How to become an occupational therapist
Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession that helps people of all ages to engage in the activities that they want and need to do, in order to live fulfilling lives. People in this profession work with individuals who have physical, mental, or developmental conditions, helping them to develop the skills they need to participate in everyday life.
A hugely rewarding career, occupational therapy helps people achieve their goals and improve their quality of life. It’s an important profession that can help people regain their independence after suffering an illness, improve their ability to perform daily tasks, and reduce their risk of injury.
As an occupational therapist, you’ll work with people of all ages and abilities, from infants to the elderly, and from those with temporary injuries to those with chronic conditions.
But how exactly do you become an occupational therapist? In this article, we’ll talk you through the steps and considerations you’ll need to take to get started in this career.
A career in occupational therapy is a promising option. According to Statista, the number of occupational therapists in the UK rose from 32,000 to 43,100 from 2010 to 2021, reflecting the growing demand for professionals in this occupation. This is largely due to an ageing population and an increased demand for rehabilitation services.
To become an occupational therapist in the UK, you’ll need to have studied a degree in occupational therapy, usually at postgraduate level. Let’s take a closer look at the education journey towards becoming an occupational therapist.
1. Bachelor's degree
In order to become an occupational therapist, you’ll need to have a Bachelor's degree in occupational therapy or a healthcare-related field. This will typically take three years to complete and will provide you with a solid foundation in the principles and practices of occupational therapy.
Alternatively, there are some undergraduate degree apprenticeship schemes available, in which students can study towards a Bachelor's degree in occupational therapy while working and gaining practical experience.
Following your Bachelor’s degree, you’ll typically need to follow up by studying a Master's degree in occupational therapy.
Bachelor’s degrees we offer
The University of Wolverhampton offers the following undergraduate degrees in occupational therapy:
2. Master’s degree
Typically, a Master’s degree in occupational therapy is required to become qualified in this field of work. This takes 1-2 years to complete depending on whether you study full- or part-time. A Master’s degree in occupational therapy will provide you with the necessary knowledge and skills to work as an occupational therapist, and also includes supervised clinical experience.
To register and practice as an occupational therapist in the UK, you must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Upon successful completion of your Master’s degree, you’ll be eligible to register with the HCPC.
Master’s degrees we offer
The University of Wolverhampton offers the following Master’s degrees in occupational therapy:
3. Doctoral degree (optional)
It’s not essential to study for a doctoral degree in order to become an occupational therapist, but it can open up more advanced career options.
A Master's degree in occupational therapy is typically sufficient to enter the profession and practice as an occupational therapist. However, some universities in the UK offer PhD programs in occupational therapy, and holding a PhD may allow you to explore more advanced career paths such as academia, research or advanced clinical practice.
Fieldwork and clinical experience
To become an occupational therapist, you will also need to complete supervised fieldwork and clinical experience. Fieldwork, also known as placement or internship, is a period of time during which students work in real-world settings, such as hospitals or schools, under the supervision of qualified occupational therapists. This allows students to apply their knowledge and skills in a practical setting and gain experience working with clients.
Clinical experience is also required, which is the supervised practice of occupational therapy with clients. Once the student has completed their education, fieldwork and clinical experience, they must then register with the HCPC in order to practise as an occupational therapist in the UK.
Where to get experience as an occupational therapist
Typically, fieldwork is arranged by the educational institution where you are enrolled in the occupational therapy programme. Placements may be in various settings such as hospitals, clinics, schools, residential homes, or community centres. Some of the fieldwork placements can also be arranged with the help of professional associations, such as the Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT).
For example, the University of Wolverhampton’s MSc Occupational Therapy course involves practice-based learning placement experience.
Registration and certification
Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)
To practise as an occupational therapist in the UK, you’ll need to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), an independent regulatory body for health and social care professionals in the United Kingdom. They are responsible for setting and maintaining standards of conduct, performance, and ethics for more than 14 different professions, including occupational therapy.
To register successfully, you’ll need to pass an examination and meet certain standards of education and training. The exam is intended to assess the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for safe and effective practice as an occupational therapist. This is divided into two parts:
- Part 1: Multiple-choice questions (MCQ) - 150 multiple-choice questions that cover the core knowledge and competencies required for safe and effective practice as an occupational therapist. Questions are designed to test the candidate's knowledge of anatomy and physiology, assessment, intervention, professional practice and ethics, and health and safety.
- Part 2: Clinical reasoning case scenarios - Six clinical reasoning case scenarios that are designed to test the candidate's ability to apply their knowledge to real-life situations.
The HCPC qualifying exam is generally offered twice a year, in the spring and autumn.
