I receive many emails from individuals who are curious and interested in learning more about pursuing a career in occupational therapy. Questions range from personal (Is it possible to balance family life with a career in OT?) to professional (What is a “typical day” like as an OT?) to getting down into the nitty gritty details (What is the pay like?).
I LOVE being able to share tips and brainstorm with these individuals as they gather information to guide this big life decision. If you, too, are considering a career as an occupational therapist (OT) or occupational therapy assistant (OTA), or you know someone who is, then the tips in this post are for you (or for them)!
The following post is an adapted excerpt from my new FREE e-book I co-authored with fellow OT Abby Brayton-Chung, entitled The Most Important Things You Need to Know about Becoming an Occupational Therapy Practitioner: A Guide for Prospective Students. Access the entire 35-page e-book to help you decide if a career in occupational therapy is for you. Share these tips as well as the link to the e-book using #OTguide on your social media!
5 Things to Consider When Deciding on a Career in Occupational Therapy
1. Occupational Therapy Practitioners are Diverse
Every occupational therapy practitioner brings his or her own unique experience, skill set, and personality to the table. The field of occupational therapy is not interested in creating cookie cutter professionals. Conversely, the OT profession thrives on practitioner diversity because we serve a diverse population. In fact, did you know that our national association, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), has put together a “Centennial Vision” that describes what we want the OT profession to be known for when it turns 100 years old in 2017? In that vision, it states that we want a diverse workforce. Take a look at the Centennial Vision for yourself:
“We envision that occupational therapy is a powerful, widely recognized, science-driven, and evidence-based profession with a globally connected and diverse workforce meeting society’s occupational needs.”
Therapist diversity is not only valued in our field, it’s actually part of the vision of what we want our profession to be known for. That’s pretty awesome. So don’t be discouraged if you feel like you “don’t belong” in occupational therapy because you didn’t major in a hard science or have never been inside a rehab facility. It doesn’t matter. YOUR unique life experience will just allow the profession to be that much more diverse.
2. Observation Opportunities are Vital
If you are considering whether or not to pursue the OT path, here is my biggest recommendation: learn more about the field of OT by OBSERVING IT IN ACTION. In my opinion, occupational therapy is WAY cooler in person, and you observe things in sessions that you just can’t capture on a website or in a pamphlet. I highly recommend that, if possible, you try to observe OT sessions in more than one type of practice setting (e.g., pediatrics, hand therapy, skilled nursing or rehab setting, etc.). The more exposure you have to different aspects of this career, the better. It will allow you to have a more realistic and holistic understanding of OT as a profession.
Observing occupational therapy in action is important not only because it helps you visualize what OT is all about but also because, with each passing year, it is becoming more and more competitive to get into occupational therapy and occupational therapy assistant programs. Students who have completed observation and/or volunteer hours will stand out in the pool of applicants. Admissions teams want to know that applicants have a realistic and accurate understanding of the role occupational therapy practitioners play in different settings, and what it is that therapists actually do on a day-to-day basis.
Additionally, OT observation is important because, once you’re in school, it will help you better understand the theories and techniques you learn about in the classroom or skills lab. Instead of the information feeling abstract and vague, it will feel more real and practical, because you will be able to picture in your mind the relevant clients and therapists you observed prior to entering school. It will help you better connect theory with practice. And that is a HUGE advantage.
If you are someone who has been observing therapy but is frustrated by how long it is taking to get through the application process and into OT/OTA school, I encourage you to look at it this way: once you are an OT or OTA student, there will only be a few opportunities to observe therapists in action. As a student, the majority of your fieldwork learning experiences will occur by doing rather than by observing. This means you’ll be in the middle of the action, as opposed to simply observing. And then, once you’re a therapist, you’ll be the one in charge of therapy. (Scary, huh?)
You are in a truly unique period of pre-OT life right now, where you have an almost unlimited opportunity to learn through observation. Though I know it might feel like a waste because you’re not “doing” anything, it is a HUGE privilege, one that you will have limited access to once you begin your OT education.
I speak from experience in that I observed, volunteered, and worked at a pediatric therapy clinic for two years before I entered OT school (which you can read more about here on my blog). During my pre-OT time in that clinic, both the occupational therapist and physical therapist expressed to me they wished they could be a part of the groups I was running because they were so fun, but they were so booked with “real life” clients that it just wasn’t realistic for their schedules. There’s no way I could have done that as either a graduate student or a “real” therapist, and it was THE most amazing learning experience, for which I am extremely grateful.
So, all that being said, I encourage you to take advantage of this pre-therapist time in your life to be able to observe, volunteer, or be involved in whatever aspects of occupational therapy you find interesting so you can boost your application and make the best use of your available time and opportunities!
