Alternative Career Paths for Occupational Therapists
If you’ve landed on this article, you may be currently wondering, “What else can I do with my occupational therapy degree that is not direct patient care?” or are looking into non-clinical occupational therapy job options.
Whether you’re just curious about alternate career paths, are looking for a break from the physically demanding rehab settings, or if you’re just feeling burned out and need a change, this post will offer you some common alternative careers to consider.
The wonderful thing about being an occupational therapist or COTA is that our education and experience is so versatile, but it can be hard to know exactly where to turn if you want to do something out of the norm. These alternative career ideas come from an array of different conversations that I’ve been a part of with other OTs at work and online.
This list of is certainly not exhaustive (as there are SO many options in this realm), but it should at least get the wheels turning!
Business Owner/OT Entrepreneur
Some people are born to be entrepreneurs. If you have big ideas, energy, a passion for creating something from nothing, and you have the drive to creatively bring value to the world, you might have what it takes to start and grow your own OT business. Here are several types of OT-related businesses you can create.
Start a Private Practice
The first thing that often comes to mind on this front is starting your own private practice.
Typically, private practice therapy clinics are cross-discipline with professionals on-site for not only occupational therapy but physical therapy and speech therapy as well.
There are some clinics that focus solely on occupational therapy, and these are typically in the pediatric and hand-therapy disciplines.
I’m also now seeing occupational therapists starting their own chronic pain clinics (which I think is great; I go to a chronic pain OT myself and love her practice). There are also other holistic avenues you can take when starting your own private practice.
The best part about being an OT entrepreneur is that you have the freedom to choose what you’re most passionate about.
If you’re ready to start your own practice, WebPT has put together a great resource about starting a therapy clinic from scratch. While written for a physical therapy clinic, their model can certainly be followed for starting any type of therapy clinic. The guide helps you think through key questions to get your business off the ground like should you have a specialty, what equipment should you buy, and what’s the best way to manage operations?
Corporate Health Consulting
Jouyin Teoh, an Occupational Therapist in Malaysia, ran a private practice working with clients to help them start a weight loss journey and understand good habits and strategies that benefit their health.
She has since moved on to academia, but her business helped companies come up with strategies to coach individuals on setting up their life and environment in a way that is conducive to healthy living.
Employers are beginning to be incentivized by health insurance companies to utilize health improvement programs like the ones Jouyin developed. Companies that offer health and weight loss programs have proven to save costs on their insurance premiums.
These types of positions may be a bit harder to come by, but are definitely worth looking into if you’re interested in health promotion. If you are, be sure to read AOTA’s position on OT’s role in health promotion for some added insight.
Private Health Coaching
Many OTs and COTAs have also tied their love of health promotion into starting their own health coaching business that targets people looking to improve their health and well-being. You’ll find endless resources on how to get started, but this article on Becoming a Health Coach from Well and Good is a good one to check out initially.
Who should start an OT business?
Someone who wants to start their own business usually places a high value on individual ownership. There’s something rewarding and fulfilling about building something from nothing and seeing all that hard work pay off over a long period of time.
You have to have an immense drive deep down to be able to put in the time and effort day after day as well as deal with the seemingly never-ending problems that will arise when starting a business.
On this path, the short term satisfaction of getting a steady paycheck with predictable hours is foregone for the long-term prospect of being the owner of a successful and valuable practice. The income potential long-term is far greater, and if set up properly, would allow you to make money even when you’re not at the clinic.
You are also building something that, if profitable, increases in value and could eventually be sold.
Sarah Lyon has also put together an article titled Resources to Start (and Grow) Your Occupational Therapy Business for some additional insight and inspiration.
Home Modification Specialist
Becoming a home modification specialist for aging in place or individuals with new disabilities is another great alternative that OTs are already very knowledgeable about. This is especially true for any home health OTs who have so much first-hand experience.
There may be some small businesses in your area that focus on this specialty which you may be interested in working for or partnering with.
This route may also fall into the category of Business Owner/Entrepreneur as you can certainly start your own Home Modifications business. We’ve even featured a few OTs here at My OT Spot who have done this themselves, like Paige Hays, OTR/L of Beyond Accessibility and Maria Lindbergh, OTR/L of Stay At Home Solutions, so be sure to check them out.
If you’re interested in working with home modifications, be sure to also check out AOTA’s Home Modifications page.
