Complete Guide to Online Occupational Therapy Degrees
Online occupational therapy (OT) degrees and certificate programs prepare students to assist patients with a variety of physical rehabilitation needs. Other possibilities for employment within the field include occupational therapist assistants (OTAs), and occupational therapist aides.
OTAs differ from occupational therapist aides in that OTAs are licensed and can provide treatment to patients under supervision from an OT. Occupational therapist aides, on the other hand, provide support to the occupational therapist or OTA but cannot administer treatment. When choosing an OT degree, students should ensure that their program is appropriately accredited. Prospective students may also be interested in browsing our top online college rankings for schools offering occupational therapy degrees.
Comprehensive List of Accredited Online Schools - Occupational Therapy Degrees (3)
Online Occupational Therapy Degree Overview & Career Information
Students in occupational therapy programs study medical science, anatomy, physiology, and different interventions in occupational therapy. In addition to didactic coursework, on-site clinical experiences in hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities help students learn how different therapy interventions work in practice. Because hands-on clinical experience is such an integral part of any occupational therapy education program, options for online degrees in this discipline are relatively limited and generally always include some in-person requirements.
The educational requirement to become an OTA is an associate degree. Associate programs include classes in natural science, occupational therapy protocol, and professional behavior. These associate-level degrees are currently not available online. Instead, they are available at vocational school and community college campuses.
There are limited opportunities to earn undergraduate OTA degrees online. Most programs are delivered in an in-person format to account for the ways in which the career is highly physical and dependent on human observation. In addition, a certain amount of clinical work is necessary for graduation from these programs, as well as for licensure. An OTA program will teach students the necessary tools they need to be successful in their career, including how to communicate with occupational therapists, patients, and family members, professional ethics, and therapeutic techniques. Clinical fieldwork will be required. An associate or bachelor's degree for OTAs are commonly found through technical colleges and universities, and a high school diploma or GED will be required for admittance. At this point, there are no graduate degrees available online for OTAs.
To become a licensed OT in the United States, candidates must complete an accredited master's or doctoral degree program and a certain number of fieldwork hours, as well as earn a passing score on the NBCOT certification exam. A majority of the available online OT degree programs are master's degree programs, but a few doctoral programs exist as well. Doctoral degrees are typically designed for current OT professionals who would like to advance into leadership roles in their career. Due to the physical nature of the concepts and principles taught in occupational therapy programs, it is not currently possible to earn an accredited master's or doctoral degree via online courses alone; all programs require at least some of the courses to be completed in-person at an instructional facility.
Undergraduate certificates are generally designed to lead to a position as an occupational therapy aide, who assist OTAs and do not require certification. Students in these programs learn how to carry out routine administrative and clinical tasks in occupational therapy settings. Graduate certificates are usually aimed at healthcare practitioners from other fields who want to develop a background in occupational therapy.
Online OT degree programs at the bachelor's level are relatively limited at this time, as a master's degree is the minimum educational requirement to become a licensed or registered OT in the United States. A bachelor's degree in pre-occupational therapy is currently available as part of a bachelor's-to-master's bridge program at St. Catherine University. Students who do not yet have an undergraduate degree can enroll in this program and complete both a bachelor's and a master's at the same time.
The admissions process for this dual program allows students of varying education levels to apply: current high school students, current bachelor's students, and students who have completed a bachelor's degree in an area other than occupational therapy. All applicants must have an acceptable GPA and complete prerequisites such as human anatomy and physiology, psychology courses, medical terminology, and statistics.
Students will take courses in topics such as public health, occupational science foundations, mental health theory, ethics and advocacy, neuroscience, and pediatric practice. In addition to these required courses, students will also be required to complete fieldwork seminars and clinical hours at a local healthcare facility. Graduates of the bachelor's-master's bridge program will be eligible to sit for the National Occupational Therapy Certification Exam, which is part of the licensing process for OTs in all 50 US states.
Students who wish to become a licensed occupational therapist will need to earn a master's degree from an accredited institution. These graduate programs take two to three years to complete and involve research and clinical work in addition to the didactic coursework. Due to the high level of physical training involved in the OT master's program, online education options are somewhat limited at this time.
Florida International University offers a post-professional Master of Science in occupational therapy for current NBCOT-certified professionals with a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. Admission requirements also include a statistics course and a GPA of 3.0 for upper-division undergraduate coursework.
The master's degree program at FIU emphasizes research and clinical practice and includes a major research project. Courses include topics such as theories and practice in occupational therapy; cultural, global, and environmental issues in OT; social justice issues for health professionals; and evidence-based practice.
Many traditional master's programs require volunteer or internship experience in an occupational therapy setting and prerequisites in physiology, anatomy, statistics, psychology, and additional health and science areas. Graduates of OT master's programs will be prepared for advanced clinical roles or for teaching roles at the university level. Those affiliated with universities and colleges may choose to teach while also maintaining a practice. After completing the master’s degree, occupational therapists may continue their education at the doctoral level.
The online Doctorate of Occupational Therapy (OTD) is typically designed for practicing OTs who are seeking advanced clinical or academic roles. Depending on the school, applicants to OTD programs must have a bachelor's or master's degree in occupational therapy, hold a current OTR license, and submit a personal statement illustrating how they plan to utilize their doctoral degree. Students should already have a strong foundation in research principles and know how to apply them to their OT practice when they begin an OTD program.
