You may have heard of occupational therapy, but do you know what an occupational therapist does?
Typically, a person will make an appointment with an occupational therapist after they have experienced a significant injury, illness, disability, or mental health condition.
Occupational therapists work with their patients and the patients’ family members to develop a plan of action for returning to independent, fulfilling, and functional lives. Interventions depend on the diagnosis.
Occupational therapists work in various contexts, including hospitals, hospice care, nurseries, homes, schools, community clinics, and even resorts. Many returning military personnel also seek assistance from occupational therapists after serving a tour.
In addition to interventions concerning mobility, speech, and behavior regulation, occupational therapists might coach business leaders on creating a healthy work-life balance among their employees, promote community programs for youth at risk of joining a gang, or help older adults use adaptive technology to feed themselves.
The demand for occupational therapists continues to soar; in fact, it was recently named the #1 job that artificial intelligence is least likely to take over!
To become an occupational therapist, one needs to obtain a master’s degree, at the minimum, and pass any required certification exams, like the NBCOT (National Board Certification in Occupational Therapy).
Fortunately, the United States is home to some of the best occupational therapy programs in the world. We’ve selected ten of the best occupational therapy schools based on their program offerings and national rankings in the U.S. News & World Report.
Tufts University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (Medford, MA)
Tufts occupational therapy students can anticipate jumping right into fieldwork – the cornerstone of the school’s degree programs – in their first year of study!
Level I experiences allow students to apply their knowledge to practical settings in pairs or independently.
Level II fieldwork requires a minimum commitment of 24 full-time weeks, in which students build upon existing skills and learn about the administrative and management aspects of operating an occupational therapy practice.
Fieldwork is a part of all of Tufts’ graduate offerings, which include an entry-level occupational therapy doctorate for students entering Tufts with a bachelor’s degree outside of the field of occupational therapy.
Within this program, a student might take a course like OTS 194: Working with Children with Self-Regulation Issues in Schools. In this class, students examine the sensory, emotional, and behavioral aspects of poor behavior regulation and test methods for intervention.
Unique certificate programs for working occupational therapists include a Certificate in Hand and Upper Extremity Rehabilitation and an Assistive Technology Certificate.
NYU Steinhardt (New York, NY)
NYU Steinhardt currently offers six professional degrees in occupational therapy, ranging from a one-year master’s post-professional degree to a doctor of philosophy in rehabilitation services.
Occupational therapy students at NYU Steinhardt are encouraged to take advantage of research and study abroad opportunities during their time in New York City.
Most recently, two associate professors accompanied students to Israel with the intent of completing a “Disability in a Global Context” course.
Students traveled to schools, hospitals, museums, and other community spaces to provide services to people with disabilities.
This experience intended to compare the Israel experience with what people with disabilities experience in the American healthcare system.
Regarding research, students might assist in an endeavor like the Brain Fitness Program, piloted by Professor Gerald Voelbel.
Voebel’s team found that patients managing a traumatic brain injury showed improvements in working memory, cognitive processing, and verbal attention after participating in the Brain Fitness Program. These gains were sustained after several years from the date of their injuries.
Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (New York, NY)
Columbia University launched some of the first and most progressive programs in occupational therapy, and the Movement Science/Kinesiology Program at the Teachers College was the first-ever program in the nation to grant a graduate degree with a focus on motor learning. Today, students at Columbia can earn a one-of-a-kind EdD in movement science.
Of course, that’s not the only exciting degree program at Columbia. Students generally take two years to complete the MS in occupational therapy, which requires fieldwork in mental health, geriatric care, pediatric care, and care for people with physical disabilities.
Students complete Level I fieldwork experiences in the areas mentioned above before progressing to Level II.
Here, they spend at least three months in a mental healthcare setting and three months in an adult rehabilitation setting. Particularly ambitious students can complete additional fieldwork in areas like hand therapy or national policy.
Students can participate in an Interdisciplinary Research Symposium where they present original research, discovered individually or in collaborative research teams.
Faculty at Columbia are exceedingly committed to involving students in research. One of the most recent studies piloted a stress management program for homeless and formerly homeless adults with mental illness.
Colorado State University (Fort Collins, CO)
Colorado State graduates nearly 50 new occupational therapists from its Ph.D. program in occupational and rehabilitation science annually.
Some of the campus’ greatest draws are its two state-of-the-art outreach centers: the Assistive Technology Resource Center and the Center for Community Partnerships.
One of the few west coast schools on our list, CSU offers a beautiful haven for outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, and avid hikers.
The Ph.D. program exposes students to exciting areas of study. For example, the Restoring Effective Sleep Tranquility program has offered sleep improvement training to post-9/11 student veterans for the past seven years.
The Sensory Integration, Play, and Occupational Therapy Research Lab uses child play settings to understand children’s neurological development.
Doctoral students at CSU additionally participate in faculty-led research, such as a recent student that plans to assess yoga-based interventions for adults managing chronic brain injuries.
Jefferson College of Rehabilitation Sciences (Philadelphia, PA)
Jefferson is ranked #1 in the Delaware Valley for its occupational therapy program. Students have ten options to choose from, including a six-year BS in exercise science to a doctor of occupational therapy degree.