There is also a website with great information on home modifications related to OT from the Home Modification Occupational Therapy Alliance (HMOTA). Their goals are to “promote occupational therapists as leaders in the field of home modifications, develop a lucrative business model for home modification occupational therapists, and increase home modification occupational therapists’ expertise in home modification techniques, technology, equipment and design.”
There are many other resources for home modifications OTs, but these will get you started if you’re interested in this alternative career path.
Medical Equipment Sales
While sales might be somewhat high stress, it can definitely be an interesting change-up to traditional patient care. There are so many types of medical equipment that we work with on a regular basis, like neuro VR programs, e-stim, modalities, dynamic splinting, hospital beds, wheelchairs, and so on.
Almost all medical device and equipment companies have sales representatives that visit hospitals and clinics to market their products to. Basically, if you have a favorite product, get in contact with the company and see if they’re hiring sales reps. You can always Google the company and search their open positions.
For more information about careers in medical sales, check out this post on Monster.com: Pharma, Biotech, Medical-Device Sales: Which Is for You?
Medical Freelance Writer
This option is becoming popular as more and more healthcare websites are popping up daily, and need frequent articles to publish. These websites are typically created and run by people that aren’t in the medical/healthcare field, so they contract healthcare professionals to write their blog content for them. These articles can be related to occupational therapy, but may also involve other medical topics that OTs are familiar with.
If you have a knack for writing and can pump out quality articles quickly that are free from errors, this is can be a flexible option that you can do from your own home.
To get started, Upwork is a great platform that most businesses hire their writers from. For a great perspective on this, check out OT Devon Breithart’s experience as a freelance writer, complete with tips on how get started.
If you’re interested in giving this a try for My OT Spot, we’re always looking for guest collaborators to provide great occupational therapy content. Email me at Sarah@myotspot.com for more information 🙂
First, what is a case manager? Wikipedia’s definition says “Case management is a managed care technique within the health care coverage system of the United States.”
Whether it involves admissions and/or discharges, having experience as an OT can make working as a case manager a perfect fit.
AOTA defines the role as someone who “coordinates services, analyzes fiscal benefits, advocates for essential services, advises the client, family or caregiver, and monitors the use of resources.”
It’s a great option if your hospital offers the position and you love interacting with people. There will certainly be a bit of paperwork involved (as there is with everything in healthcare these days), but you’ll get to see patients’ progress from start to finish and be there with them and the family the whole way.
Read more about being a case manager from an OT perspective here: Statement: The Occupational Therapist as Case Manager.
Assistive Technology Professional
OT’s are perfect for becoming Assistive Technology Professionals since we use it regularly with our patients, whether it’s low tech or high tech assistive technology.
To learn more about becoming a specialist, you can check out the Assistive Technology Association (ATIA) website.
Looking more towards the future, this is an easy field to get excited about, especially when you see things like this in the news: Prosthetic Limbs, Controlled by Thought.
If you’re interested in technology and the advancing future applications, this may be something to think about pursuing long-term as well.
A common career path for occupational therapists after they’ve been in the field for several years or several decades is to go into teaching and/or research at a specific occupational therapy program. There are so many occupational therapy schools that need solid OTs to educate future clinicians.
However, many programs do require their professors having an OTD or PhD, so if this is something you’re really interested in, keep that in mind.
If going back to college to work isn’t your thing, you can also teach continuing education courses around the country in your specialty.
Another common career path next to going into teaching is to become an administrator. Being an administrator, particularly at a hospital, means that you are a manager for therapists over a specific department.
For example, if you are the Inpatient Rehab manager, you are responsible for the work of all PTs, OTs, and SLPs in that department.
Not only are you in charge of scheduling, but you are responsible for coaching therapists about how to become better, intervening in tough situations, keeping everyone motivated, and reporting to higher level management about the productivity and efficiency of your department.
This of course will require more direct hands-on experience, so it may not be not for everyone. Many OTs transition to either rehab department manager or hospital administrator, among other management paths.
Community-Based Mental Health
Working in mental health as an occupational therapist is similar to being a mental health counselor. While there are certainly differences, it will be a helpful starting point to understand your options.
There are several different popular avenues that OTs fit well into.
OTs can be trained in and administer cognitive behavioral therapy to populations in need. If you’re not familiar with this concept, it can be described as a “short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving” according to Psych Central.
