Thursday, April 30, 2015

Six tips for deciding between becoming an OT or OTA

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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Day in the Life | OTD Student

To wrap up the "Day in the Life" series here on my blog, I am so excited to have Karen Dobyns of Miss Awesomeness stopping by! Karen is currently back in school, working toward her clinical doctorate in occupational therapy (also known as an OTD). If are currently an OT and considering going down this path, then you'll definitely want to keep reading!


A Day in the Life of A Post-Professional OTD student (a clinical doctorate in occupational therapy for those who are already practitioners and have gone back for an extra dose of scholarly learning).

Here is a typical “unit” of 1-2 weeks for a post-professional OTD student (this post is technically supposed to be a DAY in the Life of, so imagine breaking these assignments down into smaller components and tacking a little each day!)

First of all: Most therapists are working full-time, and juggling a family, and spending 1-3 hours most days on homework, with more on weekends. How much time depends on how fast you read, write, and process information (and how familiar you are with technology and how much you care about getting As).

If I break down hours of studying within my own program (REMEMBER THIS IS 1-2 WEEKS OF ASSIGNMENTS) it would be:

  • Work for Analysis and Evidence of Participation: I read several chapters and multiple articles on methodology or with specific methodologies that pertain to qualitative clinical inquiries. I write up an assigned forum post, writing on our message board, using multiple sources of high-quality evidence, pertaining to that specific assignment. For example, based on the readings, what is a clinical question I have that could be answered using a qualitative approach? (That’s an extremely simplistic example – it goes into a lot more detail than that). I also do some research on topic for a 5-7 page paper coming up.
  • Measuring the Impact of Participation in Occupation: I read several articles on occupation-based performance measures, and then write a forum post on the importance of staying occupation-based in the schools, and how. I work briefly on an upcoming paper about a specific assessment I’m researching in depth.
  • Educating in Occupational Therapy: I read several articles on literacy levels, and then post a hand-out in the forums, one I’ve used in the past. I analyze its possible literacy level and how I could make it more appropriate to its audience. I work briefly on an upcoming assignment of planning out my own workshop.
  • Administration and Practice Management course: I read several chapters on human resources and employment law, then write on the forums regarding potential discrimination in hiring/firing/training. I work briefly on a short paper analyzing an article on employment law that is applicable to OT.

Connect with Karen:
(Click “About Me” to learn about the name!)
Email: karen [AT] missawesomeness [dot] com
*I am most active on FB and Twitter these days!

About Karen:
 I’m Karen and I have roughly 5 years experience as a practitioner, with most of that time in elementary
schools. I am about to start my third semester of my post-professional OTD program. I started my own business last year, focusing on my passion of empowerment of children, families, and corporations within the emerging niche area of healthcare and wellness for the general population. However, my business is on the back burner for now, partially due to this program! I’ve blogged and kept an OT presence on social media since my first semester in OT school back in January of 2006. I love reading, writing, anything at all to do with OT (I never get tired of it), hula hoop dancing, slacklining, rock balancing/stacking, mixed media, walking on the beach, and much more.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Day in the Life | Pelvic Floor

I am so excited about today's Day in the Life! Lindsey is an OT who specializes in treating pelvic floor disorders. This is such an interesting practice area and I'm so happy that she's here to share what a day in her life looks like!

When in grad school for OT, I remember recognizing a pattern of practice areas that I found the most compelling: psychosocial issues. I gravitated towards these topics whenever we had a guest lecture or read a journal article. And this interest area made sense to me, in fact it’s one of the main reasons I pursed OT over PT. OTs have a fabulous way of looking holistically at dysfunction; we recognize the role that mental health plays on physical injury. In fact, as a profession, we have deep roots in the mental health field. OT had its origin in the 1700's during Europe's "Age of Enlightenment." At this time, radical new ideas were emerging for the mentally ill. During this new era, concern was given to their mental well being. The doctrine of Moral Treatment utilized occupation; goal-directed use of time, interests, energy, and attention; in combination with purposeful daily activity for treatment.

