The educational requirements needed to become an occupational therapist (OT) are continually changing to improve the notoriety and efficacy of the profession. The Board of Directors at the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) discuss ongoing upgrades and improvements to the education and management of therapy practitioners. One change which has been rumored for several years is the entry-level doctorate for OTs, following the mandated entry-level doctorate for physical therapists (PTs) within the last 10 years. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) recently issued a statement requiring all practicing physical therapists to be educated at the doctoral level by 2020. The most recent discussions from AOTA’s Board of Directors yielded a projected date of 2025 for OT programs to transition to entry-level doctorate status. This means there is still quite a bit of time before it is a requirement for all practicing occupational therapists.
What does entry-level mean? In order for an OT to practice therapy, the minimum requirement (to get an entry-level job after graduating) is currently a Master of Science in OT. When the profession changes to an entry-level doctorate, the minimum requirement to practice OT will then be a Clinical Doctorate in OT. This means once prerequisites such as biology, general anatomy, physics, and biostatistics are completed in the first two years of their college curriculum, OT students will begin their junior year with purely OT classes, much as they currently do. Students then continue through their Master’s program without needing to apply for graduate school, take the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), or transfer schools. The only requirement is to remain in good academic standing and fulfill all components of the program. This same standard will likely apply to an entry-level doctorate, where entrance to the next degree path will be determined by performance in the program and an interview with your current faculty advisors. The sequence will look quite similar for those students who transfer into an OT program after completing prerequisites.
So, what do these mandates mean for pre-OT/OTA or current OT/OTA students? There have been requests made regarding the need to raise the requirements for occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) in order match those of OT. If you are an OTA, you are safe from changes for now, as there has not been direct mention of OTA educational requirements changing. For those OTs who are currently enrolled in entry-level master’s programs, which is the current minimum requirement, there will also be no changes to your education. For those who are considering a career in OT, the minimum educational requirement for OT will continue to be a Master’s degree in OT until the December 2024. So those who are enrolled in an entry-level Master of OT program will be grandfathered in and will not need to complete an entry-level doctorate when the mandate is finalized.
With OT’s plan to transition to an entry-level doctorate already in place, those considering a career in OT or currently practicing therapists should not rule out the possibility of a global mandate stating all practicing OTs should receive a doctoral degree. Since entry-level doctoral programs are still in the very early stages of development, no one knows exactly the length, cost, course curriculum, or fieldwork requirements associated. By looking at the structure and cost of current OT doctoral programs, one can speculate students will be directed toward a specialization in OT, as most doctoral programs entail. Specializations will vary between programs but can include areas such as administration/management, health and wellness, advanced practice, and neurological rehabilitation.
The impact of furthered education in the form of a doctoral degree may vary depending on the person and their educational, career, and financial goals. The advancement opportunities provided by continued education are ample, although cost is a limiting factor for some candidates. Some form of continued education is inevitable, as 30 hours are required per three year renewal cycle in order to maintain an active status with the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). The good news is any courses taken as part of a degree program count toward these 30 hours, which saves money for at least one renewal cycle.
There are additional cost-cutting methods to improve educational affordability, in the event a doctoral degree is mandated in the future. Online degree programs are rapidly becoming more popular, offering a significant discount from traditional brick-and-mortar programs. Renting or borrowing textbooks, exploring electronic books (e-books) if possible, taking the minimum number of credits per semester, and seeking employer assistance for fees are all potential avenues to assist in decreasing out-of-pocket tuition costs. Studying the impact of current policies can provide a wider perspective on OT’s role in the community, which can be advantageous in advocating for OT. Additionally, a doctoral degree in OT provides the opportunity to become OT faculty, chair of an OT program, an administrator at a hospital or nursing facility, and better equipped to open a private practice. Such roles allow for any OT to make a larger impact, not only in the world of therapy, but healthcare as a whole.
American Occupational Therapy Association. (2016). AOTA BOD issues position statement on doctoral-level single point of entry for occupational therapists. Retrieved from http://www.aota.org/AboutAOTA/Get-Involved/BOD/News/2014/Doctoral-Level-Article.aspx
American Physical Therapy Association. (2015). Vision 2020. Retrieved from Vision 2020