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Why Is It So Hard To Find an OT Job As a New Grad?

This post was originally published on January 17, 2016 and updated on April 3, 2019.

When you’re applying to occupational therapy school and when you’re in OT school, you hear a lot about how in demand occupational therapists are. Based on the numbers, OTs are in demand, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, stating job growth is expected to increase 27% from 2014 through 2024. Occupational therapists are versatile and can work in so many different settings, and the jobs are out there.

However, as a new occupational therapy grad, you may have found that finding an OT job is harder than you thought. 

OTs are usually in high demand depending on the city’s job market. But as a new grad, you might be wondering, “Why is it so hard for me to find a job, even after I passed the NBCOT and have my license?”

The reason it’s so hard initially is because some employers are hesitant to hire new grads and want OTs with experience.

When I was first applying for these jobs, I found myself and my classmates asking the same question…

“How on earth are we going to get experience when no one will hire us?!”

It is truly a frustrating conundrum to find yourself in when you’re just out of school and ready to start working. The thoughts of, “Nobody will hire me because I don’t have experience and I can’t get experience because no one will hire me… because I don’t have experience…because…” start creeping in.

It’s not fun, I know.

The good news is that with some persistence and patience, you will eventually get hired. If you aren’t one of the lucky ones to get hired at your Level II placement, internet job boards will become your best friend.

Job Boards Breakdown

I spent a lot of time on job boards, and I eventually found my dream job in inpatient rehab at a local hospital. I would dedicate an hour every evening applying to any OT jobs that I wanted experience in, within a 45 mile radius of my town, checking every day for new job postings. It took me about five weeks of doing this before I finally got my first interview. 

I found Indeed.com to be a great resource for finding the most current and active job listings. Indeed pulls in listings from almost every other job board out there, and you can (and should) sign up for daily job alerts so you can apply as soon as they’re listed.job_search_indeed

Another job board to check out is on OT Potential. Sarah Lyon, the creator of OT Potential, teamed up with Zip Recruiter to provide a smart search option for occupational therapists and certified occupational therapy assistants.

Be Prepared for Calls From Staffing Companies

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After adding your resume onto Indeed or another site, you may notice that you’ll suddenly get an onslaught of recruiters calling you for mostly travel jobs. The jobs could also possibly be for contracts in your city.

These are often staffing companies who get paid for each successful placement. They may try to offer you positions that are not in line with what you are really looking for.

For example, as soon as my contact information got out there I received random phone calls for full-time positions all over the U.S. Even in Kansas, and I live in Atlanta! That’s great if you can afford to pack up and leave your city, but this isn’t common for most new grads. (Unless you want to explore travel therapy as a new grad, which is a fun way to gain experience in multiple settings in new places).

If/when you get contacted by a cold-calling recruiter, make sure to do your homework before signing onto the company; read as many reviews of the company as you can and be sure to thoroughly interview them as well.

No matter the job, be very careful if you get offered a huge sign-on bonus or loan reimbursement. It is a safer bet to apply for jobs at reputable hospitals vs. taking the first SNF (skilled nursing facility) position you can get, since hospitals will generally have less ethical dilemmas for new grads.

The worst situation to find yourself in as a new grad is one where there is a complete lack of mentorship, unrealistically high productivity targets and huge caseloads. 

Landing an Interview

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When you finally land your first few interviews, you’re definitely going to want to prepare for them. All those nights of applying will have added up and you want to ensure you ace the interview so you don’t have to keep playing the waiting/application game.

What I had to keep telling myself is that if they’re taking the time to interview me, they’re interested in hiring me. Telling yourself this can help take the pressure off a bit.

If you’re offered the job, keep in mind the last thing you want to do is take any random OT job for the sake of getting a job right away.

If you know it’s not a setting that you want to work in, it’s too far away, you’re really not excited about it, or it just doesn’t feel right, you DO NOT have to take the job if they offer it to you.

It’s your decision and your future career!

The biggest thing to do is just to be confident and know that if the interview doesn’t work out, you’ll always have another chance somewhere else. This is easy compared to OT school!

Read The Complete Guide to Your First OT Job Interview for more advice on how to handle OT job interviews successfully.

Stay Motivated!

I know that putting in such a huge amount of time applying to jobs and playing the waiting game doesn’t sound great, especially after all of the time you spent in OT school and studying for the boards. You’re ready to get out there and it’s hard when it can take over a month (or more) to land your your first job.

