How to Become an Occupational Therapist

8 Min Read Published October 4, 2023
occupational therapist

Occupational therapists are highly trained allied healthcare professionals who make a real difference in people’s lives. They teach individuals to adapt their abilities to their environments so that they can fully participate in their lives.  

Whether they are working with disabled children, people who are recovering from injury or illness, people with mental health challenges, or elderly clients hoping to maintain their independence, occupational therapists collaborate and partner with individuals to help them achieve their goals, participate in society, and improve their quality of life. 

This guide will explain what working as an occupational therapist involves on a daily basis. It will tell you where occupational therapists work, what it takes to become an occupational therapist, what the average occupational therapist earns, and more.

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What Is an Occupational Therapist? 

Occupational therapists help individuals of all ages to perform the daily activities that they want and need to do through careful evaluation of their client’s abilities and thoughtful application of interventions. 

Occupational therapists frequently work with children with disabilities and with individuals recovering from injuries or illnesses. They also help older adults adjust to life following physical and cognitive aging. 

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What Do Occupational Therapists Do? 

An occupational therapist’s daily activities will vary depending upon the environment in which they work and the patients with whom they work. The patients they serve may be infants or the elderly. They may suffer from disabilities that they were born with, or they may be recovering from an accident or illness. 

Because of the remarkable diversity of conditions and clients they encounter, occupational therapists begin their treatment by evaluating each patient’s abilities and reviewing their medical history. 

After gathering this information, occupational therapists create a treatment plan to help the individual achieve realistic goals of either developing or restoring functional skills.   

They may go beyond life management to help patients develop work-related skills within the range of their physical or cognitive abilities. 

Occupational therapists also work with family members, caregivers, and employers to educate them about accommodations to the individual’s environment and to enhance the quality of their care. They assess and document the patient’s progress and may help to establish and work towards new goals as old ones are achieved.

Occupational therapists typically do the following,

  • Help patient increase mobility
  • Work towards independence for activities of daily living (ADLs), including bathing, toileting, and dressing
  • Educate the patient and family about the overall needs and goals
  • Document findings in health record
  • Collaborate with other healthcare professionals
  • Demonstrate exercises 
  • Evaluate the patient’s home, school, and/or work to make it the most function for the patient
  • Develop and implement goals for the patient
  • Evaluate the overall effectiveness of the treatment plan
  • Help relieve chronic pain or avoid future injury 
  • Provide community-based resources, peer-facilitated groups, and other support options
  • Address obstacles patients may have 
  • Create coping strategies needed

Occupational Therapist Skills 

Successful occupational therapists share certain traits, including being good communicators. It is essential to be able to express yourself clearly and calmly, as well as to listen attentively so that you can fully embrace all of your patients’ concerns and goals. 

Every client will progress at their own pace and respond differently to treatment, so empathy is an important asset, as are patience, flexibility, and humor. 

Perhaps the most important characteristic needed to be an occupational therapist is the ability to think outside of the box. Though many patients face challenges for which the profession has already devised answers, you will also find situations that require innovation and creativity.  

Scope of Practice 

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, occupational therapy services can be provided by occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants, as well as by occupational therapy students under appropriate supervision. Every state in the country, as well as the District of Columbia, requires occupational therapists to be licensed. 

The domain of occupational therapy includes everyday life occupations that people find meaningful and purposeful and that allow them to participate in everyday life occupations, while the process refers to the delivery of occupational therapy services, including evaluation, intervention, and setting goals. The practice is considered both client-centered and collaborative.  

Work Environment   

Occupational therapists provide their services in a variety of environments and settings, including,

  • Hospitals
  • Institutions
  • Community living settings 
  • Nursing homes
  • Rehabilitation clinics 
  • Schools
  • Private Homes
  • Private physician offices
  • Occupational and Speech Therapy Offices
  • Retirement Communities

How to Become an Occupational Therapist  

Step 1: Complete a four-year bachelor’s degree or an occupational therapy assistant program

Complete a Bachelor’s Degree: Though your degree can be in any subject area, many occupational therapy candidates pursue degrees in a relevant area, such as biology, kinesiology, health science, or psychology.  


Complete an accredited Occupational Therapy Assistant Program, along with additional prerequisites. 

Some occupational therapy programs also offer a bridge program that accepts those who’ve completed an accredited occupational therapy assistant program, allowing them to complete prerequisites and/or a bachelor’s degree program and then move ahead to pursue their master’s or doctoral degrees.

Step 2: Apply to a Master’s or Doctoral Program

Apply to an accredited master’s or doctoral occupational therapy program. Though both programs take approximately two-to-three years to complete, there are differences in their content and curriculum, with the doctoral degree offering more in-depth coursework and practice skills, as well as an emphasis on leadership, policy, and theory. The doctoral program also requires a 14-week capstone project. 

