Guide to studying Occupational Therapy
Find out about studying Occupational Therapy and what it’s like to be an occupational therapist – to see if the career is for you.
- How will you be assessed?
- What jobs can you do with an Occupational Therapy degree?
Occupational Therapy is the support given to people with mental or physical disabilities. Occupational therapists create individual treatment programmes to help patients better navigate everyday life.
Patients include those who've lost some independence due to disability, ageing, illness, trauma or a variety of long-term health conditions. Occupational therapists improve patients’ lives by helping them learn new ways to do things and changing their environments to make tasks easier.
Degrees typically lead to professional accreditation and the ability to work as an occupational therapist. During a degree course, you can expect to develop a range of skills, including:
- Use of special equipment, such as wheelchairs and hoists
- Physical strength when moving and lifting equipment, patients or clients
- Designing adaptations to living environments
- Development and management of therapeutic groups
- Communication and other interpersonal skills
- Compassion and nurturing.
Degrees in this subject area have a strong practical focus where you spend a lot of time on clinical placements. During Covid-19, courses have to adapt to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. This just means the way they are delivered is slightly different. For instance, teaching groups may be smaller, and there may be more remote learning.
Take a look at the Occupational Therapy subject table and you'll see that most universities have outstanding Graduate Prospects. The vast majority of institutions have at least 80% of their students entering employment within six months of graduating.
Job satisfaction for occupational therapists is also generally high, despite it being a potentially challenging profession. This is because therapists are able to help others regain a lost ability and carry out the tasks they want to do in everyday life. They also work as part of a supportive and inspiring multi-disciplinary team to provide the best care possible for their patients.
The NHS Learning Support Fund is currently offering £5,000 per year to support Occupational Therapy degree students in England and Wales. This is a grant, so you don’t have to pay it back.
You’ll usually need two or three A Levels. One should be in a science or social science. You’ll also need five GCSEs in grades C and above, including one in science.
Other equivalent qualifications include relevant BTEC, HND, HNC, NVQ, Highers and Access courses.
Entry requirements vary by university. Always check for the university and course you want to apply to.
Courses usually involve practical experience working with members of the public. You’ll need to complete a DBS disclosure check (for criminal records) for public protection and safety.
Tips for applying
Universities look for students who can succeed at university and in a career. As an occupational therapist, you’ll need good communication skills so you can help your patients feel relaxed. Try to demonstrate this, and other relevant skills, when applying to a course.
Appropriate experience will also enhance your application. You could volunteer or work with a local organisation, for example:
- Hospital or clinic
- Charities, such as St John Ambulance
- Care homes
- Daycare centres
- Youth organisations, such as scouts and guides.
- BSc Occupational Therapy
- MSc Occupational Therapy (pre-registration)
- PgDip Occupational Therapy (pre-registration)
Degree apprenticeships are sometimes available, where you can work and earn at the same time as gaining a qualification. You have to apply through an employer, and you’re not eligible for student grants.
You'll be heavily assessed while working on placement. This is based on a knowledge and skills framework that's fully explained to you once you begin the course. When not on placement, you’ll be involved in practical and clinical sessions. You’ll also be assessed via other methods, such as written exams and group projects or presentations.
There are some options for those who choose to continue their studies and become specialists in certain areas, such as:
- Advanced Occupational Therapy MSc
- Rehabilitation MSc
- Art or Music Therapy MA.
Courses are specific, so students generally go on to practise as occupational therapists. With experience, you could become a more senior clinician or manage departments and teams.
Alternatively, you could work with general health or social services, teach, go into research or start your own private practice.
In the infographic below, the first table shows what graduates of Occupational Therapy have gone on to do in the months after their graduation.
The second table shows the average salaries of undergraduate Occupational Therapy students entering employment. The three skill levels – high, medium and low – reflect the UK's Standard Occupational Classification's major groups 1–3, 4–6 and 7–9 respectively.
Source: HESA Graduate Outcomes Survey 2017/18
The common way is by gaining a qualification in Occupational Therapy – either at degree level or through a degree apprenticeship.
Postgraduate conversion courses are available for those with a degree in a related area, such as health science or psychology.
You’ll also need to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) before practising professionally.
What’s it like to be an occupational therapist?
As an occupational therapist, you could be working at an NHS or private hospital, GP clinic, a care home, a client’s home or a client’s business.
Day to day, you could be:
- Teaching patients how to adapt to life after illness, injury or surgery
- Showing people with physical and learning disabilities how to live independently
- Helping the elderly remain in their own homes and adapting their environments
- Supporting someone with depression through new activities
- Finding new solutions and strategies to help patients meet their goals
- Recording patient or client progression
- Adapting offices so injured employees can go back to work
- Support families and carers.
After qualifying you’ll have Continuing Professional Development (CPD) meetings, where you talk about your future career goals. You can become a member of organisations, such as the British Association of Occupational Therapists, that provide specialist career support.
A working week is typically 37.5 hours, and you may have to work evenings and weekends. Salaries for occupational therapists are on the Agenda for Change system (the NHS staff grading and pay scale), usually on band 5. With the NHS, you’ll have access to generous pension schemes, holiday allowances and health service discounts.
Is a role as an occupational therapist right for you?
It can be an emotionally and physically demanding role, and you could be working with patients who have upsetting circumstances. However, you will be making a huge difference in their lives, and the work can be very rewarding.