occupational therapist

How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Get a Bachelor’s Degree
Find a Master’s Degree Program
Obtain a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy
Pass the NBCOT Occupational Therapist Exam
Apply for an Occupational Therapist License
Check State Specific Requirements
Common Occupational Therapist Career Questions


If you’ve ever had any interest in the field of occupational therapy, it may be helpful to know the most effective academic route to achieve that goal. This article is intended to help outline what an occupational therapy education looks like and ultimately illustrate how to become an OT.

1. Get a Bachelor’s Degree

Wondering, “How long does it take to become an occupational therapist?” The first step to becoming an occupational therapist is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field. This primary academic step is very important to building the foundational knowledge and skills it takes to become a successful occupational therapist. It’s also a necessary requirement for pursuing further higher education degrees that will allow you to enter the field.

Relevant Bachelor’s Degree Majors

There are several bachelor’s degree options for individuals looking to begin their academic journey toward occupational therapy. The most obvious would be an occupational therapy bachelor’s degree or undergraduate degree in occupational science. These programs are specifically catered toward individuals looking to pursue careers in the general field of OT. Other viable bachelor’s degree options are biology, physical therapy, kinesiology, and health science.

Do you need a bachelor’s degree to become an occupational therapist?

Yes. Earning your bachelor’s degree is the most efficient first move in becoming academically qualified for a career in occupational therapy. A bachelor’s degree is necessary in moving forward to other higher-level degrees needed to break out into the field. The only other option would be to earn an associate’s degree in a relevant field, and then enter into a program that fulfills both bachelor’s and master’s degree qualifications. Either way, a bachelor’s degree must be earned to become a successful, practicing occupational therapist.

2. Find a Master’s Degree Program

After earning your undergraduate degree in a related field, the next step in occupational therapy schooling is to earn a master’s degree. Not only is a master’s degree in occupational therapy a necessary qualification for prospective licensed occupational therapists, it also is extremely helpful in learning more in-depth, specialized information that you need to know as a professional in the field. Master’s coursework will inform the work you do every day, and it will help you earn the certifications necessary to become officially licensed.

What Makes a Good OT Master’s Degree Program?

When exploring different OT graduate programs, it’s important to look for certain institutional characteristics that are particularly effective in an academic setting. A few to look for would be:

  • A wide variety of diverse coursework options
  • Effective mix of practical learning in the field and traditional classroom lecture
  • State-of-the-art facilities
  • Plenty of options for fieldwork opportunities
  • Small class sizes
  • The opportunity for individualized faculty advisement, if needed

3. Obtain a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy

Once you find the program that’s right for you, take advantage of it. Be sure to take the courses required to earn the academic qualification, but always remember to supplement those requirements with classes on OT topics that you have a special interest in. In high quality OT programs, all available courses are designed to make students more dynamic, knowledgeable occupational therapy professionals. Also, if you’re struggling with certain concepts, remember that your professors and other OT program faculty are amazing resources for you. These experts have been there before, and they can help you achieve your academic goals.

When This Became a Requirement

In the past, an occupational therapy degree meant a bachelor’s degree – states used to require prospective practicing OTs to earn only their undergraduate degree. Eventually state governments and private employers realized that these healthcare workers would benefit greatly from more training. By 2007, every state but one mandated that practicing OTs must earn their master’s degree before becoming licensed and beginning to practice.

4. Pass the NBCOT Occupational Therapist Exam

The NBCOT occupational therapist exam is the most common exam required by state law to earn your license to legitimately practice OT. The test is designed to ensure that prospective OTs with sufficient knowledge and the correct schooling become certified, while those who may need more practice do not. This kind of examination is very common across many healthcare positions, and it’s important in guaranteeing that patients get high quality care. Also, it’s important to note that the NBCOT is the most common exam, not the only exam. Certification requirements are based on the state you intend to practice in, so be sure to educate yourself on those requirements.

5. Apply for an Occupational Therapist License

Occupational therapy licenses vary by state, but they all allow individuals with the proper education and certifications to practice OT in their respective states. Some of the statutes and regulations vary slightly, but you’ll find that they all follow similar guidelines.

Check State Specific Requirements

Pennsylvania

GMercyU’s home state has very straightforward, common rules about official licensure. Applicants must achieve a score deemed acceptable by PA’s licensing board on an NBCOT verified exam to earn their license. For more information, take a look at this link.

California

California has very similar licensing laws to PA in that applicants are required to achieve a minimum score on an NBCOT verified exam. That being said, it’s still helpful to look at the board’s website to get a look at their state specific steps, and their background check.

Texas

Again, Texas licensing laws lean heavily on the successful completion of an NBCOT verified examination and subsequent background check. If you’re interested in possibly obtaining an OT license in Texas, or if you’re curious about the ins and outs of their process, take a look at their board’s website.

Florida

Florida’s application process is fairly standard, but they place slightly more influence on fieldwork experience than some other states. Just like every state’s particular regulations, it can be very helpful to take a close look at their website for particular details.

Other States

The most important thing to take away from this section is that it is very important to educate yourself on the rules and regulations of the state you’d like to work in. Most states have common legislature surrounding OT practice, but it’s extremely important for those in the field to know the ins and outs of the laws in their state.

Common Occupational Therapist Career Questions

By now, we’ve answered the question, how long does it take to be an occupational therapist? However, you may still have questions on the role itself. We’ve included some of the most common questions and answers about occupational therapy below.

How Much Do Occupational Therapists Make?

Across all occupational therapists in the US, the median annual wage is $84,270.

Entry Level Salary

The lowest 10% of occupational therapists in regard to salary, which would account entry level OT professionals, earn around $55,490 annually.

Experienced OT Salary

The top 10% of earners in OT, which would account for the most senior professionals in the field, earn around $120,750 per year.

What state pays occupational therapists the most?

According to some of the most recent data, occupational therapists in Nevada earn the highest average annual wage of any other state. The median annual wage for OTs in Nevada is $103,280.

Are occupational therapists in high demand?

Occupational therapists have an exceptionally high job outlook. The average projected growth for all jobs is around 7%, the average projected growth for health practitioner roles is around 13%, and the most recent data for OT job growth comes in at 18%. That should be a very promising statistic for prospective occupational therapists.

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