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How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists need a master’s degree from an accredited occupational therapy program. Occupational therapists must also be licensed.


Most occupational therapists enter the occupation with a master’s degree in occupational therapy. A small number of programs offer doctoral degrees in occupational therapy.

Admission to occupational therapy programs generally requires a bachelor’s degree and specific coursework, including biology and physiology. Many programs also require applicants to have volunteered or worked in an occupational therapy setting.

Master’s programs generally take 2 years to complete; doctoral programs take longer. Some schools offer a dual degree program in which the student earns a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in 5 years. Part-time programs that offer courses on nights and weekends are also available. Both master’s and doctoral programs require several months of supervised fieldwork, in which prospective occupational therapists gain real-world experience. 

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Occupational therapists have to be able to explain clearly what they want their patients to do.

Compassion. Occupational therapists are usually drawn to the profession by a desire to help people and improve the daily lives of others.

Interpersonal skills. Because occupational therapists spend their time teaching and explaining therapies to patients, they should inspire trust and respect from their clients.

Listening skills. Occupational therapists must be able to listen attentively to what their patients tell them.

Patience. Dealing with injuries, illnesses, and disabilities is frustrating for many people. Occupational therapists should be patient in order to provide quality care from the people they serve.

Writing skills. Occupational therapists must be able to explain clearly to others on the patient's medical team what they are doing and how it is going.

Licenses and Certification

Certification is voluntary, but many occupational therapists choose to become certified. They must pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists (NBCOT) exam to become certified. Certification allows therapists to use the title of Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR). They must also take continuing education classes to maintain certification.

All states require occupational therapists to be licensed. Licensure requires a degree from an accredited educational program and passing the NBCOT certification exam. Other requirements, such as continuing education and fees, vary by state.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition