Thursday, October 4, 2012

OT Student FAQs - Part II

On Tuesday I posted Part I of my OT Student FAQs. Today I'm back with Part II and I'll be addressing some more specific questions that I have received. 

73/365: Back to School

Photo Credit: HannahPritchett

What should I consider as I think about a career change to occupational therapy?

The main thing to take into consideration when going back to school or pursuing OT as a second career is that it is very difficult to go to OT school part-time. Most programs just aren't designed to be completed part-time. Although, with the right program, it CAN be possible to go to school part time, but the workload is often high, so be prepared!

Also, part of an OT graduate program involves completing what is called Level II Fieldwork, which is like an internship, and it is full-time. Fieldwork is typically two, 12-week rotations, during which you are working (for free!) a 40 hour week (and then often going home and researching/preparing for the next day). This is where you get the majority of your hands on experience and it is full of rich learning experiences. It is a lot of work, but by the end you are treating your own caseload! COTA degree programs also have Level II Fieldwork experiences, although I think they are shorter (possibly 6 weeks each?). Either way, it is nearly impossible to work a part-time job during Fieldwork. That is something to be aware of and to save up for.

One final thing. Occupational therapy school often requires certain prerequisites that many people do not already have (e.g. anatomy and physiology). Even if you already have an undergraduate degree in a related field, such as education or psychology, you may need to complete these prerequisites prior to admission into an occupational therapy program. I suggest you look into local OT programs to find out what the prerequisites are for your desired school.

Do you recommend that new graduates begin acquiring specialized training or certifications (e.g. SIPT Certification, Infant Massage Certification)?

I recommend that new graduates work in a setting that provides good training and mentorship. While your education and Level II Fieldwork experiences will prepare you to be an OT, there is still so much to learn about the basics, especially within the first few years. I think new graduates have so much to absorb and learn the first year of practice that it is best to settle in and after a year, start exploring what specialty areas interest you and are relevant to your practice area and your long-term career goals as an occupational therapist.

What are the pros and cons of being a contractor, rather than a full-time employee?

I've been employed as both a contractor and as a full-time employee. As a new graduate, it is best to find a job where you will have other therapists to learn from and to turn to when you have questions or need guidance. Contracting vs full-time employment is really a matter of personal preference. With that said, here are some of the pros and cons of each:

Contractor (pros):
  • higher rate of compensation
  • freedom to create flexible work schedule
  • can be easier to take time off/schedule vacations

Contractor (cons):
  • no benefits (medical, retirement, sick days, etc)
  • no paid time off (if you don't work, you don't get paid)
  • less job security
  • higher taxes (you're responsible for self-employment taxes as well as employment taxes)
  • depending on the setting, you may feel like an outsider, rather than part of the team

Full-time employee (pros):
  • guaranteed work hours
  • more stable job
  • typically includes benefits (medical, dental, retirement, paid time off)
  • sometimes includes continuing education stipend
  • feel like you're part of the team

Full-time employee (cons):
  • lower rate of compensation
  • less flexibility in scheduling vacation time (especially in hospital settings, you sometimes have to bid for popular vacation times - e.g. around holidays, school vacations, etc)

How can I get work experience related to occupational therapy without having an OT degree?

Many occupational therapy education programs require clinical observation or volunteer hours in the field of occupational therapy prior to admittance to school. I think this is a great idea, as it allows you to know what you are getting yourself into, prior to committing to a career. If you are looking for paid work experience, some ideas include:
Babysit or nanny a child with a disability - this is a great way to get hands-on experience with a child with a disability and to learn what it's like to work with a family who has a child with special needs.
Volunteer in a therapy clinic or hospital and ask about potential jobs as a rehab or therapy aide. Even working in an office or receptionist type position in a therapy clinic will probably get you the opportunity to see some therapists in action.
Work at a school as an instructional aide. Instructional aides often work in classrooms that contain a child or children with special needs. They either assist the teacher or work with a single child, individually. Again, this is another way to get some great hands-on experience, as well as first-hand experience with classroom dynamics.

Is teaching abroad for a year or traveling before grad school impractical or a waste of time?

Absolutely not! Of course that's just my opinion, but I believe any opportunity to experience other cultures is time well spent. During graduate school I had the opportunity to spend a month in South Africa studying health informatics of HIV & AIDS in South Africa. This was a library science class, not an occupational therapy class, but students from all areas of study were encouraged to take the class. While not directly related to OT, this was an amazing opportunity, and I do not regret one minute of it. Not only did I learn so much about how HIV and AIDS are perceived in South Africa, I also learned about the field of health informatics, which I was completely oblivious to its existence! As any type of health care provider, it is good to be mindful of how healthcare consumers receive information about public health issues.

After I finished grad school, I spent three months backpacking through Europe. This was more for fun than for educational purposes, but as with my trip to South Africa, it was an eye opening cultural experience. I encourage people to travel as much as possible and it is much easier to do so when you are young, have fewer commitments, and as I like to say, " are still in the mindset of living like a college student." I spent three months in Europe camping, sleeping in shared rooms in youth hostels, and attempting sleep on overnight trains, all while eating food from grocery stores, not restaurants. No fancy hotels, spa days, or lavish French restaurants! I still consider myself to be young, but could I travel like that now? Even if I had the ability to not work for three months, I think I've outgrown my days of traveling on the very cheap. That was my very wordy was of saying, "travel as much as possible!" I've never had a potential employer question why there is an empty year on my resume between OT school and my first job. I'm sure if anyone did, they would not turn me away because I chose to spend some time traveling.

So, what do you think? Are you ready to pursue a career in occupational therapy? Do you have any questions that I didn't answer? If so, please leave a comment below or send me an email at I'd love to hear from you!

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