How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Three Parts:Educational and Licensing RequirementsChoosing a Career PathMaintaining Your License

Occupational therapists work with people across the lifespan to help them do the things they want and need to do, despite injury or illness. Their work includes mental health, where they help people in all aspects of their daily lives to succeed in their life roles (parent, worker, friend, student, etc.). Occupational therapy is a holistic profession, and deals with any physical, cognitive, or emotional issue that keeps a person from succeeding in the areas important to him/her.

You can find Occupational therapists working in schools, hospitals, the military, nursing homes, rehab facilities, pediatric practice, wellness programs, community agencies, substance abuse rehab, private practice, and many many more places. Occupational therapy is a skilled allied health profession whose unique value is the use of individualized, purposeful activities as the basis of therapy.

A career in occupational therapy requires a master's degree for entry level, although many people also earn a doctoral degree. Therapists must pass an initial certifying exam given by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, and be licensed by their state. Each state has its own continuing education requirements. The American Occupational Therapy Association offers more information for potential students on its website at

Also, after reviewing this site and the AOTA website, look on Amazon or Google for books where there are detailed instructions and tips on this subject. Review blogs and videos on the internet as well.

Part 1
Educational and Licensing Requirements

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    Every occupational therapy program has different requirements, but most will require you to have previous coursework in biology and/or physiology in order to apply.
    • Biology, psychology, and sociology are among the most common undergraduate majors to have for those planning to enter an occupational therapy program.
    • Verify the requirements for your occupational therapy program of choice before you finish your undergraduate work. That way, you can be sure to complete all the preliminaries you need by the time you earn your bachelor's degree.
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    Complete an accredited occupational therapy program. Most programs are two years in length and result in a master's degree, but longer, more extensive doctoral programs are also available. All require both Level I and Level II Fieldwork to obtain clinical experience. Fieldwork is supervised and usually lasts for roughly 24 weeks.
    • The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc., has a complete list of accredited occupational therapy programs. This list is available on their website.[1]
    • Note that some schools offer dual programs that result in the simultaneous completion of a bachelor's and master's degree. These programs usually take five years to complete. Additionally, there are online programs available through some schools.
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    Pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists exam. All states require occupational therapists to have a license, and prospective therapists must have certification from the NBCOT in order to obtain a license.
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    Apply for a license in your state and pay any necessary fees. Specific requirements and fees vary by state and may change from year to year, so you should look up the requirements from the occupational therapy licensure board for the state you plan to work in.
    • Some states only require prospective occupational therapists to pay a fee and complete the NBCOT exam, as well as the prerequisites necessary to take the exam. For instance, in New York, you must have completed an accredited Occupational Therapist Program earning an entry-level master's degree or post-baccalaureate certificate, finished at least six months of supervised field work, and passed the NBCOT with a score of 450 or higher.[2]
    • Other states require prospective occupational therapists to pay a fee, complete the NBCOT exam, and pass a state-specific written exam or questionnaire. First-time license applicants in Texas, for example, take an online, open-book Jurisprudence Exam that covers rules and regulations specific to the state.[3]
    • A few states also grant leeway to applicants who were previously licensed in another state. Occupational therapists must still apply for a new state license before working in a different state, but some states permit previously licensed applicants to work under limited conditions while the application process progresses. In California, applicants can work in association with a California-licensed therapist up to 60 days after applying for a state license.[4] In New York, applicants can work under the same conditions up to one year.
    • Fees vary by state, but first-time applicants usually end up paying a couple hundred dollars. In Texas, the fee as of 2012 was $140, but in New York, the fee was $294.

Part 2
Choosing a Career Path

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    Work through a government agency. Occupational therapy jobs can be found in the public sector at the federal, state, and local levels, but these jobs are most common at the state and local levels.
    • Use an online database of government positions. Do a search for "occupational therapist" positions and browse through the results until you find one located in a state that you can practice in or wish to practice in.
    • Contact local and state agencies directly. If there is a specific agency you wish to work at, call your local branch and inquire about current or future positions.
    • The most common government agencies and offices in need of occupational therapists are state hospitals, state nursing homes, branches of the military, offices of veterans' affairs, and public schools.
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    Work through a non-profit. Most therapy-oriented non-profits are charities run for those who cannot otherwise afford proper care. These charities usually work with patients to relieve pain and evaluate future needs.
    • Search in the phone book or online for charitable occupational therapy opportunities in your area. You can find job openings using most major job search websites or by searching through the Yellow Pages for existing occupational therapist offices or charities.
    • Consider a career with children. Most non-profit occupational therapy jobs involve working with children, especially when those children have chronic and costly medical conditions or come from low-income families.
    • Prepare to make home visits. While many non-profits work from a centralized location, some also offer home visitation services for patients who must struggle in order to leave the house.
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    Work for an agency, hospital, or clinic.
    • As the population ages there's an increased need for occupational therapists to help older adults age safely in their homes, by managing chronic disease, and adapting to low vision, cognitive issues, and other changes associated with aging.
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    Set up your own private practice. Occupational therapists often operate as doctors do, working in their own private practices through private hospitals or from an independent medical office.
    • Take business courses. You do not need a business degree, but having one wouldn't hurt, either. At the very least, you should take a few entrepreneurial courses and business finance or accounting classes to gain an understanding of the business side of things. Essentially, you'll be running your own business, so you need to have a thorough understanding of what that entails.
    • Find out about state and local regulations. Aside from needing to be licensed as an occupational therapist, you will also need to meet zoning regulations, building codes, and various health and safety codes.
    • Determine your field of specialty. A general occupational therapist will work with patients of all ages and backgrounds, but you can also specialize in pediatric or geriatric care.
    • Get the word out. Once you start your practice, you will need to attract patients. One of the best ways to do so is by forming professional relationships with area doctors who may be willing to refer in-need patients to your office.

Part 3
Maintaining Your License

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    Know how often you need to renew your license. Regulations vary by state, but most states will require occupational therapists to renew their licenses every two years.
    • In Texas, therapists must renew their licenses every two years after the year the license was first issued.
    • In California, a license must be renewed every two years based on the holder's year of birth. Someone born in an even year will always renew in an even year, but someone born in an odd year will always renew in an odd year.
    • In Pennsylvania, licenses always expire in odd-numbered years.[5] Similarly, in Virginia, licenses always expire in even-numbered years.[6]
    • States will usually send out notifications to let you know that your license needs to be renewed, but you will be responsible for renewing it even if the notice does not arrive.
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    Continue your education. Each state has its own requirements for continuing education. Usually, renewal of a license requires a therapist to complete a certain number of Professional Development Units (PDUs).
    • In California, practitioners must complete 24 PDUs. These PDUs usually involve things like performing professional services, attending workshops and classes, making presentations, doing fieldwork supervision, and publishing academically.
    • In Texas, continued education must include 30 credit hours of courses and practical experience that goes beyond standard practice. Practitioners must also retake to Jurisprudence Exam.
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    Pay the necessary fee. Renewal fees vary by state. You can look up the renewal fees for your state online or by contacting the division of professional licensing for your state via telephone.
    • In Texas, renewal fees total $242. In California, the fee is only $150. Some fees are even lower, however. For instance, Pennsylvania only charges a $55 fee for renewal.


  • After reviewing this article, go to for more information about getting started as an occupational therapist.
  • Know which character traits you will be expected to demonstrate. In general, you must be empathetic, compassionate, and in possession of strong communication skills. You must also have a strong work ethic and be able to problem-solve. Oftentimes, you will need to demonstrate certain traits before being licensed by a state, and you may lose your license if you commit a serious infraction against those traits.

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