It’s probably safe to assume you earned a degree in kinesiology because you want to help people live better lives. But what if you don’t want to be a physical or athletic trainer, fitness instructor, or exercise physiologist?
A few years back, Michaela and Tiffany found themselves wondering the same thing. What can you do with a kinesiology degree? Ultimately, the two Californians came to the same conclusion — that they could better utilize their knowledge of the mechanics of the human body and science behind exercise and fitness as certified occupational therapy assistants (COTAs).
We sat down with them to find out why they decided to put their Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology and Exercise Science degrees to use as occupational therapy assistants. But first, for those who are unfamiliar, what is occupational therapy and what do OTAs do?
Occupational Therapy: OTs and OTAs
Most people have heard of physical therapy — the physical treatment of a disease, injury or other condition using methods such as exercise or massage. Less known, though, is occupational therapy. In fact, some people think it’s just another name for physical therapy, while others believe it applies to work-related injuries only. Neither is correct.
Occupational therapy helps patients of all ages with disabilities, illnesses and injuries to perform activities of daily living (ADLs), as well as to adapt to changes in their health so that they can live richer, more meaningful lives. This makes for a diverse range of practice areas, with occupational therapists (OTs) and OTAs finding work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, rehab clinics, schools and retirement communities.
Interested in learning more about how physical and occupational therapy compare? We detailed the differences and similarities.
What Do OTAs Do?
After meeting with a new patient for an initial evaluation, the occupational therapist puts together a treatment plan. Depending on the patient and his or her needs, this may include specific, step-by-step instructions or it may simply outline basic goals to be achieved. It’s the job of the OTA to work with the patient to carry out this plan. Doing so requires extensive knowledge of the human body and occupational therapy interventions, as well as a good degree of creativity.
For example, on a given day you might:
- Make or recommend modifications to an elderly person’s home so that he or she is able to remain in place
- Help someone find a new way of doing a task so that he or she can get back to a more normal way of life
- Use equine-assisted occupational therapy to increase engagement and reduce anxiety in an autistic child
- Use games to help a child develop the finger strength and dexterity necessary to write with a pencil or pen — an increasingly common issue in the age of tablets
OTAs Have a Wealth of Opportunities
“I could go pretty much in any direction,” said Tiffany, a December 2018 graduate of St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program. “There’s a lot of different opportunities out there to where, if I get bored or maybe want to try something new, I can use my OTA credential in a different spot.”
Because there are so many areas in which occupational therapy can be applied, the demand for OTAs is growing fast. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that the number of OTAs would grow 32% by 2029. Not to mention that hospitals are increasingly looking at ways to improve patient care by incorporating occupational therapy. Also worth looking at is the pay. As of May 2020, OTAs earned an annual median wage of $60,950 a year — with OTAs in California earning the most.
Making the Transition from Kinesiology to OTA
Like many second-degree students, Michaela knew she wanted to change careers years ago. Unfortunately, she had too much going on in her life at that time and put her plans on hold. Then she discovered the Online OTA program from St. Catherine University. Unlike most programs in California, the Online OTA program offers online coursework, which allowed her to continue working.
“I love online learning,” said Michaela, also a December 2018 graduate of the Online OTA program. “I like doing things at my own pace, especially since I work full time. It’s much more flexible with my schedule.”
For Tiffany, a volunteer at a non-profit that uses therapeutic horseback riding to help children with mental and physical disabilities, becoming an OTA was a way to go into something more specific while incorporating her previous education and experience. Having only recently graduated, she wanted to keep the momentum of being in school going. And like Michaela, Tiffany was looking for a program that offered online coursework so that she could continue working.
Of course, this is not to say that the program is online only. Students get extensive hands-on experience through skills labs and fieldwork. In these once-monthly skills labs, you’ll learn how to apply what you’ve learned in your coursework to the practice setting.
“Labs are where we see, teach and do,” said Tiffany. “So we get to do the functional movements, and feel and see how it’s supposed to be done before we do it with clients.”
Fieldwork takes this concept further, first with 80 hours of Level I fieldwork where you observe OTA professionals at work. Rounding out the program is 640 hours of Level II fieldwork, where you’ll get to experience firsthand the work of OTAs.
You Don’t Have to Move for OTA School
One of the great things about St. Kate’s Online OTA program is that you can study from anywhere in the country, so long as you’re willing to travel to the once-monthly labs, which are held on Sundays, and the two, three-day Level I fieldwork experiences. When you enroll in the program, a fieldwork coordinator will work with you to identify Level II fieldwork opportunities in your area. See our blog Are There Any OTA Programs Near Me? to learn more about how it works.
Now graduates of the program, both offer a similar piece of advice for those considering the OTA field: follow your dreams.
“I would say if you’re considering it and you want to be an OTA, you should jump in and do it,” said Tiffany. “It may seem daunting but there’s so much support. The only thing you can do is dive in and fulfill your dream.”
Ready to Use Your Kinesiology Degree to Become an OTA?
If you’re unsure about what you can do with a kinesiology degree and love helping people, St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program could be your path to a rewarding and in-demand profession. Contact an admissions counselor today to find out how you can graduate a practice-ready OTA in as few as 16 months.