How to Become a Licensed Occupational Therapist

Learn how to become an occupational therapist. Research the education requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in occupational therapy.

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Do I Want to Be a Licensed Occupational Therapist?

Occupational therapists (OTs) use practical movement and exercise to rehabilitate patients with disabilities or injuries. Their patients may range from children to the elderly. Therapists may also design work or home environments to suit an individual's needs, thereby enabling them to succeed in daily care activities and in the workplace. Occupational therapists work standing for many hours and may sometimes move or lift patients. Some OTs travel from one facility or job to another.

Job Requirements

OTs must be licensed in all 50 states, and this requires completing an approved master's degree program and passing a national examination. Optional certifications are also available in areas of specialization. The following table includes the requirements for entry-level licensed occupational therapists:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree*
Degree Field Occupational therapy*
Licensure and Certification State licensure is required*; voluntary certification is available**
Experience Fieldwork experience is required and generally included in the master's degree curriculum*
Key Skills Communication skills, compassion and patience*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Undergraduate students can choose from a wide array of majors to prepare them for graduate study in occupational therapy, and some schools offer specific pre-OT tracks. Regardless of the major students pursue, they need to complete certain required coursework, such as physiology, statistics and biology.

Some schools offer combined dual degree programs that allow a student to take master's-level coursework immediately upon completing prerequisites. These programs could decrease the amount of time a student spends in school.

Success Tips:

  • Determine coursework prerequisites. Prerequisites can vary among graduate programs. Students should know which undergraduate courses are necessary as early as possible so as not to get behind on their prerequisites.
  • Gain experience. Many OT master's programs require applicants to submit evidence of experience in an OT setting. Experience requirements vary by program; some programs require at least one letter of recommendation from a licensed occupational therapist. Volunteering or shadowing can be an effective way to develop a relationship with a licensed OT.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

In order to become licensed, students must graduate from a program that's accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education. Master's programs typically last 2-3 years and combine fieldwork with courses in neurobiology, physiology, anatomy and OT techniques. Most programs conclude with a supervised fieldwork experience.

Step 3: Take the Exam

The NBCOT administers the national certifying exam for occupational therapists. Eligibility requirements include graduation from an approved or accredited OT degree program and completion of all fieldwork requirements. The NBCOT offers tools for self-study and assessment to help candidates prepare for the examination. Passing the exam qualifies therapists to use the title Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR).

Step 4: Become Licensed

All states require licensing for occupational therapists. In most states, successfully completing an accredited educational program, a field experience and the NBCOT exam fulfills the requirements for licensure. However, state requirements vary; aspiring therapists should check with the state in which they wish to practice to determine additional requirements.

Step 5: Earn Continuing Education Credits

In order to maintain licensure, many states require OTs to earn a certain number of continuing education credits every two years. NBCOT certification is voluntary; certified therapists must earn 36 professional development units every three years to continue using the OTR designation.

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