Although OTD programs are often designed to accommodate working OT professionals by offering online courses in a part-time format, most programs do include an on-campus requirement. Be sure to carefully review all program requirements prior to submitting your application for enrollment to ensure that the program will work with your lifestyle and your location. OTD programs take approximately two to three years.
Occupational therapy doctoral programs are rigorous advanced degrees that help students advance their understanding of clinical practice and administration, public policy, advocacy, education, and research methodology. Coursework required for OTD programs will support these goals and include topics such as leadership, ethics, advanced OT theory, program design, occupational science, and evidence-based practice. Doctoral programs often require a capstone project, enabling students to work closely with a faculty mentor to more closely examine their chosen OT specialty area.
At the certificate level, students may enroll in an online program to become an occupational therapy aide. OT aides assist occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants by taking care of office tasks, transporting patients safely, helping with insurance matters, and cleaning and preparing treatment rooms and instruments. OT aides are only required to have a high school diploma or equivalent, but earning a certificate may help improve employment prospects. The duties of OT aides aren't regulated, so aides don't need to earn a license in the way that OTs and OT assistants do.
The Penn Foster Career School certificate program for occupational therapy aides requires 10 self-paced courses that can be completed in as little as a month. Students will learn about the qualities that make a successful occupational therapy aide, administrative and clerical tasks, medical terminology, and the best ways to maintain a clean and safe office environment. Some of the required courses include an introduction to occupational therapy, introduction to medical terminology, adaptive equipment, and therapeutic treatments. The school also offers assistance for students who are seeking work experience as part of their education program.
For students who are considering becoming a professional OT or OT assistant, accreditation is critical. Every state requires that OT and OTA licensing applicants pass the NBCOT exam, and in order to be eligible to take the exam, applicants must have a degree from an accredited institution. Accreditation is granted to individual degree programs and schools by accrediting agencies when they meet the educational standards that have been established by the occupational therapy profession; hence, accreditation is a good indicator of a school or program's level of quality.
The US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognize several regional and national accrediting agencies for postsecondary institutions, and they recognize the American Occupational Therapy Association as the accrediting agency for individual occupational therapy degree programs. Institutional accreditation by a regional or national accrediting body is required if you plan to apply for federal financial aid or transfer your college credits to another accredited school in the future. Please visit Guide to Online Schools' accreditation hub for more information about the benefits of accreditation.
OTAs versus Occupational Therapy Aides
Occupational therapist assistants (OTAs) have more professional responsibility than occupational therapist aides, as they are qualified to administer care, prescribe therapeutic regimens, and observe and record patients' progress. Under the guidance and supervision of an occupational therapist, OTAs use their formal training to provide support for, and frequently carry out, treatment. The large majority of OTAs have associate degrees from accredited technical colleges or universities, and must complete fieldwork requirements as well as receive licensure through passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam.
Occupational therapist aides differ from OTAs in that they do not need to have a college degree or be licensed in order to do their work. Most occupational therapist aides receive their training on-the-job, and perform tasks to support the OTs and OTAs such as cleaning equipment or treatment areas, scheduling appointments with patients, or assisting with forms and paperwork. Occupational therapist aides generally have a high school education or GED, and should display strong interpersonal skills, attention to detail, and empathy when applying for jobs. It is also beneficial to have received good grades in high school science courses such as biology and health education.
Although there is no regulation for occupational therapist aides, some continue on to pursue careers as occupational therapists or OTAs by acquiring the necessary formal education and certification.
Because the field of occupational therapy is state regulated, all OTs and OTAs must be licensed or registered by their state's regulatory board in order to practice. Occupational therapy aides do not have to be licensed. While each state has its own licensing rules, every state requires that OT and OTA candidates pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. After passing the exam, candidates must pay state licensing fees. Passing the NBCOT exam also qualifies one to use the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) or Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) title.
NBCOT is a non-profit credentialing agency that offers certification for those in the occupational therapy profession. The organization is well respected in the industry, as they are continually improving their processes and working to ensure that their certifications meet industry standards. In order to take the NBCOT certification exam, applicants must meet the following requirements:
- Graduate with an entry-level occupational therapy degree from an accredited school or program and submit official transcripts.
- Complete fieldwork requirements.
- Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the English language.
- Agree to uphold the NBCOT code of conduct (ethical and professional requirements and standards of practice).
Because NBCOT is such a respected organization in the OT field, the certification will increase employment opportunities. Certification will demonstrate to the public, as well as future employers, that you are a competent OT professional and are qualified to handle the responsibilities of being an OTR or COTA. OTRs and COTAs must renew their certification every three years by completing continuing education units. It's always best to confirm all licensing and registration requirements with your particular state before beginning an OT program. NBCOT offers a list of state OT regulatory authorities.
- Dual Degree Program. St. Catherine University. Accessed October 13, 2014. https://www2.stkate.edu/occupational-science/dual-degree-program#admission-options.
- How to Get a License. The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. Accessed October 12, 2014. http://www.aota.org/Advocacy-Policy/State-Policy/Licensure/How-To.aspx.
- National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Accessed October 12, 2014. http://www.nbcot.org.
- Occupational Therapists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm.
- Occupational Therapy Aide School. Penn Foster Career School. Accessed October 15, 2014. http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/medical-and-health-careers/occupational-therapy-aide-career-diploma.
- Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm.
- Occupational Therapy Department Post Professional Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. FIU. Accessed October 13, 2014. http://cnhs.fiu.edu/ot/_assets/documents/PP-MSOT%20Curriculum+Admission.pdf.