Another great option would be to work in vocational rehab in a community-based setting. Here, you’ll get the chance to work one-on-one with individuals, many times veterans, who need help getting back to work. More information can be found on the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Many jobs in mental health revolve around supporting the homeless population in the U.S. and abroad. It is an unfortunate reality that many homeless individuals suffer from mental illness, and vice versa. There is a huge need to be filled in this arena, and OTs are a great fit to help here as well.
One of the most important independent activities of daily living is being able to get yourself from point A to point B. Whether it’s going to work, the grocery store, doctor’s appointment, or a family member’s house, the most common way to get everywhere is by car.
Patients may become unable to operate a vehicle in situations involving recent amputation, stroke, brain injury, or other neurological impairment. Getting back to driving under these circumstances is not always straightforward and requires the intervention of an OT specialist.
With driving rehab, you are still working with patients but are much more focused on one specific aspect of their life. There is more to it than you might think, and if you’re interested, I’d recommend checking out The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.
You may remember studying this briefly for the NBCOT. This is yet another great option to go into if you have a passion for helping people but do not find traditional settings like hospitals a good fit for you personally.
Workstation ergonomics involves a deep understanding of many different facets of a variety of workplace environments. As an ergonomic specialist, you’ll spend time identifying environmental risks, coming up with creative strategies to reduce those risks, educating others on the importance of ergonomics, and drafting comprehensive plans for businesses to follow.
Areas of focus include office ergonomics, production ergonomics, musculo-skeletal injury prevention, general health and wellness promotion.
For more on ergonomics, visit AOTA’s ergonomics site here. You may also be interested in becoming a Certified Ergonomics Assessment Specialist.
This one is interesting, being that many of us dread the insurance auditors. However, being an occupational therapist, we are able to effectively decipher other therapists’ notes and determine the necessity of the treatments being billed.
Many times, insurance and Medicare auditors don’t really understand the interventions we’re providing. Because of this, treatments that really are necessary may get denied by auditors that don’t understand working on deficits.
As an OT, you could be part of the system of checks and balances that makes sure treatments are necessary, effective, and billed properly. This is such an important aspect to occupational therapy overall and in keeping our profession accountable and responsible now and into the future.
Low Vision Specialist
In 2011, AOTA identified the low vision specialty as an “emerging niche.” A big part of the reason for this focus area growing is the fact that the U.S. and many other developed nations are facing a large aging population in the coming decades.
According to AOTA’s article about low vision:
“Many older adults experience age-related vision changes that can’t be corrected with eyeglasses, contact lenses, or surgery. Occupational therapy practitioners help people with low vision function at the highest possible level by preventing accidents and injury (e.g., improving lighting), teaching new skills (e.g., eccentric viewing, visual tracking), modifying the task or environment (e.g., recommending magnifiers), and promoting a healthy lifestyle (e.g., ensuring they can participate in their daily activities).”
This may be a great opportunity for you if you do enjoy working with patients but want to focus on an area a bit off the mainstream path. AOTA offers a Low Vision certification that you can learn more about here.
For Additional Alternative OT Career Ideas:
The Alternative Careers for Rehabilitation Professionals Facebook group is an active and growing group of over 18,000 members, created for people looking for non-clinical OT career options.
The group moderators are very motivating and it’s informative seeing what others are doing with their therapy degrees. I’m always learning about new avenues from this group, so be sure to join if you’re interested in making a switch.
If you want to try something different in the occupational therapy career space, these are just a few ideas which can help with your brainstorming. While the most obvious and easiest way to use your OT degree is to actually practice in a traditional setting, alternative career paths may be a better fit for you long term.
I hope this post gave you some inspiration and ideas if you’re looking for a change. What other alternative careers for occupational therapists and COTAs would you add to this list?
And if you’re branched out into another non-clinical career path, please share your experiences in the comments below.
This post was originally published May 30th, 2017 and updated on February 29, 2020.
What a great article to get the wheels turning! I have been struggling for a while to find my just right fit. Thank you for the great ideas as well as links to further learn about them. I appreciate this post. Gives me some hope of finding the just right fit as an OT. Thank you!
You’re so welcome and I’m glad the article gave you some ideas! I love that our profession is so versatile when we’re ready to switch things up a bit 🙂
Thank you for the article, I enjoyed reading it. I am considering an alternative career in OT. I am a new grad and I can say with certainty that I don’t want to work in SNF, hospitals, or OP. I know that this pretty much eliminates most of the jobs available. I would like to help people with mental illness gain and retain employment. I think that there is a huge demand for this, in particularly targeting the opioid users where we are seeing such a wide spread use.