This program is actually designed for high school students who have known for a long time that they wish to become occupational therapists.
Students take three years of undergraduate coursework, completing all BS major requirements, before commencing the OTD program.
While many specialize in exercise science, students can also focus on health sciences or psychology.
The school also offers an online post-professional occupational therapy doctorate, one of the few online offerings available in that niche within the U.S.
Jefferson College maintains a unique partnership with Kitasato University in Japan. Students at both institutions switch places for a week in spring to experience occupational therapy education from a diverse cultural perspective.
Alternatively, students can take a summer trip to Morocco to practice occupational therapy, where the industry is starting to develop. Participants engage in therapeutic play with children who live with disabilities and help empower families and staff with knowledge and techniques.
Washington University School of Medicine (St. Louis, MO)
Since 2016, Washington University in St. Louis students have achieved a 100% pass rate on the NBCOT certification exam required for becoming a practicing occupational therapist.
Students engage in fieldwork at more than 500 nationwide locations, and all faculty have a doctorate.
Students can select from four programs, including a joint MS in occupational therapy/MPH degree.
This program intends to prepare students to address prevention and daily functioning issues for people at a socioeconomic risk of developing disabilities or chronic diseases.
Graduates attain leadership roles in nonprofit organizations, community centers, academic institutions, and government settings.
Students across all degree programs participate in faculty-supervised labs, such as Dr. Connor’s Community Reintegration after Stroke Laboratory, which aims to help stroke survivors recover and re-enter society.
Students may schedule and assess research participants, lead training sessions, enter and analyze data, and write peer-reviewed articles.
University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (Pittsburgh, PA)
Established in 1982, Pitt’s Department of Occupational Therapy has garnered various accolades, including a #3 ranking by the U.S. News & World Report.
Its Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program only takes eight terms to complete, while students can complete a one-year MS in occupational therapy or a one-year online CScD (Doctor of Clinical Sciences) in occupational therapy.
OTD candidates at Pitt complete 99 credits, which include fieldwork experiences, a preceptorship, and a capstone project. The online CScD prepares already-licensed practitioners to develop more advanced skills in evidence-based implementation, leadership, and teaching in clinical contexts.
There is also an interdisciplinary PhD program in rehabilitation science, where students collaborate with counseling, sports medicine, and health information management experts to prepare for jobs in rehabilitation contexts.
The University of Illinois at Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Since UIC’s Department of Occupational Therapy was founded in 1943, faculty have published thousands of research papers and formed invaluable community partnerships with countless organizations.
In the past five years alone, the faculty published over 300 works!
Newly launched in fall 2022, the entry-level occupational therapy doctorate prepares BS and MS candidates in an outside subject to pass the NBCOT, allowing them to become occupational therapists.
Like UIC’s other occupational therapy degrees, the entry-level program is based on a Scholarship of Practice, which places each student with a mentor faculty member and challenges them to complete an independent research project.
Studies often focus on assessing a case study, intervention, or training technique.
Research is a critical part of the UIC occupational therapy experience.
Professor Celeste Januszewski engages students in understanding the challenges people face when they transition from nursing homes back into the community, while Professor Elizabeth Peterson’s student researchers are concerned with falls and the fears of falling in their study participants.
USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy (Los Angeles, CA)
Ranked the #1 occupational therapy school in the United States, USC Chan claims a long list of “firsts.” The school was the first to initiate a post-professional master’s program in 1947 and the first PhD in occupational science in 1989.
USC Chan’s reputation is primarily staked on its Lifestyle Redesign intervention, which is effective in helping participants prevent and manage chronic conditions like diabetes and arthritis. For example, students in the Healthy Aging Research & Technology Laboratory examine how various lifestyle interventions can improve health outcomes in late-midlife Latinx participants.
There are currently six courses students can take in the Lifestyle Redesign arena. The Lifestyle Redesign Weight Management, Diabetes, and Related Comorbid Conditions course is an online class that prepares students to implement interventions for managing bariatric surgery post-operative care, hypertension, obesity, and other diagnoses.
USC Chan’s 430 students cherish the intimate learning environment, with a 4.8:1 faculty-to-student ratio.
The school’s occupational therapy students are among the most ethnically diverse in the nation, and nearly 70% receive financial aid through scholarships or loans.
Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences at (Boston, MA)
Tied for the #1 occupational therapy program ranking with USC, Sargent College is proud of its students’ three-year 100% exam pass rate in occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, and nutrition.
With more than $20 million in research funding at their disposal and 1,200 clinical fieldwork sites across the nation, Sargent students have many opportunities at their fingertips.
Boston University’s entry-level OTD is a three-year program culminating in a 14-week doctoral practicum and project – students specialize in clinical, research, education, or policy/advocacy work.
Examples of recent doctoral capstones include an effort to work with a legislator to propose occupational therapy-related policy changes, a curriculum designed for educating caregivers of people living with dementia, and an analysis of fall risks linked with childhood obesity.
Students engage in weekly fieldwork experiences as early as their first semester at Sargent. Each student is also matched with a faculty mentor, fieldwork mentor, and peer mentor, encompassing a holistic support system.