A Day in the Life of an OT Professor
We’ve been working to get a Day in the Life of an OT Professor to showcase for several years and we’re thrilled to be able to share Ellie Cusic, OTR/L’s typical day in the life in academia! Ellie also shares her experiences as well as some great advice on how to become an OT professor if you’re interested in this path of OT. You can check out our full Day in the Life series here.
First, A Little About Ellie’s OT Journey into Academia
I received my doctorate in occupational therapy in 2012 and did not quite know what I wanted to do or, frankly, where I wanted to live. My boyfriend (now husband) was graduating from medical school six months after I graduated from OT school, so I decided to start with travel therapy. I traveled to Northeast Iowa first and worked in skilled nursing, home health, and assisted living.
While traveling to see a home health patient, I was in a car accident. I ended up on the opposite end of therapy: being the patient. It was an interesting experience. I went from being a new grad, learning my way around the therapy world, to being a patient and seeing what therapy was like on the other end. It gave me a new perspective and assisted in my career as an OT once I got back into the clinic. After I was healed (hurray!), I moved to Chicago and practiced in a skilled nursing facility (SNF). This setting allowed me to grow as an OT, and I was surrounded by some excellent therapists who taught me a great deal.
After my time in the SNF, I moved to a hospital-based setting because I wanted to expand my OT horizons and keep learning. Acute care was a learning curve! I referenced my textbooks and Google frequently to better understand the medical diagnoses I was working with.
After working in the hospital for a year, I was ready to move into OT academia. I was drawn to academia because of my experiences as a student in school and fieldwork. I have vivid memories of feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable during my time in school. Those feelings inspired me to want to create a classroom environment where students feel empowered and capable. I feel that students who possess these characteristics are better able to move this profession forward and make positive changes.
How You Can Become an OT Professor
To become an OT professor, you must have the same degree or higher for the program you teach in. For example, if you teach in a master’s program, you must have a master’s degree. You must have a doctorate if you are teaching in a doctoral program. Our Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) has standards that each college or university follows.
Most OT programs will want several years of practice as an OT before applying to become a professor. An average number is three years in the field. Finally, it is helpful if you have some understanding of ACOTE. I took a review course through AOTA to better understand higher education, specifically ACOTE. The series is called “Clinician to Educator Series Set” which is on AOTA’s website. Like any job, you will apply for the teaching role and interview. The interview for a teaching job will include meeting with the faculty, the program director and completing a teaching demonstration.
Differences Being a Professor vs. Clinician
There are many differences between being a professor vs. working in the clinic. I no longer see patients; instead, I work exclusively with students. I am not writing up evaluations or goals. I am not clocking in and out. I am not part of a healthcare team, but rather, I am a part of a department and various college committees.
My day to day life as an OT professor can vary daily or weekly. Each teacher in the program is assigned classes to teach based on their expertise. Once I know what type of classes I am teaching for the semester, I get the previous syllabus for the course and any content I will need to teach the class (books, articles, etc.).
It is common for you to be assigned a class you have not taught before. Reviewing what the previous teacher has done with the course and the previous syllabus is essential. I typically look over the syllabus, the class assignments, and what each week looked like from the previous year.
I then start working through all the class content to make it feel like my own (teaching tip: you can rework any content, so it has more of your own “voice” to it). The only thing you cannot change in a course is the ACOTE B standards (ACOTE mentioned above). Each class must meet specific standards to ensure your program follows the accreditation standards.
It’s typical for me to teach 2-3 courses each semester, and sometimes I will split a class with another teacher, which is called co-teaching. This is dependent on the size of your program. In addition to my teaching responsibility, I am a departmental and college committee member. Thus, I am frequently in meetings when I am not teaching or working on my class. Finally, research is more a part of your life as an educator. The good news is you can team up with your colleagues and complete research together. You aren’t alone!
What Teaching Occupational Therapy Can Look Like
Each OT program does it slightly differently when it comes to semesters. Some programs go for an entire 15 weeks (students have 4-5 classes within those 15 weeks and meet 1-2x/week for each class). My program uses the module approach. Students complete 2-3 courses in 6-7 weeks, meeting 3-5x/week, and then move on to other classes.
If I teach a course with a class and a lab, I am in the classroom 3-5x/week. Each week of the class I teach, I have students complete work in preparation for class or lab. I try to work ahead to ensure I can promptly get the information to the students.
Ideally, I know what class I am teaching and get the content I need to teach weeks before teaching it. Before starting the class, I work on the course (including creating assignments, exams, PowerPoints, etc.). By the time I start the class, I have weeks of content already figured out and ready to go for the students.
What My Typical Days and Weeks as an OT Professor Look Like
Monday: Teach class from 9am-12pm. Meetings in the afternoon. Done by 3:30pm.
Tuesday: Office hours from 9am-2pm (some colleges require you to have a set number of office hours, others do not. The college I work at requires us to be in our office 10 hours a week. This is time outside of teaching, but I get to determine when those hours are). During office hours, I meet with students, work on my class, research, and/or grade. I could be done by 2pm.
Wednesday: Lab from 9am-12pm. I could have office hours in the afternoon, from 12pm-2pm, or participate in meetings. Done by 3:30pm
Thursday: Office hours from 9am-12pm. Meetings in the afternoon. Done by 3:00pm.
Friday: Lab from 9am-12pm. I could be done by 12pm.
What I Enjoy Most About Teaching
The flexibility and autonomy. When I am not teaching, I get to determine when I am in my office. I get breaks and holidays off, and I can decide how I want to teach content. I like the freedom when it comes to my overall schedule.
I am also constantly learning, especially when I teach a class for the first time. I also enjoy working with students and seeing them grow, connect the information and find empowerment in their own skills.
Since I get to determine how I want to teach the content, I like using narrative case studies in class or lab. I will often create case studies based on famous people. One of my favorite case studies I created involved working with Cher in the hospital setting.
In this case, she had a total hip replacement, and the students had to read the completed OT evaluation, create a treatment plan, and write short-term goals. One of the groups of students made a short-term goal for Cher: “The patient will turn back time in order to complete her ADLs within 2 weeks.” Granted, that is not an actual goal you would write in the clinic, but it made me laugh, and I liked that creativity!
The Challenges of Teaching
You must have good time management skills because no one will tell you when you need to get things done for your class; you must determine that for yourself. You might take work home with you, especially if there is a lot of grading to be done.
Outside of teaching, your expectations are primarily research and committee work. Both of those responsibilities require you to be in meetings throughout the week. Some colleges have a tenure track (which means you go up for promotion and then can get a contract indefinitely for teaching at that college), and some do not.
Either way, if you are at a college long enough, you most likely will go up for promotion. That promotion requires you to create a binder of the various accomplishments you achieved in your academic career. Creating that binder takes time, so you must keep track of everything you have done (service, research, committee work, etc.). In addition, good communication skills are important for teaching, not only to ensure content is clear but also to ensure students understand the program and class expectations.
My Advice If You’re Interested in Academia
Practice occupational therapy for a few years and get as much experience as possible before teaching. The experience will not only help you to be better equipped to teach the content, but you will be able to integrate your personal stories into the classroom. Reach out to your current or past teachers and see if you can shadow them or have a meeting with them.
I always think it’s helpful to speak with someone with the experience or in a role you are interested in pursuing. See if any colleges are hiring adjuncts. This allows you to get your feet wet without fully committing to teaching. That is how I got started. I was still working in the hospital but taught one class at a college before committing fully to teaching.
Overall, if you possess good time management skills, are a self-starter, and are looking for something different than the clinic, teaching might be for you! You are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more about getting into OT academia.