Last Updated on August 23, 2022 by Laura Turner
Occupational therapists (OTs) help people of all ages improve their independence, safety, and function. In order to become an OT, you will need to obtain either a master’s degree or a doctorate degree. Two school paths are the Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) program or the Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) program. No matter which degree is earned, all aspiring OTs must also pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Both degrees prepare students for an entry-level position in the field. The one you pursue will depend on what your future career goals are, or what your current lifestyle circumstances are.
Both degrees emphasize clinical skills and evidence-based practice. The MOT will ensure clinical readiness and an understanding of OT principles. You could provide therapy services in any setting. The OTD will dive deeper into research, advanced concepts, and leadership. You could become a professor or a research associate.
Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT)
The MOT was made the minimum degree option in 2007 for all new OTs (increasing it from a bachelor’s). According to the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), there are now 173 schools offering MOT. It is the more common option.
After about 4 undergraduate years, the MOT typically takes 2 to 2.5 years full-time. Summers and fieldwork placements are included. Some colleges offer weekend programs as an alternative to weekday studies. This suits the working population or those with young children. MOT graduates can thus enter the profession sooner than doctoral ones. They can then gain experience, pursue a specialty, earn an income, and discover what populations they enjoy working with.
Costs for MOT degrees will vary by location, but three snapshots are: Davenport University totals out to $78,443, Le Moyne College charges $91,500, and Springfield College costs $61,182. The major fieldwork portion of the program, Level II, will demand 24 weeks of your time. You might be required to pay for transportation, room and board, and other “real job” expenses.
The intention of the MOT is to provide a foundation in liberal arts and sciences. Emphasis is on human occupations across the lifespan, disabilities, biology, and psychosocial theories. ACOTE sets the learning standards for all schools to follow. Pursuing this degree might mean you are focused on clinical practice and getting right to work. You may not be interested in in-depth research and advanced theories.
The master’s program can also be seen as less of an investment- financially, mentally, and temporally. You will save on student loans and precious time. It offers a broader foundation from which to launch into any niche since it is less “specialized” and does not require a major capstone project. Spending months on a doctoral project might make you feel tied to that particular area of study for the long haul.
Ability for specialization
MOT graduates can go on to become specialized in any area of OT. Some specialty certifications include gerontology, hand therapy, autism, low vision, and mental health. What they may not be eligible for are academic or research positions. Most OT professor jobs will require more than a master’s. MOT holders can also become managers or directors of rehab, but they may not be qualified for higher-level or presidential positions in a company. The MOT program itself, however, is generalist in nature. This means graduates of an MOT program are qualified for an entry-level position in any practice setting.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the yearly salary of OTs to be $87,480. Informal surveys from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) showed that MOT and OTD salaries were comparable and that the higher degree did not guarantee higher pay. A higher-income may rely on your choices, since running a business may earn more than working in a hospital. MOT grads can and do own their own therapy practices. There is also potential to have a non-clinical career, like consulting, adaptive equipment sales, or documentation reviewer.
Who it’s best suited for
The master’s degree will theoretically suit all OT students since their ultimate goal is to become OTs. You will learn how to evaluate and treat a range of health conditions. This track has fewer years of schooling, so you could finish with less student debt. It is also beneficial for those already in the therapy field who wish to further their careers. Many Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTAs) return to school for their master’s. Adult learners may choose the shorter and more accessible MOT to change their careers.
Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD)
The OTD (Occupational Therapy Doctorate) is growing in popularity these days. Many college students are opting for this degree path from the start of their undergraduate journey due to anticipating that the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) may make an OTD a requirement to practice in the field. While AOTA was considering mandating the OTD for some time — due to a similar mandate being made for physical therapists — they ultimately decided against this mandate several years ago (Editor’s Note: A mandate has been set for 2025). This means that, at least for the time being, OTs are still only required to have a master’s degree to practice.
Most OTD programs require an additional 1.5 to 2 years of schooling, including a community-based research project. For this reason, individuals who choose the OTD route will end up paying anywhere between $30,000 and $60,000 more than people who take the MOT route. These are raw estimates since the exact cost is dependent on whether someone gets grants or scholarships. Cost may also go down slightly if someone enters the program with some credits that transfer over from another degree program.
The intention of the OTD program is to give students the opportunity for a deeper understanding of the OT field from a clinical lens. The MOT gives students a beginner’s look into topics such as leadership and advocacy as well as theory. But OTD programs offer students more advanced experience in policy analysis, program development, and leadership roles. This usually results in a more thorough understanding of how to address complex healthcare-related issues in our society.
Ability for specialization
Unlike MOT programs, the majority of OTD programs offer specialty tracks for therapists who are interested in certain areas. Specialty tracks usually consist of students taking certain elective courses to offer added expertise in a certain area. Specialties typically include mental health, leadership and management, pediatrics, neurological rehab, and geriatrics. However, some only have generalist tracks or no specialties at all. For this reason, it’s important to research OTD programs to determine what their curriculum consists of.
OTs with their OTD who are entering the field as entry-level therapists are expected to make the same as a therapist with an MOT. For this reason, many people may be deterred from pursuing this degree. If an entry-level therapist with an OTD works their way up to a management position or full-time professor role (which is more possible if someone has an OTD), they will likely make slightly more than a therapist with an MOT degree. However, since the positions that OTD therapists vs. MOT therapists assume are largely the same, the pay will mostly be the same as well.
Who it’s best suited for
OTD degrees are most ideal for therapists who know they are interested in entering academia and teaching full-time someday. They may also be helpful for OTs who strive to be a Director of Rehabilitation or another supervisory role. Those OTs interested in doing research projects and research-based roles in conjunction with a hospital or other large organization are better off getting an OTD as opposed to an MOT. However, a therapist interested solely in research should consider a Ph.D., since this degree is more research-intensive than an OTD, which is intended for clinical professionals who want to treat patients.
The post-professional OTD program (PP-OTD) is for therapists who are currently practicing and decide to return to school for their doctorate in the field. These programs are usually highly flexible with part-time schedules during the evenings, since they are meant to accommodate working professionals. PP-OTD programs usually offer specialties and have a structure similar in nature to standard OTD programs.
As you can see, there is a range of reasons why someone might pursue either an MOT or OTD. Both programs prepare students for an entry-level role as occupational therapy clinicians in any setting. MOT programs do not cover theory analysis and policy development as heavily as OTD programs do, so students interested in that as well as teaching roles should opt for the OTD. MOT programs on their own take less time and are usually better for adult learners with families and other commitments. But master’s-level therapists who are currently working and want to return to school will benefit from the flexibility of a PP-OTD program, which is made for practicing therapists.
There are many options that should be carefully considered before entering one of these programs. But the bottom line is that both will give someone a great start in the field of occupational therapy.