How to Become an Occupational Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Become an Occupational Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide

Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy is a rewarding and impactful profession dedicated to helping people of all ages and backgrounds live more fulfilling lives. By focusing on activities of daily living, occupational therapists enable individuals to function better in their home, work, and social environments. If you’re compassionate, empathetic, and looking for a career combining science, healthcare, and the art of human understanding, occupational therapy might be the perfect fit for you. This guide will walk you through the steps you’ll need to take to become an occupational therapist, from educational requirements to licensing and much more. Becoming a licensed occupational therapist takes about 6-7 more years of postsecondary education and training.

Educational Requirements

High School Diploma or GED

Before diving into specialized training, you must start with the basics. A high school diploma or GED is the foundational educational requirement to transition into college and then into an occupational therapy program.

Bachelor’s Degree

Although there are no specific major requirements for undergraduate study, it’s beneficial to major in subjects that lay a strong foundation for your graduate studies. Programs in psychology, sociology, kinesiology, or biology can be good choices. Many graduate programs also have prerequisite courses, such as anatomy, physiology, and statistics, that you should complete during your undergraduate years. Some programs provide a 3+3 route, which means you take three years of undergraduate classes and then transition into a graduate occupational therapy program.

Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy (MOT)

To become a practicing occupational therapist, you’ll need a minimum of a master’s degree in occupational therapy from an accredited institution. These programs typically take two to three years to complete and involve classroom learning and clinical practice.

Doctorate Degree in Occupational Therapy (OTD)

Though not required, some occupational therapists go on to pursue a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD). This higher level of education can open doors to academic positions and research opportunities. Some key differences between an MOT and an OTD are the research expectations and a capstone project. A capstone project is completed at the end of your didactic schoolwork and is created by the student. It is an additional 14-week rotation.

You can look at the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education for an exhaustive list of schools and standards.

Licensing and Certification

Examination Requirements (NBCOT)

After earning your master’s or doctorate degree, you must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to become a certified occupational therapist. The exam covers a wide range of topics, from pediatrics to upper extremity conditions. It tests your ability to apply academic knowledge in real-world settings.

State Licensing

Every state has its own licensing requirements for occupational therapists. Typically, this involves passing the NBCOT exam and fulfilling any additional state-specific criteria. Some states may require background checks, fingerprinting, or additional coursework.

Continuing Education

To maintain your license, you must participate in continuing education activities, including workshops, online courses, or attending conferences. Each state has different requirements for the number of continuing education units (CEUs) needed for license renewal. You must also stay updated with your NBCOT CEUs, which typically are renewed every three years.

Renewal Process

Licenses are generally valid for one to three years, depending on the state. Be sure to keep track of your renewal dates and CEU requirements to ensure you remain licensed to practice.

Occupational Therapy Specializations

Occupational therapy is a super versatile field that really lets you hone in on what interests you most. Whether you’re passionate about helping kids with developmental delays, assisting older adults in maintaining their independence, or diving into the mental health space, there’s a niche for you. The more specialized you get, the better you can help your clients achieve their own personal goals. Plus, it keeps your workday interesting and rewarding. So, whatever pulls at your heartstrings, there’s a specialization in occupational therapy that needs your unique skills and enthusiasm. Let’s take a look at some of the best Occupational Therapy Specialty Certifications.

Pediatrics – Board Certification in Pediatrics

If you enjoy working with children, a specialization in pediatrics could be fulfilling. This role involves helping kids develop the skills needed for everyday activities, like dressing, eating, and playing. 

Geriatrics – Board Certification in Gerontology

For those interested in working with older adults, a geriatric specialization focuses on helping seniors maintain their independence through activities like cooking, bathing, and functional mobility exercises.

Mental Health – Board Certification in Mental Health

This specialization focuses on helping individuals with mental health conditions to improve their quality of life and lead more balanced lives. Techniques can include stress management, coping strategies, and environmental adaptations.

Certified Hand Therapist

For those who want to concentrate on the intricacies of the hand and upper extremities, this specialization delves into treatments for conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. Learn more on how to become a Certified Hand Therapist.

OT Rotations

Importance of Real-world Experience

Practical experience is invaluable in occupational therapy. All graduate programs include rotations as part of their curriculum, offering you a chance to apply what you’ve learned in a clinical setting.