I specifically remember a lightbulb moment for me. The latest copy of OT Practice arrived in the mail and the cover story was “Treating Incontinence and Pelvic Floor Disorders.”  I was sold! Specializing in this practice area had such an opportunity to enhance quality of life by empowering people to continue participating in their daily activities!

I started The Functional Pelvis, a private practice specializing in pelvic floor muscle dysfunction so that I could do just that: empower and enhance quality of life of men and women. 

A day in my life means carefully planning out what areas of Manhattan I am going to be. The reason is this is so important is because I do “house calls.”  I don’t treat in a clinic or busy gym. I find outcomes are greatly enhanced for my clients by treating them where they are the most comfortable. I pick certain days of the week to be at certain neighborhoods. I also spend a certain portion of my week educating both doctors and the community about the role of a pelvic floor therapist. It’s amazing just how little is known about what we actually do and how we can help. We often pick up where other practitioners stop. We see our clients weekly and in my case, for an hour or more. We have the time to talk with them in detail about their habits and behaviors, which plays such a significant role in pelvic health. And certainly a large part of my job is helping them feel comfortable to open up to me about what can be very embarrassing topics. 

What I am referring to are issues of the pelvic area like pelvic pain, pain when you have sex, frequent urges to urinate, incontinence, bladder leakage, and bowel issues.  This is the stuff we used to laugh about as kids, but as we're grown-ups and it's not really so funny anymore. 

I assess my client’s pelvic floor muscles to evaluate for weakness, endurance and range of motion – just like we do for any other part of the body! For manual muscle testing, we use the modified oxford scale.

A big portion of my session is spent in education: ways to take better care of the pelvic floor, discussing the importance of posture, the role of fiber and water on elimination. I find it such a privilege to enable people to talk about topics that can often be challenging to discuss; I enjoy helping them to feel comfortable and at ease. Once they find pelvic rehab, I often hear how comforting is it that someone finally understands the challenges that they have been dealing with for often many years. The topics that I discuss and treat are often overlooked by most practitioners either because they don’t know how to ask the right questions or the patient may be uncomfortable to bring it up. I have heard topics like incontinence described as the “hand on the doorknob” conversation. If a patient actually feels comfortable bringing it up to their gynecologist or general practitioner, it may be as they are leaving. I take great pride in that these same topics are brought up when my patients walk in the door, not when they leave.

About Lindsey:

Lindsey Vestal graduated from NYU with a Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy. She has specialized in functional pelvic health rehabilitation and has worked with a variety of populations and disorders including: Fecal & Urinary Incontinence, Constipation, Dysparunia, Vulvodynia, Prolaspe, Pre- and Post-Partum Women, and Pelvic Pain Patients. She has trained with Herman & Wallace and Maitland on Pelvic Floor therapy as well as specialized biofeedback training for the pelvic floor.

As an OT, she is a passionate promoter of bridging musculoskeletal pelvic floor rehabilitation as well as lifestyle modifications and addressing the physiological impact that pelvic pain and/or incontinence has on the lives of everyday women.

Prior to founding her own practice, Lindsey was an Occupational Therapist at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. Lindsey lives in Manhattan with her husband, 12 year old lab, and two children.

Connect with Lindsey:


Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Day in the Life | School-based OT, Part 4

Please welcome Miss Jaime, a pediatric occupational therapist who is sharing a day in her life as a school OT. Jaime has a full day at school, and then she hops in her car and heads to her second job at a clinic. Read on to see what her day is like.

8:00 - Arrive at school. Check my mailbox and email. As the only district employed Occupational Therapist for ten buildings, I am often the go-to person for many of my colleagues. Usually I receive a bunch of emails asking for materials such as weighted vests, sensory diet handouts, or notices of CSE meetings that I need to attend.

9:20 - My first push-in into a self contained kindergarten class. There are six students, a teacher and two assistants. We practice learning the words "horizontal, diagonal, and vertical" by standing up, laying down, and tilting ourselves diagonal. Then we practice writing the diagonal letters of the alphabet. 

10:00 - I have another push-in into a self contained class. This is a 12:1:1 ungraded class of children with Developmental Disabilities (ages 7 to 10). There is a teacher, a teacher's assistant and a one to one aide. We do a yoga session today; focusing on upper extremity and core strengthening.

