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What Do Occupational Therapists Usually Major In?

Occupational therapists work with disabled or impaired patients. They assist patients with employment opportunities, provide workplace improvements and offer rehabilitation services. Occupational therapists may specialize in treating a particular disability, age group or environment. Many schools offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs in occupational therapy.

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Occupational Therapy Majors

Some schools offer undergraduate degree programs with an occupational therapy major, and many include master's and doctoral programs. Universities with graduate programs may require a bachelor's degree in a related field or, at a minimum, prerequisite coursework in psychology, physiology and anatomy. Some schools also require a current CPR certification prior to enrollment.

Occupational Therapy Undergraduate Programs

Considered pre-professional training, an undergraduate program in occupational therapy focuses on basic skills and prepares students to advance to a graduate program. Most 4-year schools offering an occupational therapy program include a bachelor's degree as part of a dual-degree program, allowing students to earn their bachelor's and master's degrees in occupational therapy simultaneously. Dual-degree programs typically take five years to complete.

Other options include non-degree, certificate and associate degree programs designed to allow students to segue into a graduate program or enter the field as an occupational therapy assistant. Pre-professional programs often include internship opportunities, as well as academic courses in topics such as:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Medical terminology
  • Introductory services in occupational therapy
  • Pediatric, adult and geriatric disabilities
  • General and abnormal psychology
  • Medical law and ethics

Occupational Therapy Master's Degree Programs

Students accepted into a master's program learn evaluation and intervention procedures for disabled patients. Programs typically include active fieldwork, often requiring students to obtain an updated CPR certification, current inoculations, a physical examination and health insurance. Many master's programs introduce students to research practices that become central if graduates intend to pursue a doctorate.

Degrees conferred at the master's level include a Master of Science (M.S.) and a Master of Public Health (MPH). Some schools allow both degrees to be earned simultaneously, combining courses on occupational therapy, treatment and psychology with public health courses in environmental science, social medicine and public policy. Common master's-level education includes:

  • Occupational activity
  • Advanced anatomy and neuroscience
  • Basic and advanced patient care skills
  • Therapy and use of the human body
  • Childhood development and disabilities
  • Legal and ethical issues of management
  • Rehabilitation medicine and procedures
  • Prosthetic uses and limitations

Occupational Therapy Doctoral Programs

Doctoral programs in occupational therapy confer either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Occupational Therapy (O.T.D.). The programs often limit class sizes, making admissions highly competitive. The Ph.D. programs focus primarily on research, preparing students for a career in academics. The O.T.D. programs also include research studies, together with specialized training in areas such as childhood disabilities, public health or occupational advocacy.

Students entering a doctoral program with a master's degree in occupational therapy may complete the program in a shorter time period than students with only a bachelor's degree. Some doctoral-level course topics may include:

  • Advanced occupational therapy theory
  • Leadership concepts and practices
  • Research and development of clinical trials
  • Self-management of chronic health problems
  • Occupational and social laws and policies
  • Behavioral and abnormal psychology
  • Technological advances in occupational therapy
  • Ethical and analytical thinking and decision-making

Licensure Requirements for Occupational Therapists

All states require licensing of practicing occupational therapists. However, the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy allows practitioners to display a mastery of their knowledge and skills with certification testing, and some states accept the exam in lieu of their own testing requirements (www.nbcot.org). Graduates of an accredited occupational therapy program are encouraged to check with their state's licensing board for additional requirements. Occupational therapy assistants must also register with their state and obtain proper licensing.

Occupational Therapist Organizations

Every state has an organization dedicated to the occupational therapy profession. These associations offer continuing education to members, which states require for license renewal. Membership provides networking opportunities, community events, informational seminars and research funding. In addition to state organizations, national and global associations also seek to educate, integrate and promote occupational therapists. A few examples include the following:

  • The American Occupational Therapy Association offers education, employment and certification options to its members (www.aota.org).
  • World Federation of Occupational Therapists provides information on worldwide research and outreach projects (www.wfot.org).
  • The American Occupational Therapy Foundation promotes research and education funding for students and scientists (www.aotf.org).

Careers in Occupational Therapy

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipated a 29% increase in occupational therapist positions between 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov). Licensed graduates of an occupational therapy program may find jobs in retirement or nursing homes, corporations, private practice or educational institutions. In May 2013, the bureau reported the median salary for occupational therapists as $76,940, with the highest wage-earners working in the industries of home health care services, ambulatory health care services and nursing care facilities.

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