Occupational Therapy Programs
Think about the activities you do every day: taking a shower, surfing the internet, driving to a friend’s house. Imagine you couldn’t do them by yourself.
Occupational therapists work with people who have these challenges and help them live on their own. Some of their patients have disabilities or were injured in accidents.
Therapists figure out how to treat patients so they can go about everyday life independently. That could mean teaching someone how to use a walker after having hip replacement surgery or helping a teacher plan lessons for a student with autism.
Occupational therapy is a diverse field. Practitioners work in patients’ homes, offices, schools and hospitals. It’s a rewarding profession for those who enjoy helping people.
“You would not believe how disheartening it is for someone to not be able to wash their own hair because they just had a stroke,” says Jamie Morris, who has a master’s degree in occupational therapy from Loma Linda University (www.llu.edu).
A master’s degree is required to be an occupational therapist, but you can work as an occupational therapy assistant if you have an associate’s degree.
Occupational Therapy Career: A job with variety
“We have such a broad scope of practice that there’s something for everyone,” says Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor in the occupational therapy department at Boston University (www.bu.edu). Practitioners can work full-time or part-time and build flexible schedules.
Occupational therapists work with babies, the elderly and everybody in between.
Jacobs, who has studied how students use computers, says she might teach a child how to set up his laptop. She also gives advice to parents, like pointing them to a software program that prompts kids to take breaks to stretch while using the computer.
As the population of the United States ages, experts predict an increased demand for occupational therapists who work with older adults. Jeremy Furniss of Ergo Solutions, a company that specializes in rehabilitation of people who are at least 65, says he can’t find enough qualified occupational therapists to hire.
Typical day in an occupational Therapy career
Therapists with Ergo Solutions, which is based in Washington, D.C., work with patients who have been released from hospitals, but need help living independently. They might not be able to cook or get dressed without assistance.
Therapists there have seven or eight patients each day. Treatments are designed for individual patients based on their limitations and goals. “Some of the treatments could be in the kitchen cooking,” says Furniss, the company’s vice president of operations. “Some of them could be in the swimming pool. Some of them could be on horseback.”
Furniss says therapists at his company spend about 80 percent of their time working one-on-one with patients.
A promising career
An occupational therapy career may be a good option if you want to work in health care, but don’t want to be a doctor. About 109,000 occupational therapists worked in the U.S. in 2010, and about 145,000 are expected to be needed in 2020.
Therapists need to be good listeners and able to connect with people because they have to motivate patients to accomplish difficult tasks. Creativity also helps.
“I think it’s one of the most creative fields within health care and within medicine because each therapy is individualized for each patient,” Furniss says. Many get into the field after seeing an occupational therapist help a friend or relative. That was the case for Morris, who volunteered at a foster home for infants with health problems when she was in high school. One of those babies was born with several illegal drugs in her body and suffered a brain injury after being shaken by her birth mother.
Morris’ family eventually adopted that infant and an occupational therapist helped the little girl learn to crawl and talk. “We got to watch firsthand what therapy can do,” Morris says. She studied psychology at Regis University (www.regis.edu) before earning her master’s degree in an occupational therapy program.
Jacobs says graduate students in occupational therapy programs have bachelor’s degrees in a wide range of majors, from social work to marketing. Master’s degree programs include a combination of classes and fieldwork experiences in which students work with real patients.
Occupational therapy is an attractive field for students looking for a career that allows for a balanced life, Jacobs says. “Every day, you get to wake up and go to work and feel really good about yourself,” she says. “You’re impacting a person’s life.”
Rebecca VanderMeulen has a degree in journalism from American University
Master's degree in occupational therapy
Licenses: Required in each state
Median salary: $72,320
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics