Occupational Therapy Degrees: Bachelor, Associate & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in an occupational therapy program? Read about occupational therapy program requirements, the pros and cons of an associate's and a bachelor's degree and potential careers.
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Studying Occupational Therapy (OT): Degrees at a Glance

Occupational therapists (OTs) work with clients that have barriers, such as an illness, injury or disability. Through physical therapy, OTs help them return to their everyday lives by participating in a meaningful job or other activity helps sustain a client's happiness and well-being.

OT is a rapidly growing field with many employment opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that OT employment could grow 33% and employment of OT assistants could rise 43% from 2010-2020. Much of this growth was due to demand from an aging, but active, population and to the increase in developmental disorders, such as autism.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) oversees licensing laws and regulations. These rules vary state by state, but almost all states require OTs and OT assistants to be licensed. To qualify for licensure, you must graduate from a degree program that's accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), a subsidiary of the AOTA.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals wanting to become OT assistants or aides Individuals who want to go on to a master's degree program to become a therapist
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - OT assistant ($52,000)*
- OT aide ($32,000)*
- Occupational therapist - requires a master's degree ($75,000)*
- Health services manager - experience required ($96,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 4 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - 15-18 courses
- Fieldwork
- Comprehensive examination
30-40 courses in general education studies and major-specific studies
Prerequisites - High school diploma
- CPR certification
- Some associate's and bachelor's degree programs require documentation of OT observation prior to application
- High school diploma
Online Availability Hybrid formats are available Stand-alone programs aren't available, but transitional B.A./M.A. programs exist for OT assistants who already hold an associate's degree

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

Associate's in OT

An associate's program in OT will prepare you to be an OT assistant. You could also work as an OT aide, but an associate's degree should prepare you for the more highly paid position of assistant. As an OT assistant, you would carry out much of the therapy prescribed by the therapist you work with, but you would not be able to provide diagnoses or prescriptions for patients.

In a 2-year associate's program, you may start taking classes specific to OT as early as your first semester. If you complete an associate's and then later want to become an OT, you'll most likely need to complete a bachelor's degree program before going on to a master's in OT. There are a few programs that allow OT assistants to complete the additional education requirements necessary to become an OT, but these 'bridge' programs aren't very common.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • OT assistants are likely to experience even more employment opportunities than OTs, since OT assistants will be employed to cut the costs of therapy.
  • Being an OT assistant will give you opportunities to work with people of different ages and backgrounds, varying your working experiences.
  • OT assistant associate's degree programs are commonly available and can be completed within two years if attending full-time.
  • If you decide to complete a bachelor's degree program, you'll have already completed many general education courses.

Cons

  • You will not be qualified to make diagnoses unlike OTs.
  • In addition to carrying out treatment activities, you may have to perform administrative tasks.
  • Can be physically demanding having to stand and kneel a lot.
  • May involve evening and weekend work to coincide with patients' schedules.

Courses and Requirements

The classes for your major will be complemented by general education and science courses. You'll complete observations and complete several levels of fieldwork. Associate's degrees in OT may require the following classes:

  • Foundations of OT
  • Treatment and Planning
  • Medical Terminology
  • Human Anatomy
  • Assessment
  • OT for Developmental Disorders
  • OT for Psychosocial Dysfunction

Upon graduation, students in many states will need to sit for the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam for OT assistants. Passing the exam will allow you to use the title Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant, and most states will require that you pass the exam as part of your licensing requirements.

Online Degree Options

According to the AOTA, there are no accredited OT assistant programs offered entirely online. There are many, however, that allow you to take some or most of your coursework online and come to campus or a healthcare facility for observations and fieldwork. As long as the program is accredited by the AOTA, then it should qualify you to become an OT assistant.

Get Ahead with This Degree

Try to identify the population you would like to work with or the setting you would like to work in, and pursue fieldwork within that population or setting. This will give you experience related to the jobs you will want to get. You can also look for other opportunities, such as elective classes and extra lectures, to deepen your knowledge in a specialty area. A demonstrated commitment to one or two specific areas may make you a more competitive job candidate.

Bachelor's in OT

A bachelor's degree in OT doesn't prepare you to be a therapist - a master's degree is the minimum requirement. You can enter a master's degree program with a bachelor's degree in any field, as long as you meet specific science and math course requirements. However, a bachelor's degree in OT may qualify you for advanced 1-year master's programs instead of the standard 2-year master's format.

Many schools don't offer a major in OT, but rather offer a pre-professional program that's undertaken in addition to a traditional major. In this case, you would complete a major in a related subject area, such as biology or psychology. You may want to look for a program that offers fieldwork and prepares you to take the NBCOT exam upon graduation. There's much variation among bachelor's-level programs in OT, and the AOTA doesn't offer accreditation for programs at this level.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • With a bachelor's degree, you'll be prepared to enter a post-professional advanced standing master's program.
  • If you meet all of the prerequisites, you may be able to be certified to work as an OT assistant before graduate school if you want.
  • The combined programs allow you to expand your education in a field other than OT.
  • Admission to the pre-occupational therapy program may be competitive.

Cons

  • You will not be prepared to enter directly into the field of OT with a bachelor's degree.
  • There aren't many bachelor's degree programs that offer fieldwork specific to OT, so it may be up to you to seek out opportunities to do observations.
  • Not all bachelor's degree programs will prepare you for graduate school. It will be up to you to check with your preferred master's degree programs for their prerequisites to ensure that you're prepared.

Courses and Requirements

Required courses vary widely and programs differ in how specifically they'll prepare you for a career as an OT. Some programs may have courses that directly address skills needed in OT, while others only require general courses to prepare you for graduate school. Examples of courses you may take include:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Anatomy
  • Pre-therapy seminar
  • Psychology

You'll also need to complete any additional requirements for a separate major and any specific coursework required by the master's programs you're applying to.

Online Degree Options

There aren't stand-alone bachelor's degrees in OT offered online. However, if you're already an OT assistant, you could qualify to do an online transitional program that will allow you to earn both a bachelor's and a master's degree in OT. Coursework is similar to traditional programs, and you'll still be required to do face-to-face fieldwork as part of your program.

If you're not an OT assistant, you could consider completing a bachelor's degree online in a related field, such as biology. As long as you take all of the required courses, you should be able to enroll in a 2-year master's degree to become a therapist.

Stand Out with This Degree

Most master's degree programs require some fieldwork or observation experience, so you'll want to find opportunities to complete these requirements. If options aren't explicitly offered within your degree program, you may be able to ask OTs at local hospitals or other healthcare facilities if you can do observations with them. This will not only fulfill prerequisites, but also demonstrate your commitment to the profession.

Degree Alternatives

If you know you want to go into OT before you choose a bachelor's degree program, you may want to choose a school that offers a B.A./M.A. 5-year program. This type of program features a streamlined curriculum with prerequisites covered in the first 3 years and advanced coursework and fieldwork completed in the last 2 years. If you're accepted into such a program and remain in good academic standing, you may be able to transition more directly to graduate-level study.

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