FAQ: What Degree Does an OT Need? (With Skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published November 9, 2021

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.

Becoming an occupational therapist (OT) can be a rewarding career for those who enjoy working with people in clinical settings. OTs have an important job that involves helping patients achieve their occupational goals through therapeutic interventions. Learning about what professionals in this career do and what it takes to become one can help you decide if becoming an OT is right for you. In this article, we answer some frequently asked questions about occupational therapists, including what degrees OTs need, what their licensing requirements are and what skills they need to excel in their careers.

What is an occupational therapist?

An occupational therapist is a health care professional who helps patients improve their daily functioning and increase their quality of life. They consult with their patients, conduct clinical assessments and develop individualized treatment plans to help their patients meet their occupational goals. Often, OTs work with patients experiencing physical, sensory or cognitive challenges related to injury, illness or a developmental condition. They apply therapeutic practices to help their patients improve their mobility, gain self-care skills, develop learning strategies and better their sensory-integration abilities. When patients make progress toward their clinical goals, it can improve their confidence, mental well-being and independence.

Occupational therapists often specialize in working with a particular age group or clinical population. For example, OTs may become specialists in areas such as:

  • Autism spectrum disorder

  • Assistive technology

  • Diabetes care

  • Traumatic brain injuries

  • Driving and community mobility

  • Environmental adaptation

  • Feeding, eating and swallowing

  • Geriatric care

  • Pediatric care

Depending on their area of specialty and their setting of employment, OTs may apply different assessment tools and therapeutic interventions to help their clients. Specializing allows OTs to focus on providing highly individualized care within a clinical population. For example, since the needs of children often differ from the general adult population, an OT who specialized in pediatrics may have a higher level of expertise when helping child patients than a general practitioner.

Related: FAQ: What Is the Highest-Paying Occupational Therapy Specialty?

What degree does an OT need?

OTs need to earn a master's degree or higher to qualify for their roles. As health care professionals, they need to complete a high level of education to gain the right skills to care for their patients. Before pursuing graduate education, OTs typically earn a bachelor's degree in a relevant field. They may earn their undergraduate degree in biology, psychology, kinesiology or another related area of study. Some schools may offer a pre-occupational therapy program for undergraduate students hoping to become OTs. A typical bachelor's degree takes four years on average to complete.

After earning a bachelor's degree, students apply to a master's degree program in occupational therapy. These programs take two years of full-time study on average to complete, and they typically involve a period of classroom study followed by practical training. Some classes that OT students take include:

  • Foundations in occupational therapy

  • Anatomy and kinesiology

  • Movement, participation and occupational adaptation

  • Mental health and wellness

  • Assistive technologies in OT

  • Occupational performance and evaluation

  • Ethics in health care and occupational therapy

Most programs also require students to complete a clinical rotation or internship. This is a practical training opportunity that allows students in OT to apply the skills they learned in class in a clinical setting. Students gain applied experience in the workplace that prepares them to practice independently.

Related: 8 Best Majors for Occupational Therapists

What do you need to learn to be an occupational therapist?

Occupational therapists need to learn various skills related to human anatomy, physiology, psychology and cognition. Professionals in this field understand how issues like illness and disability can cause challenges in their patients' lives, and they work with their patients to define goals and implement treatments to improve their quality of life. OTs gain knowledge in diverse subject areas, including clinical assessment and treatment, social issues and patient communication. Additionally, OTs often learn how to use specialized equipment as part of their therapeutic interventions.

OTs have similar skills to physical therapists, physicians and mental health therapists, but they focus on helping their patients learn skills related to their daily tasks of living. These include physical skills along with social, emotional and cognitive skills. Since the work of an OT is more integrated than the role of professionals in related fields, they apply a more holistic approach to their practice. For this reason, OTs learn how to evaluate and treat patients with an integrated perspective.

Related: Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: What's the Difference?

What licensure does an OT need?

Occupational therapists need to earn state licensure before they can practice independently. The licensure requirements for OT vary by state, but most require that OTs pass an exam, pay a licensing fee, have a background check and show evidence of completing their education and training requirements. Since licensing requirements differ by state, be sure to research the requirements in the state in which you plan to practice.

What certification does an OT need?

Although most general practitioners don't require additional certification, OTs looking to work in an area of specialty may pursue a certificate program. Certification programs are typically short, taking less than three years on average to complete. They help OTs looking to gain skills for working with particular clinical populations, such as children or the elderly. Pursuing certification can be a great way for OTs to continue their education and advance their careers. Some OTs may also consider becoming board certified. To become board certified, OTs must show they meet a high standard of professional excellence.

Related: 20 Occupational Therapy Specialist Certifications

What are the most important skills for occupational therapists?

Occupational therapists need both hard and soft skills to excel in their careers. Some skills for OTs include:

Communication

OTs spend much of their workday communicating with others. They interact directly with patients and often work with other members of a health care team. Having good communication skills allows them to educate their patients about medical conditions and treatment plans. These skills also help them when listening to patients to understand their needs and concerns.

Empathy

Empathy is an essential quality in health care providers. When OTs show empathy toward their patients, it can help them feel affirmed and supported. Patients who feel supported by their health care provider may feel more comfortable asking questions, expressing concerns and adhering to treatment plans, which can lead to better treatment outcomes.

Attention to detail

OTs need good attention to detail to make accurate assessments and ensure their treatment plans are effective for their patients. Especially when working with patients who may have communication difficulties because of their age or disability, it's important for OTs to pay close attention to potential symptoms. Noticing subtle symptoms or changes in a patient's condition can help OTs identify concerns and respond to them quickly.

Clinical knowledge

Having comprehensive clinical knowledge allows OTs to accurately and effectively perform their work. Clinical knowledge includes knowing common health conditions, assessment and evaluation techniques and therapeutic strategies for treating their patients. In addition to knowing the technicalities of medical care, good clinical skills also include knowing how to work well with patients.

Technological competence

OTs use a variety of technologies in their daily work. For example, they may use assistive technologies or teach patients how to use assistive devices. Additionally, they may manage databases or use patient scheduling software to track appointments and maintain patient records. Some OTs implement other types of technology that allows them to collect data about their patient's health so they can make informed treatment plans and track treatment progress.

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