A cousin of physical therapy, occupational therapy helps people learn, or re-learn, how to perform daily physical tasks. OTs employ effective approaches for achieving goals like walking or brushing teeth; their therapies can include anything from individualized strategies to customized environmental accommodations.
OT patients include:
OTs work in settings that include:
Several degree options, job titles, and salaries apply to occupational therapists. This raises some questions, including: does specializing mean better pay? Will you earn more by opening a private practice? What's the difference between Doctor of Occupational Therapy (DOT) and Master's of Occupational Therapy (MOT)?
This article on occupational therapy salaries: in-demand jobs + degrees required covers all that and more, including:
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), occupational therapists earned median annual wages of $84,950 in 2019. PayScale reports that licensed occupational therapists earn an average salary of $70,062 per year. Which of these numbers is more accurate? Payscale data is self-reported, which could result in reduced accuracy. It is also updated more frequently, suggesting that it may be more accurate. Both are valuable, and both should be taken as trend indicators rather than definitive fact.
It depends where you work. According to the BLS, occupational therapists in nursing care facilities earn the highest median annual wage—$90,830. Other settings and corresponding wages include:
According to the BLS, the bottom ten percent of occupational therapists earned a median income under $56,800; the top 10 percent earned over $121,490. PayScale's estimates were $56,000 and $90,000.
New occupational therapists earn less than those with experience—it would be shocking if the opposite were true. According to an American Journal of Occupational Therapy (AJOT) study, occupational therapists who open a private practice typically earn the most, but it usually takes a few years of experience before making the jump. Perhaps most importantly, another AJOT article says salary is not the primary determinant of job satisfaction for new occupational therapists (client interactions, coworker relations, and schedule flexibility all ranked higher).
According to PayScale, the average entry-level salary is $63,918, but again, it depends where you work.
Occupational therapists who work for the federal government have a starting paygrade of $33,903, though they can earn up to $143,598.00 with experience. According to the United Federation of Teachers, occupational therapists with no years of experience earned $73,394 in 2021.
With an associate's degree as the minimum qualification, occupational therapy assistant is the best entry-level job in the field. Assistants, or aides earn a median annual wage of $57,620.
According to PayScale, an occupational therapist with ten years of experience makes around $85,000 per year.
Experienced OTs may want to open a private practice, which has a higher upside. According to Ziprecruiter, private practice occupational therapists earn nearly $94,000 per year on average. Private practitioners also earn based on their OT specialization, location (the going rate in an area), and the number of hours they're willing to work each week. Remember that private practice OTs must commit significant resources to administration and advertising.
Knowing the average or median you can earn with an occupational therapy degree is helpful but doesn't tell the whole story. Remember, income is heavily dependent on factors like location and experience, plus education and job title. Each occupational therapy specialty has a unique salary expectation and education requirement.
Finding a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy is uncommon—though certain schools offer a pre-occupational therapy track, which prepares students for graduate study. For aspiring occupational therapists, earning a bachelor's is more about where it leads.
Most graduate programs don't require a specific undergraduate degree. They may look for applicants with experience shadowing a practicing occupational therapist or another related experience. Schools may also ask students to complete one or more prerequisite classes in:
The most common majors among occupational therapists, according to the Mayo Clinic, are:
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), jobs that may prepare you for an OT master's program include:
According to PayScale, the average annual salary for those with a master's in occupational therapy is slightly over $65,000 per year. Remember, different specialties come with different average salaries, and not every graduate becomes an OT.
In addition to occupational therapist, an MOT can help you become a:
Keep in mind, most of these positions don't require an MOT, though having one may help you specialize and earn more.
While it's still possible to practice OT with a master's, more and more the doctorate is becoming the industry-standard degree for OTs. According to PayScale, those with a Doctor of Occupational Therapy earn an average annual salary of $69,448.
Graduates from doctoral programs earn about the same as MOT-holders right out of school. But, an Eastern Kentucky University study suggests graduates from DOT programs can earn more after gaining experience. Additionally, these graduates are more likely to open a private practice, which could lead to higher earnings, Post-professional doctoral programs—designed for students with work experience—can lead to specialization.
One of the best ways to increase your salary is by using a doctorate to transition into an administrative role. Earning a PhD can lead to teaching or research careers.
Answering this question is tricky. After the bachelor's level, degree title often matters less than experience, especially as the DOT transitions to the practice-level credential. Even moving to administration may require clinical experience.
Occupational therapist salaries are less about your degree and more about what you do with it.
Occupational therapist is one of the highest-paying jobs in the field—especially if you live in a major metropolitan area and have a private practice.
Tenured professors and researchers can also earn high incomes, depending on school and tenure status. New assistant professors at University of Southern California earned $66,100 in 2019. At the other extreme, the chair of the occupational therapy department at Colorado State University earned $217,724 in 2020.
Occupational therapy specialty areas, and their corresponding salaries, are:
You may decide to sub-specialize in an area like eating and swallowing or occupational therapy for autism. Having a subspecialty can help you earn more.
According to the BLS, the projected growth rate for occupational therapists from 2019 to 2029 is 16 percent, meaning the field is growing much faster than average. There may be fewer professorships and administrative positions than clinical OTs, though the need for those roles grows with the field.
Your location may have a more significant impact on salary than education and experience. When the BLS projects occupational therapists' employment to increase by 16 percent, it doesn't mean across the board. Demand may stagnate in one area and grow above the projection in another.
The same is true for salary. OTs in rural areas typically earn far less (but also have a lower cost of living) than those in urban areas. This section discusses top locations for occupational therapists to work. States are listed alphabetically.
The states that employ the most OTs are:
The states with the most occupational therapist jobs per thousand are:
The highest paying states, and their corresponding salaries are:
The metropolitan areas with the most total OTs are:
The top five highest-paying metro areas are:
Occupational therapists earn good money, especially if they have strong business skills and open a private practice. It's worth noting that owning a business can be expensive. Costs may include:
Factors like state income taxes, which differ across the country, can also influence net income. Every situation is different, but it's important not to look only at salary expectations. Determining your earnings involves a careful examination of your situation.
It's also useful to calculate how much you'll spend on education. OTs are not medical doctors, meaning they don't earn anywhere near what physicians and surgeons get in median annual pay—$208,000 or more. Conversely, OTs spend far less time in school and pay less for their education.
This doesn't mean OT programs are cheap. Pace University - New York charges $90,000 for its three-year Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT) program.
Attending a public institution can reduce costs. University of Pittsburgh - Pittsburgh Campus charges all DOT students the in-state tuition rate—$1,122 per credit for the 72-credit program—and allows them to transfer up to 30 credits.
When looking at any list of top schools, it's essential to understand that your needs may not correlate to the top-ranking schools. Attending a program in your home state may be far more valuable than traveling to one of the "top" schools, especially if you live in a state with additional certification requirements.
As a starting point, however, here are a few top occupational therapy programs. This list was compiled using a combination of US News and World Report data, which includes DOT programs, and the AOTA's list of accredited master's programs. Schools may offer both options. Top institutions are:
There are fewer online master's options, in part because fieldwork requirements take place in person. Accredited schools with at least a few online courses include:
Online OT doctoral programs are still relatively rare. The best can be found at:
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