Occupational Therapy Assistant: Certificates, Associate Degrees & Online Info

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What kind of job can you get with a pre-occupational therapy assistant certificate or occupational therapy assistant associate's degree? Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your certificate or associate's degree.
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Studying Occupational Therapy Assisting: Degrees at a Glance

Occupational therapy assistants may work in hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers or physicians' offices assisting patients with mobility and self-care. Occupational therapy assistants evaluate patients, devise plans and implement strategies to decrease patients' pain and maximize independence. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the need for occupational therapy assistants to increase by 43% between 2010 and 2020. New graduates should expect ample work opportunities as this field is expanding at a faster-than-average rate.

Occupational therapy assistants need to be licensed in most states, which involves graduating from an accredited associate's degree program and passing an exam. Licensure is not needed for occupational therapy aides.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of these degrees:

Certificate Associate's
Who is this degree for? Individuals preparing to enter an associate's degree program or seeking an entry-level career as an occupational therapy aide Individuals wishing to become occupational therapy assistants
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) Occupational Therapy Aides ($32,000)* Occupational Therapy Assistants ($52,000)*
Time to Completion Two semesters Four semesters after completing prerequisite courses
Common Graduation Requirements -Approximately 35 semester hours of coursework -Roughly 70 semester hours of coursework
-Successful completion of fieldwork
Prerequisites -High School Diploma -High School Diploma
-Successful completion of prerequisite courses
Online Availability None found at this time Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Pre-Occupational Therapy Assistant Certificate

Pre-occupational therapy assistant certificate programs are much less common than programs leading to an associate's degree. The main goal of a certificate program is to prepare you for entry into associate's degree program.

Completing a certificate is usually the first phase of a two-phase program, which ultimately leads to an associate's degree. Students admitted to a pre-occupational therapy assistant certificate program (phase I) will need to meet the requirements and apply to phase II before being admitted. Completing a certificate program does not guarantee admittance to an associate's degree program. A certificate program could also lead to work as an occupational therapy aide; however, this position usually only requires on-the-job training.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for qualified occupational therapy aides is expected to increase by 33% between 2010 and 2020.*
  • Most certificate programs can be completed in only two semesters.
  • Certificate programs can better prepare students for entry into associate's degree programs.

Cons

  • Occupational therapy aides earn significantly less than occupational therapy assistants do (about $32,000 vs. $52,000 on average in 2011).*
  • A certificate may be helpful in obtaining a position as an occupational therapy aide, but is not required. Many occupational therapy aides are hired with only a high school diploma and receive their training on the job.
  • Students who complete a certificate program will need to apply to an associate's degree program if they wish to become occupational therapy asisstants. This means they will need to complete two application processes and may have a lapse in their schooling if they are not immediately accepted.

Source*: U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Common Courses and Requirements

Individuals applying to a pre-occupational therapy assistant certificate programs will need to meet additional requirements besides completing a college placement exam. Most programs require you to obtain a certain score on a standardized test, such as the ACT or SAT. If you hold an associate's degree or higher, you may be exempt from providing test scores. Most certificate programs require students to complete 35 semester hours of general college coursework. You will need to have a 2.5 GPA minimum to be eligible to apply for the associate's degree phase of the program.

Courses you might expect to take in a pre-occupational therapy assistant certificate program include:

  • Medical terminology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Human growth and development
  • English composition
  • Probability and statistics

Online Degree Options

Online programs offering pre-occupational therapy assistant certificates are unavailable at this time. If you do find online courses, you should always check the accreditation of the school offering the program. If you plan to later continue your education, it is important to make sure that the school you plan on attending will accept any coursework completed online.

Stand Out with this Certificate

If you want to become an occupational therapy assistant, you'll need to continue your education at the associate's degree level. A pre-occupational therapy assistant certificate can be an excellent way to prepare for entry into an associate's degree program, but you should aim to keep your GPA above 2.5 as this is required for entry into many associate's degree programs. Volunteer or paid work experience in health care is also advantageous to gaining acceptance to an associate's degree program.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Associate's Degree

An occupational therapy assistant associate's degree program will prepare you for a career as an occupational therapy assistant. Most occupational therapy assistant programs accept students once during the academic year. It is imperative that students maintain a high GPA in their prerequisite coursework and apply early because the application process is very selective.

The occupational therapy assistant associate's degree is a terminal degree. If a you wish to continue yor education to become a registered occupational therapist, courses taken at the associate's degree level will not be transferable to bachelor's or master's degree programs. This is due to the technical nature of the associate's degree courses in comparison to the professional nature of the bachelor's degree courses.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The need for occupational therapy assistants is expected to increase at the much faster-than-average rate of 43% from 2010 to 2020.*
  • Occupational therapy assistants can make a decent salary after completing two years of school ($52,000 on average in 2011).*
  • Occupational therapy assistants can choose from a wide variety of work settings (hospitals, rehabilitation centers and schools) and usually have flexible schedules.

Cons

  • Most colleges have a selective admissions process to their occupational therapy assistant programs and only admit students once during the academic year.
  • Students will need to dedicate a significant amount of time to their studies and are usually discouraged from working full-time while in school. Quitting one's current position may be difficult if an individual or family relies on a monthly income.
  • Courses taken in an occupational therapy assistant associate's degree program will not transfer to bachelor's or master's degree programs.

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Courses and Requirements

Most occupational therapy assistant associate's degree programs require students to possess a high school diploma and complete the required prerequisite courses. Students should anticipate roughly 30 credits of prerequisite coursework including anatomy and physiology, English composition and psychology. Some associate's degree programs may also require that students meet a specific number of hours observing occupational therapy assistants as a requirement for admission.

After being admitted to the program, you'll participate in labs and clinical fieldwork settings where you'll gain hands-on experience. You may need to complete all fieldwork within 18 months of completing your academic coursework.

Courses commonly taken in an associate's degree program include:

  • Kinesiology
  • Therapeutic activity group skills
  • Introduction to occupational therapy
  • Ethics and responsibility in health care

Online Degree Options

Online programs leading to an occupational therapy assisting degree do exist. The most common type of program offered is a hybrid format. Individuals enrolled in hybrid programs may attend evening or weekend courses in addition to courses taken online. It is important to always check the accreditation of any school offering an online program or courses to ensure that you'll meet licensure requirements.

Taking online courses can save you money on tuition and reduce the amount of time you spend commuting. Parents, returning students and those working full-time jobs may be interested in completing prerequisites courses online or enrolling in a hybrid program.

Stand Out with this Degree

To stand out from the competition, you could study and prepare to take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam (NBCOT) to earn voluntary certification. Passing this exam will allow you to use the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) title and can signify your competence in the field to employers. If you want to advance into a career as an occupational therapist, you'll have to complete additional education. Some bridge programs exist specifically for occupational therapy assistants who want to become occupational therapists.

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