Occupational therapists work to help patients with injuries or disabilities achieve improved functioning. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that aspiring occupational therapists must complete a master’s degree from an accredited program, pass a national certification exam and obtain a state license. Another option is to earn an associate degree leading to a job as an occupational therapy assistant. A doctorate is preferred for some positions in teaching, research and administration.

Entry-level Career Track

If you’re eager to enter the field of occupational therapy, you may prefer to complete a two-year associate degree program that prepares you to help patients while working under the supervision of an occupational therapist. Clinical fieldwork is extensive in these programs and you must graduate from an occupational therapy assistant program approved by the Accreditation Council for Occupation Therapy Education to be eligible for licensure. Some OTA’s later return to school and complete an advanced degree in occupational therapy after gaining valuable work experience.

Combined Bachelor’s and Master’s Pathway

If you’re just entering college and know you want to be an occupational therapist, some accredited schools offer a five-year occupational therapy program that allows students to finish both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree as part of the same program. For instance, students at Ithaca College spend five years studying occupational therapy through coursework, assistive technology labs and clinical fieldwork in fulfillment of undergraduate and graduate degree requirements. Ithaca’s O.T. graduates are then eligible to sit for the national certification exam needed for licensure and employment as a registered occupational therapist.

Master’s Degree

Many students complete an undergraduate degree and then apply for a master’s degree program in occupational therapy. These graduate programs typically involve two years of study past the normal four years it takes to complete undergraduate work. It may take longer if prerequisites of the O.T. program have not been met. Courses in kinesiology, anatomy, physiology, basic statistics and human development are common prerequisites. Some schools, such as the University of Florida, provide an accelerated curriculum for students who have completed pre-occupational studies. For example, applicants with a degree in health science from the University of Florida who have taken six pre-occupational therapy classes can complete a master’s degree in 1.33 years and then take the national licensing exam required of the profession.

Doctorate

A doctorate expands opportunities for clinical specialization, healthcare administration and college teaching. Completing a doctoral degree generally takes two to three years of post-graduate study, depending on the school and the applicant’s educational preparation. For example, applicants with a master’s degree in occupational therapy can earn a doctorate at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis by completing 72 credit hours of classes and a four-month apprenticeship. Doctoral students who do not have a degree in occupational therapy enroll in 103 credits over a three-year period.