Can you give me any advice on where to look for employment in this area? Do you see COTA’s being valuable in such a position? If so how/ where shall I begin..?
Hi Martin, thanks for your comment. Mental health in OT is a much smaller niche than the typical rehab settings, but if your passion is in mental health, you can start looking on Indeed.com for OT mental health settings (you may need to branch out into other cities as these jobs are typically harder to find). For other mental health settings to look into, check out this post covering a variety of areas to work in: Occupational Therapy in Mental Health: An Overview of 6 Typical Settings Best of luck in your job search!
Not sure where you’re located, but Center for Community Partnerships in Fort Collins, CO is a great agency for community integration/job retention services.
Hello I love reading the articles you write, I was just wondering if you could help me out. This year has been an extremely difficult year of landing a job. I graduated last year and have been looking non stop for a position I’ve applied to countless places and some respond back while others do not and I have had only 1 live interview and 4 phone call interviews. With the recent change in insurance and the virus and being a new Cota everywhere I apply or look for only wants someone with experience, but how am I able to get experience if I cannot even get a chance to show them my skills. I have read this article but most of these jobs are for OT’s that have been in the feild with experience. So is there any jobs right now I could look at or apply to to get my foot in the door without having to go back to school or getting another liscence? Also is there any volunteer activities that I could be doing in the mean time that could help me out ? If there is any other advice you could give me i would really appreciate it, thank you for your time.
Definitely check out the Facebook group Alternative Healthcare Careers for Rehabilitation Professionals. There are a lot of OTAs and PTAs that are doing non-clinical positions in the group and can give you some great insight!
Loved this article. Many positions that you did propose are more towards OTRs? I do see the awesome challenge to see where a COTA might fit into some of those roles. I have 28 years in as a COTA in the nursing home setting. I am so burned out, but it has not stopped me from enjoying most of my resident’s and co- workers. I regret not going back to school for my OTR, but I have to move forward. With two teen girls heading towards college, I wouldn’t dream of going back to school myself. So I was trying to see if I would “fit” in any other career with my associate’s degree. Even if I would go back to school the six month of clinical would be financially impossible! Thanks again for the article, it did open my eyes!
Hi Shawnee, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! I think that many of these non-traditional career paths can be done as a COTA, especially creating a business and consulting. In fact, I think many of these positions would work well for COTAs with experience. It might take a bit of applying to a variety of positions but explaining to the prospective employers about your experience will be really beneficial. Best of luck to you with whatever path you choose!
I have 32 yrs experience as an OTR, mainly inpatient rehab, and acute care. Just this week I quit my job from acute care. The documentation, stress, productivity and inconsistency between supervisors were factored into my decision. I also have fibromyalgia and joint hypermobility syndrome. At this time I need to take care of me, but I might need to try something else to bring in income. I love the article but I’m still lost.
I’m so sorry to hear about leaving your job! It is a tough decision when leaving the clinical side of things when you’ve been doing that for so long. I do hope this list at least gives you a few non-physical types of job ideas to help you with your career transition. Be sure to also check out Indeed.com as well for additional ideas to help you with a new income source. Best of luck to you.
Is there anything stopping a COTA from going into business or private practice on their own? If they work as a cash business, not getting paid through insurance. They would be providing services, but would they need an OTR? Since not turning anything into insurance companies?
Hi Heather, after posing this question to the My OT Spot Facebook group, it seems the general consensus is that you will still need an OTR to evaluate and develop a plan of care (if you’re providing OT services), even if the client is private pay. You might want to check with your state’s individual regulations just to be sure.
Nice article! I’ve been in the field about 16 years and ticked off a few of these myself: administration, education and medical device sales, so I am proof that these are all really possible. I also helped to start an OT clinic within a University setting so I guess another would be “Consultant” to other universities wanting to open an OT clinic.
I’d like to add two more to your list. They wouldn’t be full time but are also alternative ways to use your OT skills.
1. In academia, If you have already successfully been through ACOTE accreditation for say transitioning from Masters to Doctoral program, you may qualify to be a hired as consultant to other Universities making that same transition. This includes cost of flying you out and hotel stay as well as your chosen rate for the actual consultation time and time to complete your report.
2. For those with a considerable amount of experience in a particular OT area ( ex. rehabilitation ) you can also look into being an expert witness. You would set your own hourly rates. You don’t necessarily need to go to court. For example, some cases are more about chart reviews and writing your expert opinion based on what you’ve read. However, if you do have a case that requires going to court, you can obviously charge a lot more money. There have been a lot of courses on this at AOTA conferences recently.
