It has been a great OT Month here on my blog! I cannot express how thankful I am for all of the occupational therapists who stopped by this month to share a peek into a typical day in their life as an OT. I often receive emails from readers asking me what it's like to be an OT, so I hope the "day in the life" series helps answer some of those questions.
I also frequently receive emails about how to become an occupational therapist and what exactly is the difference between an occupational therapist (OT) and an occupational therapy assistant (OTA). Today I'd like to help clarify the difference and also give you some tips on how to decide which one is the best for you, if you have decided to pursue a career in occupational therapy.
Let's start with the definitions.
An OT is an occupational therapist. An OT works independently and can do all aspects of occupational therapy treatment, including completing evaluations, writing reports, writing goals, treatment planning, implementing treatment, discharging clients, and supervising OTAs and OT/OTA students.
An OTA is an occupational therapy assistant. An OTA must work under the supervision of an occupational therapist and can do many aspects of occupational therapy treatment, including implementing treatment, contributing to the evaluation process by completing delegated assessments after competency has been demonstrated, and supervising OTA students.
Both occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants can serve as leaders for the profession of occupational therapy in state, national, and international OT associations.
Educational Requirements to Become an OT
To become an OT, you must obtain either a master’s degree or an entry level doctorate in occupational therapy from an accredited college or university. Currently, a doctorate is not required for entry into the profession, but it may be in the future. Some educational programs offer a combined bachelor’s/master’s degree program in occupational therapy, which allows for faster completion of the educational requirements if you do not yet have an undergraduate degree. The change to an entry level doctoral degree for point of entry by 2025 is currently under consideration by the American Occupational Therapy Association.
How Long Will it Take to Become an OT?
Entry level OT degree programs vary in length. The length of the program will ultimately depend on your chosen school’s requirements, but here is a general guideline for how long you can expect a degree program to take (based on full-time student status):
- Master’s program: 2-3 years
- Doctoral program (OTD): 2-4 years
- Combined bachelor’s/master’s program: 5-6 years
Educational Requirements to Become an OTA
To become an OTA, you must obtain an associate’s degree from an accredited college. An associate’s degree in occupational therapy is the only point of entry for occupational therapy assistants.
How Long Will it Take to Become an OTA?
An associate’s degree in occupational therapy typically takes two years to complete (assuming full time student status).
What do “OTR” and “COTA” mean?
OTR and COTA are registered trademarks of the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).
- An OTR is a registered occupational therapist.
- A COTA is a certified occupational therapy assistant.
Upon completion of an OT or OTA degree program, you must take and pass the national NBCOT exam to certify your degree prior to gaining employment. Depending on the state that you practice in, you may be required to maintain your NBCOT certification throughout your career.
Tips for Deciding Between OT and OTA
So now that you know the difference between OT and OTA, how do you decide which career path is right for you? Here are a few things to take into consideration when deciding between OT and OTA:
- Cost of education: It is important to reflect on your own personal financial situation before deciding which educational path to choose. An associate’s degree will cost significantly less than a master’s degree and will also take much less time to complete. Questions to ask yourself: How much time and money do I have to commit to this career path?
- Educational level: For some people, their level of education is very important. For others, it is less important. Some people love school, and other people don’t. Questions to ask yourself: Is it important to me to have a master’s degree? Would I be satisfied with an associate’s degree? Do I want to commit to a master’s program?
- Pay: While OTs do have a higher salary than OTAs, the amount of money an OT or OTA makes can vary significantly by geographic location and practice area. Questions to ask yourself: How much money do I expect/need to make? What are the average salaries for OTs and OTAs where I live or plan to live?
- Job responsibilities: OTs typically have more job responsibilities than OTAs in terms of supervision requirements, completion of evaluations, and documentation. For some people, more responsibilities = more stress, while for others more responsibilities = more satisfaction. It’s important to figure out which group you fall into. Questions to ask yourself: How do I handle stress? Do I want to complete evaluations? Do I want additional job responsibilities? Will I get bored with limited job responsibilities?
- Job demands: Along with the difference in job responsibilities, there can also be a difference in job demands. Since OTAs do not typically complete evaluations or complete as much paperwork, the OTA’s job can be more physically demanding, as they often spend more time treating clients than OTs do. Questions to ask yourself: Can I physically keep up with the demands of the job? How do I feel about doing lots of paperwork? Do I want more hands-on treatment time?
- Opportunities for growth: There are certainly opportunities for career growth for both OTAs and OTs, but those opportunities may come more easily to OTs due to the supervisory role that comes with being an OT. Questions to ask yourself: What are my long-term career goals? Where do I see myself in 5, 10, or 20 years?
This post is an adapted excerpt from my new FREE e-book I co-authored with Christie Kiley, entitled The Most Important Things You Need to Know about Becoming an Occupational Therapy Practitioner: A Guide for Prospective Students.
Click HERE or on the image above to get your own copy of the free e-book! Help other prospective students by sharing the link on your social media using #OTguide.