Maybe you’re interested in getting into the OT profession, but there aren’t any occupational therapy schools near you and relocating is not an option. Or perhaps you aren’t ready to enroll in a master’s degree in OT.
Whatever your reasons, if you have a passion for making a difference in people’s lives, you can get into this fast-growing healthcare field sooner by becoming a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA) — and you don’t need a previous degree to get started.
Here’s what you need to know about getting into occupational therapy as an OTA and whether it’s right for you.
Getting Into OT as an OTA
Before choosing a path, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the differences and similarities between occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants.
When a patient (often referred to as a client) first sees an OT, he or she will assess the client’s condition, wants and needs, and then develop a treatment plan. Then, depending on the size of the practice, either an occupational therapist or an OTA will work with the client to carry out the plan of care and achieve specific short- and long-term goals. Throughout the treatment process, the OTA will report back to the OT the client’s progress, what’s working and what isn’t, and other pertinent information. However, don’t think an OTA is just an order-taker; providing clients with effective care necessitates a collaborative relationship between OTs and OTAs.
Becoming an OT
To become an OT, you first need a master’s degree in occupational therapy (on top of a bachelor’s degree — sometimes required to be in a related health science field). Graduation, however, isn’t the final step to becoming an occupational therapist registered (OTR). For that, you must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam and apply for a state license.
Becoming an OTA
On the other hand, by earning an Associate of Applied Sciences in OTA — for example, through St. Catherine’s Online OTA program — you can start practicing much sooner than had you chosen to become an OT. Similar to OTRs, to become a COTA, you will need to pass the NBCOT exam for OTAs and apply for a license to practice in the state
Predictably, OTs have greater autonomy and can earn more than OTAs (though a master’s in OT also costs more). OTs can also operate their practices, as well as find work teaching future occupational therapy practitioners. However, as we’ll discuss in greater detail, OTAs enjoy considerable earning potential, a wealth of career options, flexibility, and the ability to make a real difference in the lives of others. Not to mention, it’s a great way to learn the ins and outs of the profession and practice should you wish to use your career in OTA as a stepping-stone toward becoming an occupational therapist.
Here are the nine reasons you should consider getting into OT as an OTA.
1. You thrive on helping others live better lives.
As an OTA, you’re going to a big difference in people’s lives, whether helping someone get back to a beloved hobby, maintain independence, return to work, overcome a cognitive disability or simply lead a normal life. Getting to see your clients’ progress and celebrate their victories with them is an immensely rewarding experience, and that’s not something you can say about many jobs.
2. You want experience in the field before committing to a master’s degree.
It’s understandable to be nervous about pursuing a field when that entails earning a graduate degree (potentially on top of a bachelor’s degree). Becoming an OTA lets you experience the OT profession firsthand — and see occupational therapists in their day-to-day work — while giving you a strong academic and clinical foundation on which to build future OT-related studies.
3. You can graduate practice-ready in as few as 16 months.
With St. Kate’s Online Occupational Therapy Assistant program, you can graduate in as few as 16 months, depending on whether you have previous post-secondary education experience. Through our mixed curriculum of online coursework, monthly skills labs, and real-world fieldwork, you’ll graduate with the skills and knowledge you need for professional practice. You’ll also graduate ready to sit for the certification exam, thanks to our NBCOT Prep Coaching Program, which begins during semester three.
4. You want to work in a growing field with a wealth of career opportunities.
The OTA profession is growing at a significantly faster rate than the majority of jobs. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates show a 32% increase in the number of OTAs needed between 2019 and 2029, which they attribute to increased demand from the aging Baby Boomer population, as well as rapid growth in other areas of the field. For comparison, the BLS anticipates overall U.S. job growth of just 3.6% for the same 10-year period.
And OTAs don’t just work in hospitals or rehab centers, either. Today, you will find OTAs in a variety of settings, including schools, community centers, and home health. For this reason, we work hard to provide students with non-traditional lab work and fieldwork experiences — such as working with adults with developmental disabilities.
5. You can make a very comfortable living as an OTA.
It pretty much goes without saying that if you’re considering a career in occupational therapy, it’s because you’re the kind of person who thrives on helping others. Still, it’s good to know you’ll be well compensated for your hard work and tireless dedication to your clients. According to the BLS, as of April 2021, OTAs earn a mean annual wage of $60,950. Of course, actual salaries vary significantly by location, with states like Texas, Virginia, and California paying the most.
6. You want to get into the OT field but are unable to relocate for school.
Our program was designed to accommodate learners across the country, like Michelle, who has three kids and lives in a small, remote town in Colorado. For this now-graduate, St. Kate’s Online OTA program gave her the opportunity she was looking for without needing to drive three hours each way, several days a week to attend the nearest OT school.
That’s why 80% of our innovative curriculum is online coursework, which can be completed anywhere, any time (of course, assignment due dates still apply). Students will still need to travel to skills labs and Level I Fieldwork. Labs are held about once a month on a Sunday, and the initial fieldwork consists of just two, three-day sessions, making travel for these sessions very doable with a little planning. Of course, the majority of your fieldwork, Level II Fieldwork, is where you’ll practice as an OTA in a real-life setting, so fieldwork sites can vary. When you start the program, you’ll be connected with a fieldwork coordinator who will work to find you Level II Fieldwork experiences.
7. You can’t see yourself doing the same thing day in and day out.
No two days are the same in occupational therapy. Every client is different, with different problems and goals. OTAs work with clients of all ages across six practice areas — from toddlers displaying early signs of cognitive delay and pre-school age children who lack the muscle coordination to use a pencil to working adults hoping to avoid overuse injuries or elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I like to joke that if you get bored as an occupational therapy practitioner, it’s your fault,” says Kristen Maisano, St. Kate’s faculty member. “Your imagination is the limit, so you can’t get bored. And you can reinvent your career whenever you want to. If you have the energy and desire to make the world a better place, you can be an OTA.”
8. You want a career that lets you be creative.
OTA might not appear on any lists of traditionally “creative” jobs, but to call it otherwise is flat out wrong. In fact, the field of occupational therapy evolved out of the use of arts and crafts as meaningful ways to motivate clients to work toward goals without it feeling like therapy, a practice that has continued to this day.
For example, let’s say you’re working with a low-income community at risk for diabetes. You could say, “You should work out X times a week and eat healthier;” however, many people shirk off exercise simply because they don’t enjoy it … and others don’t know what it means to eat healthily or lack access to non-processed foods. So instead you might put together a community garden project in which everyone who participates benefits … in more ways than one. Not only has the act of gardening been shown to reduce stress and increase physical activity, but participants can also reap the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor, in turn leading to healthier eating habits.
Alternatively, suppose you’re working with an elderly man whose arthritis makes it difficult to, among other things, grip utensils, in turn, making it difficult to eat. Rather than pushing him to move into a nursing home — something he isn’t ready for — you identify simple solutions to help him maintain his independence. Like wrapping the utensil handles in tape to make them easier for him to hold, or identifying home modifications to prevent falls.
The sky is the limit when it comes to identifying creative solutions to the challenges your clients face.
9. You want a flexible career.
In addition to working in a variety of settings, OTAs can also enjoy the flexibility many careers don’t offer. As an OTA, you can find full- and part-time work in a variety of settings and work schedules. And due to the demand, you can even leave the workforce for a while and find a job when you come back, so long as you maintain your license and skills.
Is OTA Your Path to Getting Into Occupational Therapy?
If you think becoming an OTA could be right for you, give us a call today to find out whether St. Kate’s Online OTA program could be your quickest path to a rewarding career in occupational therapy.