Occupational therapy is a career that attracts many people who want to work in a helping profession, and some believe career prospects in this field will only grow along with the aging boomer population.
But what do occupational therapists really do, and is an occupational therapy degree really worth the cost? Answering the latter question requires digging into not just the cost of an education in occupational therapy but also weighing the pros and cons of the job and the long-term growth potential of this profession.
If you’re interested in becoming an occupational therapist, here’s everything you need to know to decide whether this is the right field for you.
What does an occupational therapist do?
Patients who are ill or disabled often struggle with mobility, from simple tasks such as bathing to complex movements such as exercising. Occupational therapists are trained in strategies for assisting these patients to become more comfortable performing everyday activities. They can assess a patient’s current competencies and create a treatment plan.
The occupational therapist also might demonstrate these movements, recommend specific equipment such as special prosthetics, and work with the patient to help them master these activities.
Occupational therapist salaries
Occupational therapists currently earn a median wage of $84,950, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data — 10% of occupational therapist salaries were more than $121,490 in 2019, while 10% were less than $56,800. Keep in mind though that how much you can earn as an occupational therapist often depends on your specialty.
Some occupational therapists work in home or school settings while others choose a more clinical workplace. For those who provide home care, the median annual wage in 2019 was $89,220. Occupational therapists working in elementary or secondary schools earned a median annual wage of$74,670. Here’s what the annual wages were for occupational therapists in clinical settings:
- Nursing care (at a nursing facility): $90,830
- Office of physical, occupational, speech therapists and audiologists: $87,190
- Occupational therapists employed at hospitals: $85,510
The job outlook for occupational therapists is positive — it is projected to grow by 16% between 2019 and 2029. This rate is strong compared to the total job growth outlook for all jobs, which is only at 4%. It also outpaces the job growth for other treating practitioners in healthcare, which is 10%.
Demand for occupational therapists is closely linked to a patient’s ability to pay, though — which can be highly dependent on insurance company policies.
Occupational therapy requirements
How do you get into this field and how long does it take to become an occupational therapist?
Most of the time, you need a master’s degree in occupational therapy, commonly awarded as a master of occupational therapy or a master of science, the entry-level degree for occupational therapists in the United States.
After completing in-class requirements you’re also required to complete 24 weeks of fieldwork to obtain your master’s degree. You’ll need a four-year bachelor’s degree before enrolling in a master’s program.
Some occupational therapists get a PhD instead of, or in addition to, a master’s degree. Receiving a doctorate in occupational therapy requires additional semesters of study in subjects like clinical practice skills, administration, research, education, policy development or theory development. PhD graduates require a minimum of 24 weeks of fieldwork and an additional 16 weeks of an experiential component that helps develop skills in one of the specific areas listed above beyond those of a generalist.
There isn’t currently any evidence to suggest Ph.D. graduates earn more than their counterparts with master’s degrees, although they could qualify for more specialized jobs that have the potential for an increased salary.
After completing a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education, you can sit for your national certification exam. A total scaled score of 450 is required to pass the exam. If you fail the exam, you need to wait 30 days before your second and third attempts. For your fourth through sixth attempts, you need to wait 60 days, and for any additional attempts beyond this, you need to wait six months.
Should you become an occupational therapist?
Is it worth it to become an occupational therapist? Here are some benefits and disadvantages to consider before you make a decision.
- Excellent job outlook: The occupational therapy job outlook is higher than average. It’s expected to grow 12% more than the average for the rest of the workforce between 2019 and 2029.
- Public or private: Occupational therapists have the option of working in public or private healthcare settings, which could provide more repayment options when it comes time to repay student loans.
- Helping profession: Many occupational therapists take pride in a job that enhances the quality of life of their patients.
- Physically demanding: Occupational therapists could be on their feet for most of their shift and are often required to demonstrate exercises for patients, help patients move or move heavy equipment.
- Involves some local travel: Occupational therapists often drive between facilities or locations throughout the day.
- Requires an advanced degree: You’ll either need a master’s or a PhD to become a licensed occupational therapist. The average occupational therapist who is a Student Loan Planner client has about $204,846 in student debt.
- Top profession that regrets its student debt: Out of all student loan borrowers from Student Loan Planner’s survey on career regret, occupational therapists expressed the most dissatisfaction with their student loans, with 67% saying they regret their career choice.
How to repay loans for your occupational therapy degree
If you’re convinced that occupational therapy is the right career for you, it can be helpful to plan how you’ll repay your student loans before you get started. Here are some popular student loan repayment strategies for occupational therapists:
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
If you work for a nonprofit employer, you could be eligible for loan forgiveness after making 120 qualifying payments.
Aggressively repay your loans
If you owe 1.5 times your income or less, you might want to consider repaying your loans as fast as possible in an effort to repay them in less than 10 years. This strategy is particularly possible for OTs who are married to someone earning a high income.
Loan repayment incentives
Seek out additional loan repayment programs funded by federal, state or local governments. These programs, like the Indian Health Service Loan Repayment Program, incentivize occupational therapists to work with certain populations or areas experiencing high need.
Student loan refinancing
You might be able to qualify for a lower interest rate as your income improves and you earn more. Refinancing your occupational therapy loans could help you get out of debt faster. Although you give up any protections or benefits associated with federal student loans when you refinance with a private lender, some occupational therapists still find this strategy worthwhile.
The best way to spend less on student debt is by being strategic about your student loans. A pre-debt consultation can help develop a manageable education funding plan as you become an occupational therapist. Reach out today to schedule a pre-debt consultation.