3. Do You Have the Appropriate Personality, Communication, and Interpersonal Skills?
Like I said earlier, occupational therapy practitioners are NOT expected to be cookie cutter copies of each other. This applies to personality and communication styles, too. However, therapists DO need to be able to demonstrate the ability to be friendly, empathetic, culturally appropriate, non-judgmental, professional, knowledgeable, ethical, and assertive . . . all at the appropriate times, of course.
Occupational therapy practitioners are typically expected to possess strong written, verbal, and nonverbal communication skills, as well as strong interpersonal skills. It’s often important for therapists to be able to possess a balance of being able to think quickly in-the-moment, while also being able to reflect and think critically about situations involving clients and team members.
4. What is Your Physical, Mental, and Emotional Capacity?
I’ve mentioned already that occupational therapy is a field that values diversity, both in the clients we serve as well as in the therapists who serve them. The field of occupational therapy is designed to support individuals in their ability to participate in meaningful aspects of their lives, regardless of physical, mental, or emotional capacity. Because of that, the OT profession does not discriminate against individuals who want to become occupational therapy practitioners, regardless of physical, mental, or emotional challenges (diagnosed or not).
Occupational therapy is the profession of, “I can,” not, “You shouldn’t.” See what I mean by watching this short video that always manages to inspire. When I receive emails from individuals sharing that they have a medical condition or disability, and asking whether it’s possible for them to pursue a career in OT, my response is always one of encouragement. Having a medical condition or disability should not be a reason to avoid a career in occupational therapy!
In light of this, it is important that all who are considering a career in OT be reflective and honest with themselves when it comes to their strengths and capabilities as well as their weaknesses and limitations, whether they have a diagnosed disability or not. This will help you better understand what accommodations, supports, or improvements may be needed in order to help you succeed as an occupational therapy practitioner. Do you struggle with chronic back or joint pain? Do you fatigue easily? Do you faint at the sight of blood? Do you struggle with stress-induced illness? Do you use a wheelchair or other assistive devices for mobility or communication? Are you taking medication that may impact your ability to maintain a stable mood or level of attention throughout the day? Do you snap when people disagree with you or tell you what to do? These are all factors to reflect on as you consider and learn more about a career in occupational therapy.
Every occupational therapy setting is different, which means each setting will carry different physical, mental, and emotional demands. When working in a hospital or skilled nursing setting, you will likely find that you will be on your feet for most of the day and will need to be able to lift and/or physically assist patients in a variety of ways. Conversely, in a setting like hand rehabilitation, you may find that you are able to sit for more of the day and do not need to be able to lift patients like you do in a hospital setting. When working in pediatric settings such as in the home, clinic, or school setting, you will likely find that you need to be able to sit or lay on the floor and complete physical activities such as crawling, kneeling, walking, chasing, jumping, holding, and/or physically assisting children during therapeutic activities. And still other occupational therapy practice settings require the ability to navigate outdoor environments, from urban communities to therapeutic ranch settings. Because of the variation in physical demands based on practice setting, it’s important for you to know and be honest with yourself about what your physical strengths, capabilities, and limitations are when considering a career in occupational therapy and deciding what type of practice area you’d like to pursue.
Though the mental and emotional demands of different practice settings can vary pretty widely based on practice area, I really think your perception of how challenging a setting might be will depend heavily on your personality and experience. For example, some occupational therapy settings tend to be fast-paced (such as certain types of hospital-based or school-based jobs), while other settings may feel like they have a relatively slower pace (such as in-home early intervention). While I don’t know that I would say any particular setting is especially “predictable”, some settings are more unpredictable than others (such as inpatient mental health). You may find these different types of settings stressful and exhausting or exciting and exhilarating, depending on your preference for pace and level of predictability. Similarly, some practice settings may require you to develop multi-year relationships with clients or families (such as in pediatrics or community-based mental health), while others may only put you in contact with patients for a few days or weeks (such as some medical settings). Again, either of these types of settings may be mentally and emotionally draining or fulfilling, depending on your personality and experience.
In reality, no one setting is usually always stressful or always fulfilling. There is often a combination of stressful, draining times and exciting, fulfilling times while working as an occupational therapy practitioner.
5. What Does Your Gut Say?
While I can’t really tell you whether occupational therapy will be the perfect fit for YOU (since, well, I likely don’t know you personally), I CAN encourage you to follow your gut. Follow your passion. Yes, it is important to make plans and be mindful of the future and your finances. But YOU know yourself best. If you’ve learned about occupational therapy, observed it in action, reflected on your experiences up to this point, thought about your physical, mental, and emotional capacity as it relates to work environments, and can look back and see that all signs have been pointing to the field of occupational therapy, then run with it!
Or if you look at where you are now and realize it’s not the path or profession you want to be on for the rest of your life, then don’t force yourself to go through with it.
Continue to observe and investigate alternative paths to see if occupational therapy is what you really want to do, based on what you know of yourself and your background, experiences, and passions.
Looking for more information about the path to becoming an occupational therapy practitioner? Take a look at my free e-book, designed to help guide you through one of the biggest and most exciting decisions of your life!