Gertrude Robertson on How to Become An Occupational Therapist

When Gertrude Robertson was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she never once responded “occupational therapist”. At least not until her academic career began at university. Yet today she can’t imagine working in any other career. Occupational therapists work in a variety of roles in our communities, from government advisors to front line workers. Depending on the specialty, an occupational therapist can also work with the youngest to the most elderly members of society.

Occupational therapists focus on helping patients and clients perform everyday tasks, or “occupations”. These occupations are not limited to the workplace; they can be as simple as getting dressed or preparing meals. An occupational therapist works to assess a patient’s needs and goals, create and help implement a plan of action for the patient to reach those goals, and then perform an outcomes evaluation to determine the plan’s effectiveness. Often, an occupational therapist will work as part of a team of healthcare providers including doctors, pharmacists, specialized equipment vendors, the patient themselves and their families. The occupational therapist looks at the bigger picture and aims to understand and improve a patient’s situation.

Preparing to Become an Occupational Therapist

In order to prepare a therapist for this complex yet vital role, they must have a solid understanding of the human body, the implications of various disabilities, injuries, and illnesses, and the ability to learn and educate others on available resources. It can feel like a monumental task, says Robertson, who herself undertook the process. But the rewards are immense, and the first step is not as daunting as one might think.

An occupational therapist begins their training in their undergraduate studies, Robertson explains. Like any student interested in healthcare and improving the lives of others through a medical professional, aspiring occupational therapists must study physiology and biology at this level. After completing a bachelor’s degree with courses on these topics, students then must apply to an accredited program offering a master’s degree in occupational therapy. There are many universities in the United States offering the degree, with some of the top in country being Boston University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Illinois Chicago. In Canada, there are fourteen universities offering the program, with the University of British Columbia taking the lead with exemplary status, according to the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. In some cases, students may choose to pursue a doctorate level degree prior to obtaining their license, but this is not a requirement, says Robertson.

After graduating from a master’s or Doctorate program, aspiring occupational therapists must gain field experience. Through co-operative and career placement programs often offered at the universities, trainees work towards a minimum of one thousand hours of supervised fieldwork. This requirement ensures that budding therapists could get comfortable in a variety of situations with patients and their families, as well as learn some of the soft skills required to excel in their roles.

The final step to becoming an occupational therapist is completing the National Occupational Therapy Certification Exam. In order to take the exam, students must provide proof of their course and fieldwork. Once approved to take the exam, students have three months to schedule and complete it. The exam ensures that candidates are sufficiently knowledgeable and prepared to begin practicing within their communities. While it is a challenging test, says Robertson, it is important that the field is regulated. Like other healthcare workers, some of the most vulnerable members of the public place their trust in occupational therapists and continued certification ensures consistent and ever improving care for those individuals.

Becoming an occupational therapist is a commitment to be sure. But, for Robertson, the rewards are immeasurable.

Occupational Therapy from Brooklyn, New York