Why Choose a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy?

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In order to take the National Board Certification Exam in Occupational Therapy, one first needs to obtain a degree from an entry-level occupational therapy program. Today, prospective applicants have a choice between entry-level master’s degree programs and entry-level doctoral programs. Deciding which type of program to attend can be difficult for prospective applicants.  Although the majority of occupational therapy programs in the United States prepare students at the master’s degree level, the increase in popularity of doctoral programs may cause some applicants to question if getting a master’s degree is a good use of their time and resources. The good news is that depending on one’s career aspirations, the master’s degree in occupational therapy can be a rewarding and cost-effective option.

How are Master’s Programs and Doctoral Programs the Same?

All entry-level programs are designed to prepare students to pass the National Board Certification Exam and enter the job market as generalist practitioners, or those able to work in a variety of different settings and with a variety of different populations. The courses taught in all entry-level programs are designed based on the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) standards.

Students in both types of programs gain skills to provide direct care to clients; consult with families and other providers; educate consumers, administrators, and occupational therapy students; manage practices; advocate for consumers and the profession, and use and conduct research. In addition, students from both types of programs are able to supervise occupational therapy assistants, use occupational therapy theory, perform evaluations, and design and implement evidence-based interventions that lead to meaningful and functional outcomes for their clients.  Both types of programs require 24 weeks of full-time fieldwork.

After graduation, students from both types of programs are able to obtain jobs quickly and usually in their preferred area of practice. Graduates from master’s and doctoral programs typically earn the same salary and the American Occupational Therapy Association indicates that currently doctoral degrees “do not guarantee advanced salaries” (p. 4).

How are Master’s Programs and Doctoral Programs Different?

Compared to getting a master’s degree in occupational therapy, it may take students between 6 and 12 months longer to earn a doctoral degree. Doctoral programs are generally longer because students are expected to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of policy and service delivery models. They are also expected to demonstrate active involvement in leadership, advocacy, and professional development. In addition, doctoral students are required to complete a culminating project and an advanced field experience. The length of the field experience is 16 weeks and focused on clinical practice skills, administration, leadership, program or policy development, advocacy, education or theory development.

Although entry-level practitioners from both types of program may be qualified to teach occupational therapy assistant students at a college, many occupational therapy programs prefer, or are obligated by their regional accreditation requirements, to hire individuals with doctorates.

The Choice is Yours

As recently as few years ago, the field of occupational therapy deliberated over having a single point of entry into the profession and whether or not to make the doctoral degree required. In 2015, ACOTE determined that individuals can continue to enter the field of occupational therapy with either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree. ACOTE justified this determination because of the similarities that graduates from both types of programs encounter in the workplace related to pay and scope of work. In addition, ACOTE wanted to allow the profession to respond flexibly to changing healthcare demands.

The choice of whether to pursue a master’s degree or a doctoral degree is best left up to the individual student. Many prospective applicants consider the following factors when making the decision:

  • How much time do I have to dedicate to pursuing a degree in occupational therapy? What other life events am I anticipating? How does school fit or not fit with these events?
  • What is the state of my financial resources? How much financial assistance will be required to pursue my preferred degree? How long can I prolong full-time work?
  • What do I want the first five to ten years of my career in occupational therapy to look like? Do I want to focus only on practice? Do I want to be a manager? Do I want to do clinical research? Do I want to teach at a community college or a four year college or university?

About Dr. Susan Cahill

Dr. Susan Cahill is an Associate Professor and Director of the MSOT Program at Lewis University. She is a Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and a member of the AOTA Commission on Practice. Visit http://www.lewisu.edu/academics/msoccuptherapy to learn more.

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