Becoming an occupational therapist (OT) has traditionally been one of the faster ways to launch a career in medicine. Since 1998, the entry-level degree in the field has been the two-and-a-half year Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) or Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT).
The first entry-level Doctor of Occpational Therapy (OTD) program was accredited that same year. Since then, there have been two different degree levels for entry to the profession, plus multiple master’s-and doctoral-level degrees for experienced clinicians.
All those choices make figuring out which degree pathway is right for you a little tricky in this field. Complicating matters further is the existence of online occupational therapy programs. These hybrid and 100 percent online OTDs sometimes appear in resource guides that bill them as a flexible option for working professionals or an easier way to launch an occupational therapy career. Neither claim is entirely accurate.
The only occupational therapy programs delivered entirely online are post-professional OTDs for experienced OTs. That means if you’re already a licensed occupational therapist, you may be able to find an online program that aligns with your career goals. If your goal is to become an occupational therapist, however, get your backpack ready. Even if you can take some of your MSOT or OTD classes online, you’re going to spend plenty of time on campus.
In this article about occupational therapy online programs, we dig deeper into the virtual options open to aspiring OTs and cover:
Defining occupational therapy in a few sentences is challenging because the scope of this healthcare discipline is so broad.
According to the the University of Pittsburgh‘s School of Health and Rehabilitation Science, occupational therapy is a “profession that provides services to individuals of all ages whose lives have been disrupted by physical injury or illness, developmental problems, the aging process, or social or psychological difficulties.” Meanwhile, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) defines occupational therapy as a “profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do.”
Both definitions are apt, though AOTA’s is probably more enlightening. ‘Occupations’ in OT have nothing to do with paid employment and everything to do with the ways human beings occupy their time. Most of us don’t realize just how much we do on any given day. We care for ourselves and for others in hundreds of ways, we clean and maintain our homes, we travel from place to place, we work… and everything we do can be broken down into tiny sequential steps that require cognitive and physical coordination.
When physical, neurological, and psychological issues make it difficult for adults to complete basic tasks or for children to meet developmental milestones, occupational therapy can help. Occupational therapists give their patients exercises, strategies, adaptations, environmental adjustments, and tools to meet specific goals. When OTs work with adults or with motor or social skills in pediatric occupational therapy, these goals typically relate to independence or functional recovery.
Pediatric occupational therapists help children overcome developmental delays, learn and refine critical motor skills, and work through emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues. OTs who work with young patients not only use different tools and techniques (e.g., play therapy) but also have different—and broader—goals.
The overarching purpose of pediatric OT is to give children the best possible start in life so they can grow into healthy, independent adults. Treatment goals and outcomes differ substantially from patient to patient. A baby born prematurely might need occupational therapy to catch up to their peers developmentally. A child with an extreme physical or neurological issue might see an OT for bladder and bowel training or to learn to feed themselves orally. A teen with an autism spectrum disorder might work with an occupational therapist to learn to read social cues. Patients engage with pediatric OTs to address everything from extreme physical and neurological differences to messy handwriting.
People confuse occupational therapy and physical therapy because these disciplines overlap in scope. OTs and PTs both help patients at every stage of life recover from illnesses and injuries, build strength and move more easily, and do everyday activities with more confidence and coordination. They both treat patients with physical and neurological differences, sensory issues, and perceptual impairments.
They differ, however, in how they address impairments. Physical therapy focuses primarily on gross motor function and biomechanical issues, while occupational therapy treatments address issues related to fine motor and cognitive skills. Many patients see both a PT and an OT—usually in that order. After a hand injury, for example, a patient might work with a physical therapist to build strength and restore range of motion before seeing an occupational therapist to relearn to grasp small objects, hold and write with a pen, and type on a computer.
As of 2021, there are still two distinct entry-level degrees in occupational therapy: the Master of Science in Occupational Therapy and the entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy. This causes no end of confusion among aspiring OTs who can’t figure out what degrees they need to enter the field. Here’s what you need to know to find a program that will support your professional goals.
A bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to pursuing either an MSOT or an entry-level OTD. There are a handful of pre-OT programs at higher education institutions like The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado Boulder, but most aspiring OTs major in fields like biology, kinesiology, psychology, or sociology.
Graduate programs in this field tend to be competitive. You can take steps during your undergrad years to make your graduate school applications stand out by:
Some aspiring OTs gravitate toward full-time and part-time graduate degree programs because they tend to be shorter and less expensive than OTD programs. Most take about two to three years to complete and cost between $50,000 and $90,000. Others opt for the entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy, which takes an additional year to complete and typically costs more than $100,000 in total tuition. Both programs involve hands-on fieldwork and cover the fundamentals of clinical occupational therapy. MSOT and OTD graduates alike must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) certification examination before they can work with patients in a clinical capacity.
Choosing between an occupational therapy master’s and the OTD is tough. As of 2021, there are approximately as many accredited entry-level doctorate programs as there are MSOT programs with the same level of accreditation. Students in both programs take courses that prepare them to take the NBCOT certification exam and graduate with entry-level credentials regarded as roughly identical in the OT field.
Doctor of Occupational Therapy programs tend to cover more ground, however, and an OTD can open up career paths for OTs in education, research, administration, and leadership. If your long-term plan is to stay in clinical care, not having a doctorate probably won’t negatively impact your advancement potential. However, if you want to advance into roles outside of patient care, the OTD might be the better choice.
In 2017, AOTA and the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) voted in favor of mandating the OTD as the sole entry-level degree for new occupational therapists, prompting several colleges and universities to start the process of turning their MSOT programs into entry-level doctoral programs and some aspiring occupational therapists to choose the OTD instead of the master’s. Two years later, however, AOTA and ACOTE officially reversed the decision.
It wasn’t the first time the question of adopting the OTD as the official entry-level degree for occupational therapists was on the table, and it probably won’t be the last. ACOTE has considered mandating doctoral degrees for practicing clinical OTs many times over the past two decades and has even recommended that all entry-level occupational therapy programs transition to doctorates. This suggests the group will almost certainly revisit the question of dual-degrees in the future.
Yes and no. AOTA publishes a list each year of accredited entry-level MSOT and OTD programs with a distance-learning component but clearly states in its introduction to that list that there are “no accredited entry-level occupational therapy program is offered completely online.” Each entry outlines what percentage of the program takes place online. Aspiring OTs looking for programs designed for distance learners may be disappointed.
Most hybrid master’s and entry-level OTD programs deliver less than 25 percent of the didactic (i.e., classroom) curriculum online. Students still have to meet on-site lab, internship, fieldwork, and practicum requirements. Hands-on learning is a big part of the entry-level experience.
There are hybrid and even 100 percent online OTD programs at the post-professional level, however. Some doctoral programs for experienced occupational therapists still have campus residency, clinical practicum, and field experience requirements, but others focused on leadership skills, practice management, or research don’t.
You can’t earn an occupational therapy master’s online, but there are MSOT programs with online classes. A few master’s-level degree programs for occupational therapists deliver most of the didactic curriculum virtually and only require students to come to campus once or twice a week for lab work. Students in these programs still have to meet rigid fieldwork requirements, however, so don’t mistakenly assume you can keep working while pursuing a master’s in OT.
Students in Master of Occupational Therapy programs take classes in:
Some MSOT and MOT programs include a research or practice administration component in the curriculum.
Students in master’s programs complete two levels of fieldwork. The first level takes the form of a practicum, during which students observe licensed OTs working in various settings and only participate in some parts of the therapy process (under direct supervision). AOTA doesn’t require MSOT programs to include a set number of Level I Fieldwork hours in the curriculum, so colleges and universities are free to set their own requirements.
All programs at accredited institutions build a minimum of 24 weeks of full-time Level II Fieldwork into the occupational therapy curriculum, however. Level II Fieldwork is hands-on and more like an internship. Students provide occupational therapy services in various clinical settings under the supervision of an occupational therapist with full licensure.
