspects of occupational therapy, such as working with pediatric patients, those with autism, clients with brain injuries or those with mental health challenges. There are many programs available to help you get started and financial aid may be available for those who qualify. If you’re looking for a rewarding career path and enjoy helping others, occupational therapy may be just what you’re looking for.
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