Becoming a Licensed Occupational Therapist (OT)

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

Occupational therapists (OTs) consider physical, emotional, and environmental factors that affect participation and performance in daily and otherwise meaningful activities. They help people in a variety of ways, from evaluating and tailoring a program to improve motor skills to recommending coping strategies for patients who have serious mental health challenges. Here, I outline the path to becoming a licensed OT.

Qualities that good occupational therapists have

OT students and practitioners must be able to write coherently and keep track of what occurred during treatment sessions. They must be adaptable and flexible to adjust to changes in patient health and their environment. Being a team player is also a must, as OTs often collaborate with other OTs and health professionals.

OTs must be comfortable assisting patients during intimate and unpredictable physical and emotional moments. For example, OTs often assist patients in bathing, toileting, personal hygiene, and dressing. They also will encounter patients who are emotional and impulsive. Empathy, awareness of patient safety, and respect for patient autonomy are essential in this profession.

General requirements

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) does not require applicants to have a degree in a specific major to pursue a degree in OT. Prerequisites vary based on the program, but commonly required or suggested courses include: anatomy & physiology (preferably with animal or cadaver dissection), general psychology, abnormal psychology, developmental or lifespan psychology, statistics, sociology or anthropology and medical terminology. In addition to academics, many programs also require or recommend patient contact experience, including shadowing and/or volunteer activities that show a commitment to the field. Exceeding requirements rather than simply meeting them and fulfilling the recommendations will make you a far more competitive candidate.

Master’s vs. doctorate

A master’s degree in OT will take 2-2.5 years to complete. The doctorate will require 3 years. The latter degree offers specialty tracks in areas such as gerontology, mental health, and pediatrics while the master’s degree is a generalist program. The doctorate will dive deeper into a community-based research project, advanced concepts, leadership, and will require a capstone project of some kind.

A doctorate is essential for those interested in academia and strongly recommended for managerial positions, such as rehabilitation director for a hospital or wellness center. However, a doctorate is not required for becoming a practicing OT. Also, licensed, master’s-level professionals may apply for a post-professional doctorate later in their careers, balancing their time between work and school to complete that advanced degree.

Finding the right program

The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE®) has a website that lists the 60+ accredited doctoral programs and 150+ accredited master’s programs in the US. The site has separate searches for master’s and doctoral programs. You can search for programs by state, accreditation status and institution type (public, private-non-profit, private-profit). Clicking through to the program’s website will give you access to additional information, such as admissions requirements, the start date, prerequisite and observation requirements, degree and clinical requirements and recent pass rates for licensure.

The ACOTE® website also lists programs that are pre-accredited or seeking accreditation. You may be tempted to apply to a newer program in hopes that it will become accredited before graduation, but as with DPT programs, it is always safer to consider established programs.

Once you are ready to start the application process, you will go to the Occupational Therapy Centralized Application Service. All your applications can be completed through this portal.

Requirements for licensure

Graduates of master’s or doctoral programs may apply for licensure after completing their OT degrees. Students graduating from ACOTE®-accredited programs are eligible to take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) certification exam and apply for licensure in all US states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

Once you’ve graduated and have your license, hop back on the AOTA career site to find an OT job in your setting and region of choice.

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