If you are a people person, and the idea of helping disabled individuals improve function and regain independence appeals to you, then you might want to consider pursuing studies in occupational therapy. Students interested in occupational therapy should possess an aptitude for science and a willingness to complete a professional master's in the discipline to become a licensed practitioner. The role of an occupational therapist differs depending on their area of specialization. For instance, some occupational therapists work with children with disabilities, helping them fully participate in the educational process, while others provide support to older adults as they experience physical and cognitive changes in the aging process, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Students majoring in occupational therapy first learn the ins and outs of the human body, including principles of normal human development. Later, they learn valuable skills in how to perform patient evaluations, identify patient goals, and develop customized intervention plans to help patients with physical, developmental, mental, and emotional disabilities improve in a specified area. Another skill students learn in an occupational therapy major is how to evaluate the plans they put in place to make sure goals are being met and to modify those plans as needed to better achieve established goals. Along with this, students learn the laws and ethics that guide their profession, and how to adapt their skills to fit their particular client.
Classes and Assignments of an Occupational Therapy Major
Students take foundational courses in anatomy and physiology, general psychology, abnormal psychology, human development, statistics, behavioral neuroscience, and human disease. From here, students take courses specific to occupational therapy, such as occupations and quality of life; theory and philosophy of occupation; applied neuroscience; occupational performance and mental health; assessment and evaluation tools; evidence-based practice; and research methods.
Students may also take courses dedicated to occupational performance for children, adults, and geriatric patients. The education experience is capped off with field work in a variety of clinical settings in which students progressively move from observing practitioners to participating in the process of occupational therapy. Because of the hands-on nature of occupational therapy education, occupational therapy is one of the most useful college degrees for direct career training.
Students complete rigorous assignments in an occupational therapy major. Professors assign readings in science-heavy texts and deliver lectures, after which students must demonstrate their mastery of the material through mid-terms and exams. Writing assignments vary in length and difficulty, and a student may be asked to write an analysis of current issues in occupational therapy. Research courses require students to gather qualitative and quantitative data in health-related literature and apply it to occupation-based research.
Perhaps the most vital component in occupational therapy education is the field work, where students complete multiple rotations in various specialties of occupational therapy. In this way, occupational therapy is also one of the best college degrees for exposing students to the various career paths they can take after graduating.
Degree Levels for an Occupational Therapy Major
- Associate. Since you cannot become an occupational therapist with only an associate degree, these degrees associated with occupational therapy generally prepare students for careers as occupational therapist assistants and aides. In such programs, students are introduced to health care and take basic courses in medical terminology and anatomy and physiology, along with more advanced second-year courses in occupational therapy.
- Bachelor's. Bachelor's programs are often bundled with master's programs in occupational therapy to create one combined degree program. Such programs generally allow students to complete both degrees in a shorter amount of time by combining three years of undergraduate course work with two years of graduate-level course work. As an alternative, students can major in any other hard science at the undergraduate level (such as biology), but choose a pre-occupational therapy track in order to obtain the necessary prerequisites for graduate study in occupational therapy.
- Master's. A master's degree in occupational therapy, coupled with state licensure, is necessary to work as a professional occupational therapist. Students learn the profession through didactic courses and clinical field work, and are often prepared to hit the ground running in their careers after graduation. Self paced online masters degree programs allow students to complete much of their didactic course work via asynchronous distance learning, which is more flexible for working adults. However, the best online degrees in occupational therapy require students to report to clinical sites for field work in the same way traditional programs do.
- Doctoral. Doctor of Occupational Therapy programs allow students to go beyond the generalist requirements of a master's program to specialize their skills. Students complete additional course work and participate in additional clinical practicum experiences in a wider range of areas. While doctoral programs in occupational therapy primarily train advanced practitioners, courses in management, theory, and research can prepare students to become managers in clinical practice settings.
- Ph.D. in Occupational Therapy. Ph.D. programs in occupational therapy are research-heavy and are designed to train scholars who are capable of high-quality, independent research in the field. Because the majority of tenured professors hold terminal degrees and have published work under their belts, the Ph.D. in occupational therapy is the best college degree for future occupational therapy faculty.
A Future as an Occupational Therapy Major
Occupational therapists have the opportunity to work with patients individually or in groups, and in a variety of settings, such as schools, home health care organizations, rehabilitation centers, mental health centers, and in patients' homes. Employment for occupational therapists is expected to grow much faster than average, with 26% employment growth projected between 2008 and 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Job opportunities in the field are expected to be good, particularly those that involve treating the elderly, since the older adult population is projected to increase significantly in the coming decade, the BLS explains.
The median yearly salary for occupational therapists was $66,780 as of May 2008, the BLS notes. Some of the highest-paying industries that employed the most occupational therapists were home health care services, nursing care facilities, and the offices of other healthcare practitioners, the BLS points out. However, your salary in the field will depend on your level of education and experience as well as your employer.