10:50 - After a quick stop to my room to drop off my yoga mats and CD player, I get to my next push-in. This is another 6:1:1 ungraded class of children with Developmental Disabilities (Ages 5 to 7). There are four students, a teacher, a teacher's assistant and three one to one aides. We make "snow" today by mixing corn starch and shaving cream. Some of the children love it, and some need hand over hand from their aide to stick their hands in it. The teacher's aides work really hard to make sure the impulsive students don't put any of the "snow" in their mouths.

11:30 - One last push-in before lunch. This is 6:1:2 second grade class with four students, a teacher, a teacher's assistant, and two one to one aides. We start off by doing "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes". I show the children how to build a person using wiki stix on the table. Then we practice drawing people; making sure to remember all the important parts.

12:15 - Lunch time! I have a full period for lunch but I usually check my email again and do a bit of paperwork before heading to the faculty room. Then I grab my lunch and sit with the rest of the teachers who also have lunch that period. 

1:00 - After lunch I have an individual one to one session with a second grade student who is classified with Autism. She has weak core and upper extremity strength. I put her on her belly over a therapy ball to work on increasing her strength while doing a puzzle. Then we practice shoe-tying. At the end of the session, we walk to the office and she practices making eye contact and socializing with the secretaries as she delivers an envelope for me.  

1:30 - After my individual session, I have another class push-in to a self contained second grade class. I've been working with the children to learn how to write in script using the Handwriting Without Tears program. This class is full of multi-sensory learners, so we practice writing our new group of letters on cookie sheets with ketchup! The kids love anything messy so it's a hit. 

2:00 - Prep period. This is my time to answer more emails and finish writing an evaluation of a student that I tested yesterday. The period goes too quickly!

2:45 - My last student is absent. I go to one of the general education kindergarten rooms because the school psychologist asked me to observe a student who has trouble sitting in his chair. The child seems to have sensory seeking behaviors, so I run to my room to get him a seat cushion and Velcro for under the table. The teacher will keep me posted on how the child responds to these strategies. 

3:15 - It's almost dismissal time. I have some time to put away the ketchup, cookie sheets, and yoga mats. Then I pack up the materials that I will need for tomorrow when I spend the day in another building.

Travel Time! I drive to my second job at a sensory gym, which gives me the opportunity to work with preschool children in individual sessions.

4:30 - My first preschooler is a three and half year old boy who has delayed fine motor skills. We do an obstacle course designed to provide sensory input with crawling, climbing, and hopping. This helps him to focus when we go to the easel to practice tracing and copying shapes. At the end of the session, he practices putting his shoes on by himself. We go to the waiting room where I give Mom some tips to work on hand strengthening at home. 

5:00 - My next preschooler is a four year old girl with sensory processing disorder. She is frightened by too much sensory input and is fearful of having her feet off the ground. I adjust the platform swing so it is only an inch off the ground. We sing her favorite songs as I gently swing her back and forth. After a few minutes she is able to sit crisscross applesauce, with her feet off the ground. We go over to the ball pit. She is willing to go in if there are no other kids in there. Otherwise it is too much!

5:30 - My last session of the day is a five year old boy who will be entering Kindergarten in a few months. He has difficulty with visual memory and visual motor skills. He is an active little boy who doesn't like to sit. He climbs up the rock wall to get bean bags with letters on them. After he crashes down into a pile of cushions, he tells me what the letter is and what sound it makes. I write it and he traces it. Then he writes the letter in sand. Finally, he practices writing with a pencil.
6:00 - End of the day! It's been a busy and productive day. 

About Jaime:

Jaime Spencer is a pediatric Occupational Therapist currently working in Long Island, New York. She has 15 years of experience working in the public school based setting and ten years experience working in a sensory gym. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Occupational Therapy from Utica College and a Master's in Special Education from Adelphi University. She was recently certified in Assistve Technology from the California State University Northridge. Jaime Spencer is also the author of the Occupational Therapy blog

Connect with Jaime:


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