Friday, May 29, 2015

What to expect in occupational therapy school

Expect to treat your OT/OTA education like a full time job. During OT school, it is not unusual to spend an entire day on campus for lectures, labs, guest speakers, etc., and then spend your evenings working on homework, reports, and group projects.

Speaking of group projects, OT/OTA school involves participation in a lot of group projects! These will vary from research projects to presentations to hands-on clinical skills. Group work will solidify your ability to collaborate and work effectively as a member of team, which are crucial skills to becoming a successful occupational therapy practitioner.

OT/OTA school also involves giving lots of presentations. Terrified of public speaking? Don’t worry! OTs tend to be a kind and compassionate group, so your classmates most likely will be, too. These experiences will help you hone your communication skills, which, as we’ve mentioned before, are so critical to success as an occupational therapy practitioner. Throughout your OT career you will be communicating with clients, family member, and colleagues. Depending on your work setting, you may be called to speak in front of groups, whether it is in an IEP meeting, during an in-service, or during medical rounds. It’s best to get comfortable with speaking in front of groups during OT/OTA school while you’re still learning and practicing.

Of course, there is also the hands-on learning! You will begin learning the practical skills of how to be an OT/OTA in your classes, but it is during your fieldwork where you will really solidify these skills. We’ll talk more about fieldwork coming up in the next section.

A graduate degree in occupational therapy, just like any graduate degree, is a big undertaking. Many graduate programs require the completion of some sort of capstone project or thesis prior to graduation. Whether this is a project or thesis will vary by school, so it’s a good idea to find out before you select a program so you know what to expect! Some programs allow you to take a comprehensive exam at the end of the degree program instead of completing a project or thesis so, again, it’s good to find out these details before committing to a program. 


As a part of your occupational therapy education, you will be required to complete fieldwork. This is where the education gets real! Fieldwork is the hands-on portion of your education and where you will really get an idea of what your future as an occupational therapy practitioner will be like. You can think of it like the student teaching or med school rotations equivalency of OT school.

There are Two Types of Fieldwork

·         Level I Fieldwork: There is no minimum number of hours required for Level I Fieldwork. Rather, each occupational therapy program sets the number of hours required for Level I Fieldwork. It usually ranges from 40-80 hours, and is completed prior to Level II Fieldwork. Learn more about Level I Fieldwork on AOTA’s website.

·         Level II Fieldwork: This consists of a minimum of 24 full-time weeks for occupational therapy students and a minimum of 16 full-time weeks for occupational therapy assistant students. Level II Fieldwork is typically completed in two, 12-week rotations for occupational therapy students and in two, 8-week rotations for occupational therapy assistant students. Learn more about Level II Fieldwork on AOTA’s website.

What’s the Difference between Level I and Level II Fieldwork?

The purpose of Level I Fieldwork is to expose you to the occupational therapy process in a variety of settings through observation and guided participation in very select aspects of treatment. The purpose is not for you to work independently. Level I Fieldwork may take place in a variety of ways, including one day a week for a semester, one day every other week for a semester, or every day for a full week.

Level II Fieldwork is much more hands-on and comprehensive. Level II Fieldwork is where you really learn how to be an OT or OTA. The goal is for you to be working independently by the end of your placement! By the time you finish your Level II Fieldwork placements, you should be demonstrating the skills of a competent, entry-level OT or OTA. In other words, the goal is to be ready to start your first job! Not only will you get a ton of hands-on experience, but this is where you will really hone your clinical reasoning skills and learn to apply all of the theory you learned during your academic program. Ideally, you will complete your Level II Fieldwork in two very different practice settings, in order to solidify your knowledge across the lifespan (e.g. pediatrics and adult rehab or mental health and physical disabilities). It is truly an exciting time!

One Big Thing to Keep in Mind

One big thing to keep in mind when considering attending OT or OTA school is that you will not get paid for your fieldwork (you will pay tuition just like you’re attending school) and due to the time commitment of completing Level II Fieldwork, you most likely will not be able to work while completing your Level II Fieldwork. Be sure to plan your finances accordingly. Level II Fieldwork is like a full-time job, and then you often go home and spend your evenings and weekends researching, treatment planning, and looking things up! It sounds intense, and honestly, that’s because it can be, but you will learn so much during this time! You will walk into your first day feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing (don’t worry, that feeling is completely normal) and you will walk out on your last day feeling like you’re ready to be an OT or OTA. That’s a pretty substantial change in such a short amount of time!

To learn more about fieldwork, visit the fieldwork section of the AOTA website.

Want to read more? This post is an adapted excerpt from my new FREE e-book I co-authored with Christie Kiley, entitled The Most Important Things You Need to Know about Becoming an Occupational Therapy Practitioner: A Guide for Prospective Students.

Click HERE or on the image above to get your own copy of the free e-book! Help other prospective students by sharing the link on your social media using #OTguide.

P.S. How to decide between becoming an OT or OTA, Tips for choosing the best OT school for YOU, and a day in the life of an OT student!

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