Continual Professional Development (CPD)
Practising occupational therapists are required to complete a minimum of 30 hours of Continual Professional Development (CPD) per year in order to maintain registration with the HCPC. Of these 30 hours, at least 20 hours must be structured, and at least 10 hours must be verifiable.
CPD courses are designed to maintain and improve your skills and abilities in occupational therapy practice. CPD activities can include, but are not limited to, attending conferences, workshops, seminars, completing online courses, participating in research, writing articles or publications, or presenting at events.
Skills and qualities of an occupational therapist
Communication is an essential skill in occupational therapy. You’ll need to be able to effectively understand the needs and goals of patients, as well as explain treatment plans and exercises.
Being an avid problem solver will serve you well as an occupational therapist. You’ll need to be able to think critically and creatively, helping patients find solutions to their problems. You may often need to adapt to different circumstances to suit the client’s needs.
Empathy is an important quality for occupational therapists. Professions in this field work with people who are dealing with difficult physical, mental or emotional challenges - and sometimes a combination of these. Being able to show compassion and understand patients is essential to helping them achieve their goals.
Occupational therapists are often on their feet for long periods of time, and may need to assist patients with physical tasks; such as walking. If you’re looking to become an occupational therapist, you should be able to maintain good physical stamina and strength in order to carry out your job duties effectively.
Preparing for a career in occupational therapy
When considering a career in occupational therapy, it’s useful to understand what you can do to prepare for a role in this profession. Some of the most common ways to prepare include:
- joining professional organisations
Volunteering and shadowing opportunities
Volunteering for an occupational therapy-related role can help you gain valuable experience in this field, and give you an edge that employers value. It’s also a great way to gain some insight into the day-to-day responsibilities of an occupational therapist and learn more about the profession.
Joining professional organisations such as the Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT) or the British Association of Occupational Therapists (BAOT) can provide networking and educational opportunities, as well as keep you updated with the latest developments in the field.
Networking with other occupational therapists, particularly those who are already established in their careers, can provide valuable information and guidance as you begin your own career. Attending occupational therapy conferences, volunteering or joining a professional organisation are great ways to open up networking opportunities with other occupational therapists.
Finding a job as an occupational therapist
One of the most common ways to find occupational therapy roles is to search for job openings online. There are several websites that can be helpful when searching for occupational therapy jobs. Some popular options include:
- NHS Jobs: One of the largest employers of occupational therapists in the UK. Many job openings for occupational therapists in the NHS can be found on the NHS Jobs website.
- Health Careers: The official website of the National Health Service (NHS) for career information and job opportunities in the health sector. It's a great resource to find occupational therapy jobs in the UK.
- The College of Occupational Therapists: The professional body for occupational therapy in the UK offers a job board for members that lists various occupational therapy job opportunities across the country.
- Indeed: A job search website that lists job openings from various employers, including healthcare facilities and private practices.
- Reed: A job search site where you can find listings for job openings from healthcare facilities and private practices.
- LinkedIn: A professional networking website that can be a great resource for finding occupational therapy job openings in the UK.
It’s worth noting that most occupational therapy jobs are posted on the official websites of NHS Trusts, private clinics, and hospitals - it’s a good idea to bookmark these sites and keep an eye out for any job postings. It's also recommended to reach out to the facilities and ask if there are any upcoming or current job opportunities.
CV and cover letter writing
Here are some tips to help you create a strong CV for occupational therapy roles:
- Tailor your CV to the specific job: Make sure to research the job and the employer before applying, and tailor your CV and cover letter to the specific requirements of the job and the company.
- Highlight relevant education and experience: Your CV should highlight your educational background in occupational therapy as well as any relevant work experience.
- Use keywords: It's common for employers to use applicant tracking systems (ATS) when screening CVs. Be sure to include keywords that are relevant to the field of occupational therapy and role itself.
- Emphasise your clinical experience: If you have clinical experience, be sure to highlight it in your CV and cover letter. Include details about the types of patients you have worked with, the settings in which you have worked, and any specialised skills you have acquired.
- Use active language: Use active language and action verbs to describe your experiences and qualifications. This will make your CV and cover letter more engaging and help to demonstrate your skills and achievements.
- Show your enthusiasm for the position: Your cover letter should convey your enthusiasm for the position and the company. Explain why you are interested in the job and how your skills and experience make you a good fit for the role.
To become an occupational therapist, you’ll usually need a Master’s degree qualification in this field. You’ll also need to have passed the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) exam and be registered with this organisation. This will prove to employers that you need certain standards of education and training in occupational therapy.
Occupational therapy is a hugely rewarding career that allows you to make a positive impact on the lives of others. If you are passionate about helping others live fulfilling lives and are interested in healthcare, consider pursuing a career as an occupational therapist.
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