Master's in occupational therapy: helping others live independently

By Ysobel Croix

Occupational therapists have the special responsibility of helping others work and live independently. These health care professionals typically work to achieve specific results for clients in their homes or workplaces using a variety of techniques, exercises, adaptive equipment and technology. Sometimes occupational therapists work together with other medical and health care professionals and social services staff.

Every state requires occupational therapists to be licensed, which includes passing a national licensure exam. In order for a candidate to sit for the exam, he or she must have graduated from an occupational therapy degree program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Anyone considering a career in occupational therapy should check with their state licensing agency as to the additional licensure requirements.

Graduate degrees in occupational therapy

To become an occupational therapist, one needs to earn a Master of Occupational Therapy degree (MOT) or a Master of Science or Arts in Occupational Therapy. People who do not yet have a bachelor's degree could opt for a five-year master's degree program in occupational therapy that does not require nor award a bachelor degree. Some schools offer programs that allow junior-level college students to apply for admission and count their first year MOT classes toward their advanced undergraduate requirements, resulting in a bachelor degree while enrolled in a two-and-a-half-year Master of Occupational Therapy degree program.

In total, there are around 150 of these accredited combination or master degree programs available in the United States and four doctorate-level programs. At this time, no fully online Master of Occupational Therapy degree programs are recognized by ACOTE, though some accredited schools may have online components.

Specializations in occupational therapy

Though students can specialize through their supervised field hours, occupational therapists tend to specialize after they've become licensed occupational therapists. Specialization is usually by the client's age or disability. Some therapists choose to work exclusively with children in pediatrics and others choose to tackle the special needs of the elderly.

It's not uncommon for occupational therapists to specialize exclusively in:

  1. Cerebral palsy
  2. Muscular dystrophy
  3. Spinal cord injury

For these clients, therapists may teach a client how to use specialized computer-aided-adaptive equipment, wheelchairs, eating and dressing aids. Therapists often help set clients up with ways to communicate with others and the resources they should use if they need help.

Other occupational therapists focus exclusively on workplace issues, including ergonomics, and help others to have physically healthier, more productive work lives. Still others specialize in helping people who are emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, dealing with addiction and more. The ultimate goal is to give people whatever skills and tools they need to live independently and cope with day-to-day life.

Typical coursework for occupational therapy degrees

Because schools must be accredited with certain requirements in order for graduates to become licensed, some of those requirements will be the same across schools. One such requirement is that MOT students must complete 24 hours of supervised clinic or field work.

Occupational therapy courses vary by school. However, these classes can be expected in a master's degree program in occupational therapy:

  1. Adaptive technology
  2. Biomechanics
  3. Communications
  4. Functional neuroscience
  5. Human dysfunction
  6. Kinesiology
  7. Psychopathology

Like many in the medical profession, occupational therapy is a very anatomy-focused program. Some schools set themselves apart by offering more in-depth anatomy complete with cadaver dissection.

Occupational therapy careers and salaries

People who earn a master's degree in occupational therapy and satisfy other licensing required may find employment in hospitals, nursing homes, educational service providers and offices of other health care providers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29 percent of occupational therapists work for ambulatory health care services. On average, occupational therapists earned a salary of $70,680 in May 2009. Though health care jobs are expected to grow overall, it's especially true for occupational therapy jobs, which are expected to grow by 26 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections. Therapists specializing in gerontology may have the best job prospects as the increase in elderly will create additional job opportunities.

Occupational therapy is a career where a therapist's hard work and endless patience is rewarded by a client no longer needing his or her services. For people looking for this kind of job satisfaction, occupational therapy should be at the top of their list of careers; with several options to get an MOT degree, a potentially high salary and great job growth prospects, occupational therapy is a career opportunity that makes sense.

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