How to Become an Occupational Therapist

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published February 4, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Occupational therapists provide valuable services for those who are recovering from and injury, accident or illness. Becoming an occupational therapist requires special education and credentialing to learn the techniques and skills for the role. Learning about how to become an occupational therapist can help you determine if it's the right career path for you. In this article, we'll explain the duties of the role and how to become an occupational therapist.

Read more: What is Occupational Therapy?

What do occupational therapists do?

Occupational therapists work with patients who have injuries, disabilities or illnesses by helping them perform a structured set of physical activities. The goal of an occupational therapist is to help patients maintain a healthy lifestyle, and in doing so, improve their livelihood. OTs can help patients fully recover from an injury or illness or help them adjust their movements to accommodate a better lifestyle. This profession requires a degree of physical strength to assist patients during their exercises.

Duties of an OT could include:

  • Meet with patients to discuss symptoms and challenges.

  • Review medical records to get a detailed description of issues affecting patients.

  • Hold therapy sessions with patients in a clinic, hospital or patients' homes.

  • Create treatment plans for patients to complete at home.

  • Evaluate progress and adjust plans as needed.

  • Take notes and relay information to other medical professionals.

Related: Learn About Being an Occupational Therapist Assistant

How to become an occupational therapist

In order to become an occupational therapist, you will need to complete a high level of education in addition to gaining field experience. There are several ways to gain the education required and licensure needed to start out in the industry, but if you want to complete your education within six to eight years, there is a recommended path for you to take:

  1. Obtain a bachelor's degree

  2. Earn a master's degree

  3. Pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists exam

  4. Acquire an occupational therapy license

  5. Choose a specialty and acquire specialty certifications

  6. Create a resume

  7. Research job options

1. Obtain a bachelor's degree

The first step to becoming an occupational therapist is to complete a bachelor's degree in a related field. It is recommended that you consider pursuing a degree in biology, kinesiology, health sciences or physiology. These four areas of study can enhance your knowledge of anatomy and how the body functions. While you are pursuing your bachelor's degree you can gain additional experience outside of the classroom.

You can seek field experience while you complete your bachelor's degree program, interning with private practices and observing an occupational therapist's daily job requirements. If possible, you can work or volunteer for an occupational therapy clinic or the OT unit of a hospital. Your work experience could potentially help you when applying for a master's degree program by demonstrating your passion for the industry. It can also help you gain hands-on practice with experienced professionals.

2. Earn a master's degree

After earning your bachelor's degree, you can apply for master's programs in occupational therapy. Occupational therapy master's programs can last two to three years. Find a program that's approved by the American Occupational Therapy Association to ensure you can become a registered occupational therapist once your graduate. These programs build on your basic knowledge of industry terminology and fields such as anatomy and physiology while applying them to occupational therapy practices.

While completing your master's degree, you'll gain clinical experience by traveling to different medical facilities and shadowing licensed OTs. In the final semesters of your program, you begin to perform basic OT processes under the supervision of an experienced professional.

3. Pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists exam

Upon completing your formal education requirements, you will need to pass the NBCOT Occupational Therapist Registered exam to become a certified occupational therapist. This is a 4-hour exam that you'll need to sit for at a designated testing site. You can apply for the exam on the NBCOT website and find your appropriate exam location. If you pass the exam, you will receive the OTR certification and are now eligible to apply for your state license. Your OTR certification will be valid for three years. If you fail the exam, the wait time to retake it is 45 days.

4. Acquire an occupational therapy license

All occupational therapists need to apply for a state license once they earn their Occupational Therapist Registered certification. Your educational background and test score will be a factor in receiving a license. It is important to note that each state has its own additional requirements for you to complete before you become a licensed occupational therapist. Upon gaining your state license, you will be responsible for adhering to your state's guidelines on how to maintain it, including completing continuing education.

5. Choose a specialty and acquire specialty certifications

Although it is not a requirement, there are nine areas within occupational therapy that you can specialize in by acquiring relevant certifications. You can hone in your expertise in the following areas:

  • Aging-patient-related issues

  • Mental disabilities

  • Pediatric care

  • Patient motor skills

  • Patient independence outside the home

  • Patient access to useful home equipment

  • Patient ability to eat and swallow food

  • Impaired-vision rehabilitation

  • In-school care

Each specialization will require you to pass an exam in order to receive a certification. Certifications can help expand job opportunities available to you and increase your earning potential.

6. Create a resume

Once you are officially a licensed occupational therapist in your state and you have completed addition certifications in your specialty, you can begin looking for job opportunities. Before you start your job search, you will need to make sure that you have an updated resume. Include your relevant education, professional experiences, certifications and your skill set. It is important to remember that your resume is a template that you can alter to fit specific job descriptions.

Related: Occupational Therapist Resume Samples

7. Research job options

Deciding which job setting will work best for you is an important process to consider once you have become a licensed occupational therapist. You may want to specialize in occupational therapy with a specific group or disability. Additionally, occupational therapists are needed in hospitals, private practices, occupational therapy offices and retirement homes. You might also be required to make in-home visits to patients. You can gain additional work experience in one or more of these environments or open your own practice.

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