How Many Rotations

You will participate in multiple 1-week rotations and two 12-week rotations as a part of your academic training within an occupational therapy program. If you are in a doctorate program, you will complete one additional rotation: your capstone project, which is a rotation that is 14 weeks long.

What to Expect During Your OT Rotation

Rotations are designed to provide a comprehensive experience, from patient evaluations to treatment planning and implementation. You’ll work under the supervision of an experienced occupational therapist to hone your skills.

How Experience Can Affect Job Placement

Real-world experience not only makes you more employable but also prepares you for the demands of the job. Completing rotations at prestigious institutions or in specialized fields could give you a competitive edge in the job market.

Salary Expectations as an Occupational Therapist

Entry-level Salaries

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median entry-level salary for occupational therapists is around $70,000 to $75,000 per year.

Experienced OT Salaries

With experience, occupational therapists can earn upwards of $90,000 or more annually. Specializations and geographic location also influence salary levels.

Geographical Variations

Salaries for occupational therapists can vary widely based on the cost of living in a particular region. Cities with a high demand for healthcare services often offer higher salaries.

Benefit Packages

In addition to salary, many employers offer benefits such as healthcare, retirement plans, and paid time off. Some also offer incentives like tuition reimbursement or signing bonuses.

Job Market Outlook

Current Demand for Occupational Therapists

The demand for occupational therapists is consistently strong, largely due to the aging population and increased awareness of occupational therapy’s benefits. As healthcare becomes more interdisciplinary, the scope of occupational therapy is broadening.

Projected Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupational therapy field is expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate over the next decade, making it a relatively secure career choice.

Sectors with the Highest Demand

While hospitals and rehabilitation centers are traditional employers, there is increasing demand in educational settings, home health services, and corporate wellness programs.

Essential Skills

Communication Skills

Being able to effectively communicate with patients, families, and other healthcare professionals is crucial. You’ll need to articulate complex information in a way that’s easy to understand.


Occupational therapists often need to be innovative when it comes to treatment plans. You should be able to analyze situations and come up with practical solutions.


Understanding and sharing the feelings of your patients is key to providing meaningful therapy. Empathy helps build trust and is fundamental to patient-centered care.


Every patient is different, and you’ll need to tailor your approach accordingly. Creativity can help you adapt traditional therapies to meet the unique needs of each individual.

Technical Skills

You’ll use various types of equipment and software for patient assessments and treatment. Being comfortable with technology is an advantage in this field.

Tips for Success

Networking Advice

Build connections early on, both online and in person. Joining professional organizations like the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) can offer networking opportunities.

Resume Development

Keep track of your academic achievements, research, and work experiences. A well-organized resume can be a significant asset during job interviews.

Time Management

Balancing administrative tasks with patient care is a constant challenge. Develop strong organizational and time management skills to thrive in this fast-paced environment.

Lifelong Learning

The field of occupational therapy is always evolving. Stay current with the latest research, treatments, and technologies through workshops, courses, and professional journals.


Q: How long does it take to become an occupational therapist?

A: On average, it takes about 6-7 years of education and training after high school, including a master’s degree and licensure. 

Q: Can I work while studying?

A: Some people work part-time jobs or engage in volunteer work while studying, although the demands of a master’s or doctorate program may limit the time available for employment.

Q: What is the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist?

A: While both aim to improve quality of life, occupational therapists focus on helping patients perform everyday activities, whereas physical therapists focus on improving bodily function and mobility. Occupational therapists focus on the “functional” aspects of day-to-day living.

Q: Are there opportunities for career advancement?

A: Yes, experienced occupational therapists can move into managerial roles, consultancy, or even start their own practice. Specializations can also provide avenues for career growth.

Additional Resources 


 “Occupational Therapy for Dummies” by Consumer Dummies

 “Introduction to Occupational Therapy” by Jane Clifford O’Brien


Online courses on websites like Udemy or Coursera that focus on the fundamentals of occupational therapy

Specialized training courses through the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)


 [American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)](

 [World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT)](


 Online forums such as Reddit’s r/OccupationalTherapy

 LinkedIn groups focused on occupational therapy

Final Thoughts

Becoming an occupational therapist is a rewarding yet challenging journey that requires a solid educational foundation, certifications, and practical experience. Whether you’re just starting out or looking to specialize, continuous learning and skill development are crucial. We hope this guide has provided you with a roadmap to successfully navigate your occupational therapy career.