The only difference between traditional occupational therapy master’s programs and those advertised as hybrid or online degrees is that some didactic coursework is delivered virtually. All MSOT candidates complete the same coursework and fulfill the same lab and fieldwork requirements.
Lists of the best online occupational master’s programs published in student resource guides are often inaccurate or out-of-date. For the most accurate information, search using AOTA’s list of programs linked above. You can determine which of the programs on that list is ‘best’ by looking up the NBCOT certification exam pass rates for each school or checking whether schools are on U.S. News and World Report‘s list of thebest occupational therapy schools.
High-ranking schools with hybrid master’s programs include:
Further confusing matters is that there are two distinct OTD pathways (three total at the doctoral level, including the research-focused PhD in Occupational Therapy). There’s the entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy geared toward bachelor’s degree holders with little to no clinical experience in occupational therapy. It’s similar in most respects to the MSOT.
Then there’s what’s known as a post-professional OTD. This pathway is open only to experienced clinicians. OTs enroll in post-professional occupational therapy degree programs to enhance their skills in a specialization area of OT, learn how to manage practices, or become leaders in the field.
The entry-level OTD curriculum covers much of the same material found in the typical master’s program but may also include courses in administration, research, and advanced clinical competencies. Students in online post-professional OTD programs, on the other hand, don’t take as many clinical classes—if they take any at all. Some post-professional programs focus on specialty areas of occupational therapy, the business of occupational therapy, or navigating the legislative and regulatory processes that govern how occupational therapists work.
Doctoral candidates in the University of Pittsburgh’s online Doctor of Clinical Science in Occupational Therapy program, for example, take core courses like:
Students in entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy programs meet the same clinical practicum, experiential learning, and field experience requirements as MSOT candidates, regardless of how didactic coursework is delivered. Post-professional OTD programs may or may not require that students complete specific hands-on work to be eligible for graduation. Those that do sometimes allow students to do clinical work, capstone projects, and research in their workplaces.
U.S. News and World Report‘s list of the best occupational therapy schools linked above includes some colleges and universities with hybrid and 100 percent online Doctor of Occupational Therapy programs. These include:
How you answer this question will depend on your circumstances, your capacity for independent work, and your professional goals.
Enrolling in an occupational therapy doctorate program represents a substantial time investment whether you study on campus or in an OTD program for distance learners. Most doctoral degree programs last about three years and can involve close to 100 credit hours of work. If taking some portion of your classes online is what makes it possible for you to earn this credential, then yes, pursuing an online occupational therapy doctorate is worth it.
On the other hand, there are foundational people skills, clinical skills, and therapeutic skills that are arguably easier to learn in person. Aspiring OTs in hybrid entry-level OTD programs may inadvertently sacrifice crucial hands-on learning opportunities for the flexibility they gain by studying online. However, if you’re an experienced practitioner, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by enrolling in a 100 percent online post-professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy program.
The question you may be asking yourself now that you’ve read this far is whether you need a doctoral degree at all. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. An entry-level OTD has approximately the same value as an MOT in the clinical world. Even if AOTA decides to make the Doctor of Occupational Therapy the official entry-level degree of OT in the future, licensed occupational therapists with master’s degrees will still be able to practice.
There are, however, higher-paying administrative positions, program development jobs, and roles in academic settings only open to OTs with doctorates. Additionally, some workplaces do pay practitioners with doctorates a premium, so this degree can help you earn more than the average OT salary ($85,000).
Still not sure where you belong? The smartest thing you can do at this point is change how you’re assessing degree programs. Stop thinking about your options in the context of MSOT versus OTD or on-campus OTD versus online OTD, and start looking at how specific programs will support your goals. The right program for you may be a traditional master’s, an online occupational therapy doctorate, a professional certificate program, or something else entirely. Until AOTA and ACOTE mandate otherwise, there are no one-size-fits-all academic pathways in this profession.
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