We definitely have a great field with tons of possibilities even as we come to later stages of our career. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Geraldine for these great suggestions! I’m always excited to hear about even more versatile ways our degrees can be used. I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for those courses at AOTA about being an expert witness. Thanks again for sharing!
Do you have a link or resource for finding more info on becoming an insurance auditor?
It looks like there isn’t a ton of information doing a Google search, but I did find this article to be helpful: How to Become an Insurance Auditor
Also, if you’re still interested, you could try contacting insurance companies near you to inquire more about requirements and training. Hope this helps!
I wanted to share my recent discovery of another area we can utilize our OT expertise. I recently found a job on indeed.com with the title “skilled inpatient care coordinator.” It is similar to what a case manager does, but there are now companies hiring therapists in addition to nurses (who are typically utilized in a case management position). If you type in inpatient care coordinator in to indeed.com you may find positions across the country looking for OT’s. Figured this might help some of you looking for something different.
I’ve noticed a number of people with years of experience in OT on here.im looking to switch my major and getting a Masters in OT.can I please get a few inputs on that field.
As a COTA, can I do some of these things as well?
Some of these options usually require Bachelor’s degrees or that you are an OTR, but you can certainly still find an alternative path as a COTA. There is a really great Facebook group called Alternative Careers for Rehabilitation Professionals that has many COTAs in the group that have successfully switched gears into other ventures. Definitely check it out!
Hi, and thank you for writing and posting such an insightful article! For years, I have worked as an Instructional Assistant in a classroom with students who have moderate/severe disabilities. I LOVE being able to work with them one-on-one and in small groups. Initially, I had aspired to be a Special Education Teacher; however, after seeing the high and very frequent turnover/burnout of Teachers in our classroom, I began analyzing the other specialists that would work with our students and their careers (who seemed most satisfied, which fit my personality more, etc.). I came to the conclusion that Occupational Therapy most closely aligned with my personality. My favorite part about my job was being creative, whether it was planned or on the fly, working one-on-one or in small groups, and discerning the level of assistance I should use so as to empower the student rather than inhibit he or she from progressing toward a goal. I have volunteered and shadowed, finished my pre-req.’s, etc. for MSOT admission. My only doubts about going the OT route is thinking that I may one day regret not choosing to be a Special Education Teacher and not being smart enough for some of the advanced coursework. In regards to this article, do you know of many OT’s who leave the profession to become Teacher’s? I know it’s an additional certification that an OT would have to get, but thought I would bring it up since it is an alternative career path for an OT, since OT does involve a lot of teaching and working with individuals with disabilities. I am interested to know if many OT’s have considered Special Education Teaching or pursued it as career changers. Thank you for reading and any input you may have.
Thank you for your great article. As in inpatient OT, I’ve been looking for alternative careers and economics and sales excite me the most. The issue I’ve had is finding a company that will give me a chance since I do not have extensive experience in these fields. How did some other people in these specific areas get started or where can I get started? Thank you!
Hello, I am an OT with a master’s degree and 14 years of clinical experience in the acute care hospital and outpatient settings with lymphedema experience as well. Due to my own healthcare needs/risks, I am considering exploring outside the box to a non-clinical job setting but not really knowing where to start..I dont have any assistive technology training, but this could be an area of interest for me…Does anyone have any suggestions or ideas about a career in medical sales/assistive technology specific to an OT?
There are definitely quite a few OTs that make the switch into medical device sales. Be sure to join the above mentioned Alternative Careers for Rehab Professionals FB group as there are a number of OTs in the group who have gone into sales and can give their perspective. If anyone can share any additional suggestions for Ashley please do!
Thank you so much for posting this. I am an OT student struggling to figure out what I want to do for my capstone project and the field that I want to go into, but your article has helped me so much. So many interesting ideas here!
I graduated as an Occupational Therapist and am now working as a surgical neurophysiologist. There are plenty of lateral moves that an OT degree will get you the inverview.
Interesting, how much training did you need for that? What does your job entail?
Hello fellow therapist.
I am a COTA/L in NC with over 22 years of experience mainly in pediatrics. I am definitely fighting the burn out mode. I am a single mother of 3 and financially can’t afford to go back to school or take time off work. I am attempting to research other careers I may fit into but not much success. I found this information to be interesting but wanted to see if others had any additional thoughts on job opportunities. Thanks!