Occupational therapy is one of the allied health professions, meaning healthcare-related jobs distinct from pharmaceutical science, medicine, nursing, and dentistry. It includes developing, recovering, and maintaining meaningful activities in individuals or groups in order to help them recover or adjust to a new situation.

This form of therapy is performed by qualified occupational therapists (or OTA – occupational therapy assistants) who very often work with patients suffering from injuries, disabilities, mental health issues, etc. Depending on the patient, an OTD will use a therapeutic approach to help them participate in everyday activities and perform daily tasks.

If you choose this career path, you will be able to significantly contribute to your community and change the quality of life of many people in need. If you’re interested in bringing positive change to the world, we have prepared a quick guide to pursuing a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program resulting in a degree needed for becoming a licensed occupational therapist.

What Do You Need to Become a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD)?

OTD programs are prepared for students who already are holders of a bachelor’s or master’s degree – the former needs to complete an occupational therapy program to practice legally, while for the latter, it still is only a follow-up on education or a way to expand their occupational therapy skills and qualifications (though it may change in the future, which we explain later). Once they complete a degree, they can take an official exam to gain a state license.

Apart from formal qualifications, to become a doctor of occupational therapy, you will need a lot of empathy and compassion. You will encounter people with a variety of problems and of different backgrounds, most of them in difficult life situations, so you will have to be able to communicate with them efficiently. Patience is vital too, as well as the ability to educate others, not only your potential patients but also their family members. You won’t go far as an OTD if you can’t listen to people or have difficulty with general problem-solving.

What’s more, working as an occupational therapist often involves cooperation with other specialists, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, physical therapists, nurses, social workers, and many more. Your effective collaboration will be crucial to helping your patients. Additionally, you will usually be required to apply a holistic approach in your work, identify your patients’ needs, and communicate them to other specialists.

How Can You Become a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD?)

OTD Program – Overview

You need to bear in mind that each US state has its own rules and requirements for becoming an occupational therapist and practicing lawfully. Therefore, it is essential for you to make sure you know what the situation is in your location.

As for now, a master’s degree is enough to take a licensure exam and become an occupational therapist, but in all healthcare-related fields, it is highly recommended to pursue further education and get as much experience and qualifications as possible. Hence the popularity of occupational therapy doctorate programs. Moreover, The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) has already stated that the occupational therapy doctorate will become mandatory as an entry-level course by 2027.

But first, you will need an undergraduate degree that usually takes four years to complete.

Only then can you apply to an occupational therapy school (either for a master’s or doctoral degree OTD program) and start specializing. Each OTD program combines studying with fieldwork assignments, where you work as a student while being supervised by a licensed occupational therapist.

Completing an Occupational Therapy Program

Once you’re a holder of an undergraduate or master’s degree, you can apply to pursue an occupational therapy doctorate. Depending on the program and school, it will take at least two years to get an OTD diploma – but it’s usually more, especially if you add fieldwork and mandatory internship.

An entry-level OTD program will have you focused on research and evidence-based practice, as well as preparing for advocacy and leadership, which will immediately open more doors for you, including a career in academia, jobs in bigger medical facilities, or managerial positions. As a doctor of occupational therapy, you will have an opportunity to participate in designing and implementing new programs and other innovations with the general purpose of improving your patients’ quality of life or services of other healthcare-related professions.

As an OTD program graduate, you will prepare and implement individual treatments to help those in need to perform daily occupations. During your studies, you will familiarize yourself with a whole range of adaptive equipment and assistive technology that will later help you teach your patients all the necessary skills. Other occupational therapy and healthcare specialists will teach you how to administer and interpret assessments or develop activity-based interventions to improve your ability to help and convey your knowledge and compassion.

Moreover, you will be able to adapt to the environment for people with different disabilities, as well as design and even fabricate custom prosthetic devices. Additionally, you will learn how to function as an OTD in the work environment and effectively cooperate with other healthcare specialists for your patients’ good.

Apart from theory, you will also be required to gain field experience while working under the supervision of an already licensed occupational therapy specialist.

Then, once you complete your formal education, you will have to pass the national board exam (NBCOT) and apply for state licensure. However, beware if you want to practice in another state, as you will most likely have to get a new license or update your current one.

You should also remember that the license is not given for life – you need to keep learning and stay up to date in order to keep it active, even if you’re already an occupational therapy doctorate holder.

Can You Complete an Occupational Therapy Program Online?

In today’s digitized world, it is also possible to pursue an OTD program online. It is especially helpful in the time of the global pandemic, as well as to people who work full-time, have other daily responsibilities they can’t escape, or simply live in a place without a school offering an OTD program.

Since becoming a doctor of occupational therapy requires some field experience, in most cases, you won’t be able to complete it 100% online. However, if you’re a working person or your chosen school is too far away for you to make it to daily classes, you can easily attend lectures online and gain field experience wherever it’s most convenient for you.

Some schools may require you to attend occupational therapy workshops, though, so be sure to get all the details before you apply.

Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) – Prospects

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for OTD specialists is rising these days – it is projected to grow by almost 12% between 2022 and 2032. Of course, a lot will depend on where you live, but in general, by pursuing an occupational therapy program, you are choosing stability for your future.

When it comes to your potential salary, numerous variables need to be considered – once again, your location, plus experience, specialization, and education. Additionally, it’s worth noting that it’s not unusual for occupational therapy specialists to work for an hourly rate.

If you are seriously considering pursuing an occupational therapy doctorate, it may convince you to discover that education is an important factor in calculating the salary of such a specialist. For example, in 2018, an occupational therapy doctorate holder earned $1,825 a week on average compared to $1,434 made by someone with a master’s degree.

The average yearly pay of an OTD in 2022 was $93,180, with the top 10% earning more than $123,870. Those with managerial positions earned $99,730 per year, with the top 10% earning over $180,000.

Final Thoughts

Not everyone can become a good, successful occupational therapist. It doesn’t only require years of education (which really never ends, even after you get a degree) but also a whole set of other skills that may be challenging to learn. However, if you feel like it’s something you could do, you will undoubtedly be able to contribute significantly and get massive amounts of satisfaction from your job.

Pursuing a doctorate in occupational therapy may bring even more benefits to your career – it will provide you with more perspectives to explore and a bigger chance to make an impact. There’s a variety of different programs to choose from, so make sure you know your state’s rules and requirements, and don’t hesitate to enroll in an occupational therapy doctorate program even today (or at the nearest possible occasion)!