Step 3: Pass Certification Exam

 Following completion of your master’s or doctoral program, you must take and pass the National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy examination.   

Step 4: Apply for State Licensure

Once you have been certified, you will need to apply for a license, following whatever additional steps are required by the state where you intend to practice. 

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How Long Does it Take to Become an Occupational Therapist? 

Becoming an occupational therapist generally takes from six to seven years, depending upon the length of your occupational therapist program. 

Occupational Therapist Salary   

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary earned by an occupational therapist is $93,180 as of May 2022. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $63,320, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $123,870. reports that occupational therapists earn an average of $97,360, with a range that falls between $81,741 and $113,987. 

Occupational therapists are generally paid a salary plus benefits package, with benefits including healthcare, pensions, paid time off, and 401(k) contributions. 

Highest-Paying States for Occupational Therapy 

Top-paying states for occupational therapists, according to the BLS:  

  • California - $109,220
  • Nevada - $105,020
  • New Jersey - $104,710
  • Alaska - $100,810
  • Virginia - $97,980

Highest-Paying Metropolitan Areas for Occupational Therapists 

Top-paying metropolitan areas for occupational therapists, according to the BLS:  

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA - $126,600
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA - $120,420
  • Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA - $117,200
  • Santa Rosa, CA - $116,260
  • Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA - $116,240

Occupational Therapist Salary by Years of Experience  

Occupational therapists acquire more skills over the years that they work in the profession, and their increased experience and knowledge earn them greater compensation. 

According to, median annual earnings for occupational therapists based on the number of years in the field are: 

  • Less than 1 year of experience earn an average hourly wage of $35.33 
  • 1 to 4 years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $36.93
  • 5 to 9 years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $39.92
  • 10 to 14 years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $42.61
  • 20+ years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $45.18

Occupational Therapy Career Outlook 

In addition to being a rewarding career, occupational therapy is also one of the professions that is anticipated to experience tremendous growth in demand over the next several years. 

According to the BLS, approximately 9,600 new occupational therapy jobs are expected to open up each year for the next ten years, representing a projected growth of 12 percent. This increased demand reflects both recognition of the impact that these professionals have on health and well-being and a need to replace existing professionals as they retire. 

Occupational Therapist Continuing Education Requirements 

There are many different organizations and educational resources that offer continuing education and professional development opportunities for occupational therapy professionals. 

Though these courses can help occupational therapists expand their knowledge and advance in their careers, the need to take classes or fulfill a certain number of practice hours varies by state: some states have no continuing education requirements for professionals to maintain their licensure, while others require a significant investment of time. You can find a comprehensive list of state requirements here

Occupational therapists who want to take continuing education classes can take them from the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as from any participants in the organization’s Approved Provider Program.  

Where Can I Learn More about Occupational Therapy? 

For additional information on occupational therapy and becoming part of this important profession, there are several professional organizations that can provide you with direction and resources. These include: 

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Occupational Therapy FAQs  

  • What does an occupational therapist do?   

    • Occupational therapists provide therapeutic services to patients across the lifespan to help people develop or rebuild their abilities to function and perform everyday activities. 
  • What is the difference between PT and OT?  

    • Though both PT and OT are rehabilitative therapies, occupational therapy helps people develop or regain their functional abilities to perform daily activities, while physical therapy’s goal is to improve movement and reduce or manage pain.
  • What are some examples of occupational therapy?  

    • Working with children in school settings to find modifications for their disabilities and to help them participate in school activities, and working with elderly people to help them continue to live independently and avoid potential hazards or injuries. Occupational therapists also work with employees who have been injured at work or to facilitate accommodations for disabled employees. 
  • What are the five duties of occupational therapists?   

    • Evaluate patients’ medical histories, develop treatment plans, demonstrate exercises, identify activities to help patients manage life and work-related skills, and recommend modifications to patients’ living and work environments to improve their quality of life. 
  • Is a career in occupational therapy worth it?  

    • A career as an occupational therapist requires a significant investment of time and money in your education, but in exchange, you will receive generous compensation in a profession where you will make a real difference in people’s lives. 
  •  What education is required to be an occupational therapist?

    • To become an occupational therapist, you need to complete a two-to-three-year master’s or doctoral program in occupational therapy. Admission to these programs requires the completion of a four-year bachelor’s degree. 
Terri Heimann Oppenheimer
Terri Heimann Oppenheimer Contributor

Terri Heimann Oppenheimer is a freelance writer and editor who is driven by details. She loves to dive into research, ensuring that the information she provides educates, engages and illuminates. Before starting her own business she spent years working in advertising and raising three kids. Today she lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where her she and her husband enjoy travel, the Jersey Shore, and spoiling their grandchildren.

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