Should You Transition From COTA to OTR? The Pros and Cons of Making The Leap
Are you thinking about making the transition from COTA to OTR? You’re definitely not alone!
One of the most common questions I see in Occupational Therapy Facebook groups is something along the lines of:
“Should I put in all the time and money to go to grad school to become an OTR if I am currently a COTA?”
Seeing this so frequently, I wanted to compile the most common responses and things to think about for those of you who have this question on your mind.
Like with most major life decisions, there are pros and cons to weigh.
The pros and cons in this post come from many online discussions from COTAs exploring the prospect, COTAs that have transitioned to OTRs, and from COTAS who have decided against it.
The Pros of Transitioning from COTA to OTR
+ An Increase in Pay
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, COTAs national average pay is $59,200 per year (or $28.46 per hour). By comparison, Master’s level Occupational Therapists (OTR’s) earn an average of $84,950 per year (or $40.84 per hour) based on the median salary. Therefore, an OTR’s salary is about 43% higher on average.
Of course, the amount you earn as a COTA or OTR can be higher or lower based on your location, experience, and setting.
For additional occupational therapist salary information based on actual data from both OTs and COTAs, be sure to also check out our article, Occupational Therapist Salary: Data From 2,322 OTs and COTAs.
+ An Increase in Job Opportunities
Many facilities such as hospitals, outpatient clinics, and schools are hiring fewer COTAs or no COTAs at all in some cases. In some cities, it can be increasingly challenging to find a clinical job as a COTA, and many have stated this is the reason for going back to school to become an OTR.
+ Greater Autonomy and Independence
As an OTR, you are in control of your patient’s plan of care, treatment planning, discharge planning, etc. As a COTA, you are following the OTR’s treatment plan and may not have a lot of creative treatment options based on the OTR’s goals for the patient.
+ You Will Be Furthering Your Education
This one may seem like a given, but many COTAs that have made the transition to OTR stated they felt like they really expanded their knowledge of OT by going through the Master’s program. If you’re passionate about healthcare and helping patient’s through therapy, you may find that your enthusiasm for the field is what motivates you to pursue the OTR degree.
+ You Will Have More Non-Clinical Opportunities
One popular non-clinical opportunity is teaching. Many OT schools will hire OTR’s with a Master’s or Doctorate to become educators. One other common example is that it’s typically much easier to start your own business as an OTR. This would be much more difficult as a COTA if it is related to occupational therapy, as you will likely have to have an OTR on staff.
The Cons of Transitioning from COTA to OTR
While there are fewer con’s than there are pro’s, these big drawbacks are enough for many COTA’s to decide against going back to school to become an OTR.
– The Huge Expense
While OTR’s have a higher salary than COTA’s, the cost of getting a Master’s or Doctorate in OT is very expensive. Many COTA’s who only plan on working ten to twenty more years state they would have difficulty being able to pay the debt off by retirement.
– It Will Probably Take A Long Time To Break Even
Using the national averages for salary and the average cost of a weekend Master’s program, it will take a minimum of 7.5 years to pay off your OTR degree assuming all of your additional income goes to pay down your OTR degree.
Looking at this more closely, we took a top weekend Master’s program offered by Belmont University. The program consists of six semesters that cost $14,760 each, so the program in total will be $88,560.
The additional income you’d make using the difference between the national averages for COTA vs. OTR is $25,750 per year (or about $18,025 after taking out 30% for taxes). The table below illustrates how much will be added to your balance at the beginning of each year in interest (8% annually) and how much it will go down from paying off $18,205 per year.
|Years After Graduating||Beginning Balance||Add 8% Loan Interest||Pay Down $18,205
(Difference OTR vs. COTA Avg. Salary)
If you put all of the additional $18,205 of income towards paying off your student loans, it would take you a minimum 6.5 years to pay off the OTR degree (including 8% annual interest over that time period).
Including the time spent applying to school and interviewing, the six semesters in the program (2 years), and the time to repay your loans, your total time investment is about 10 years to complete an OT Master’s program and pay the loans off.
That said, this example shows the fastest possible timeline and may not be realistic for most people. You are most likely wanting to earn more money to pay for regular living expenses and other things within the next 10 years. This calculation is mainly to illustrate the best-case scenario break-even point.
More typical student loan terms are anywhere from 10-20 years. Your monthly payments will be lower than in the case of accelerated payoff, but of course you’ll be paying more for the program over time in interest.
Note: This is a simplistic example to determine the break-even point and does not represent actual interest accumulation or an actual payoff schedule.
– Even Bridge Programs Have Some Drawbacks
If you’ve decided to take the plunge into becoming an OTR, you are likely aware of the several COTA to OTR “bridge” programs. But you can also choose to attend a traditional Master’s or Doctorate Occupational Therapy program if you already have a Bachelor’s degree. The cost breakdown for a bridge program and a traditional Master’s or Doctorate program may help with your decision.
Because there are only a few weekend bridge programs, traveling or moving closer to the location of the OT program is usually required. Many programs require at least monthly visits to the school, which can be challenging for those with families.
Additionally, just like traditional OTR programs, getting into a bridge program even with years of experience can be a challenge due to the high number of applicants.
– Finally… The BIG Increase in Paperwork
This is a huge reason why many COTAs decide that becoming an OTR is not for them. As an OTR, a lot more of your time every day will be spent doing paperwork; this means writing evaluations, weekly progress notes, and discharges along with the usual treatment notes. While OTR’s still do treatments, these can be less frequent due the added paperwork requirements.
In the end, you should do what’s right for your situation. Everyone’s personal circumstances will vary. Both careers are great choices, and there’s no clear-cut right or wrong answer.
I will say that I love being an OT and I am glad I finished my OTR degree. If you are passionate about working in occupational therapy I would say you should go for it, whether it’s as a COTA or OTR. If you’re unsure if occupational therapy is right for you and the economics are a primary concern, choosing between becoming a COTA or OTR may be a tougher decision requiring more careful thought.
If you’re already a COTA contemplating this decision, or you have already made the jump, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. What were your biggest deciding factors for or against becoming an OTR?
And if you’re looking for even more information on making the transition from COTA to OTR, be sure to listen to the accompanying podcast on this topic from Seniors Flourish here: Pros and Cons of Transitioning from COTA to OTR.