Look on the bright side – at least you finished grad school and passed the boards! The hardest part is over.

Take some time for yourself to decompress a bit after the rigors of OT school and studying for the boards. Don’t feel like you have to rush into a new job a week after you pass the boards; you have the whole rest of your working life to be an OT.

Take the time to get your ideal job, and know that many other OT grads are also having the same challenge as you.

Just keep at it, and know that once you have a few years of experience, the process of getting a different job will be much easier.

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One last word of advice: Once you’re offered a position, it is important to make absolutely sure there will be other occupational therapists at your setting that can mentor you.

As a new occupational therapist, there is SO much more to learn your first few years, and you do not want to be out there on your own as the only OT (I learned this from experience!) 

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I hope this post helps you on your way to landing your first OT job and eases some anxieties. Just be patient and know that it will happen!

If you’re in this position now, what is the most frustrating part of the job hunt for you? Do you have any other tips for new grads that are looking for their first job?

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20 comments

  • Abbie March 27, 2019   Reply →

    Hi Sarah,

    I recently passed the NBCOT and have been applying for jobs the past few weeks. I would really like to work with adults in either a SNF or hospital setting. Ideally, I’d like to start full-time so I get the training and experience that I need. What has been frustrating to me is that it seems that most of the jobs in my area are either for travel therapy, early intervention, home care, or PRN/pool/per-diem positions. Traveling is not an option for me, and I would rather not be on my own in home care or early intervention right off the bat. It’s also a bit disheartening to not hear anything from the employers after I submit my application. Should I broaden my search and lower my expectations for a first job as an OT? Thank you for your post–it’s good to know that I’m not alone in this process!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L March 27, 2019   Reply →

      Hi Abbie, trust me that you aren’t alone! I actually just spoke with a new grad about a week ago about this, so rest assured that it’s not just you going through it. It does take longer than you would think once you get out of school, partly because Human Resources might take longer than optimal at times to sift through applications, but know that you will get a call back! Another new grad that just started working at my hospital said it took her a little over a month to get a call back, so just hang in there. You could also start with a PRN job in the meantime while you wait for a full-time position in a setting that you want to work in. Don’t feel like you have to settle for a setting that isn’t what you want though, just keep applying and you’ll get there.

      • Abbie March 29, 2019   Reply →

        Thanks for the advice and encouragement. I appreciate it 🙂

  • Kelley March 31, 2019   Reply →

    Thank you for this insightful and motivating article! I graduated in December and have been applying to jobs since early February. I have even had a few interviews that ended up choosing someone with more experience 🙁 I have been getting quite discouraged but I do try to keep telling myself that something will work out, where and when it is supposed to! Thank you for the resources as well!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L March 31, 2019   Reply →

      Just keep at it! It’s so hard now but thankfully once you do have a few years of experience down the road, the job search process gets much easier. Best of luck to you, Kelley!

  • Jen April 11, 2019   Reply →

    I cannot tell you how helpful this article is! Thank you so much! I have been looking for jobs since I passed NBCOT in February. My ideal setting is either acute care or inpatient rehab, however, it seems like they always want someone with experience. I feel like all my classmates have found their dream jobs except for me. Some of them found a job even before getting their licence and I really do not know how that happened…it has been extremely frustrating and discouraging. I have been getting calls asking if I want to be an school OT, which I prefer not…Thank you again for the article so I know that I am not alone! I know it will work out eventually!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L April 11, 2019   Reply →

      I’m so glad it was helpful for you! Know that your ideal job will come with time 🙂 Just keep at it!

  • Maria Levina June 26, 2019   Reply →

    Hi Sarah,

    I am a new grad looking for work in Atlanta so this really resonated with me. I have been searching for jobs since I took and passed my boards in early June and have so far only had 2 interviews (one of which resulted in a rejection). I was wondering if you had any advise for contacting hospitals and following up on or if you had any advice in general for the Atlanta area.

    Thank you!
    Maria

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L June 27, 2019   Reply →

      Being a new grad is the hardest part since you don’t yet have experience, but definitely keep applying and sign up for a daily Indeed job alert so you can apply as soon as jobs are posted. It might also be hard to get a hospital position at first, so I actually started out at an ALF doing outpatient before I got my hospital job (which I applied to probably at least twice). It still took me about two months before I started working, and I think this is pretty typical in the Atlanta area. Just keep at it, you’ll definitely get there!

      • maria levina June 28, 2019   Reply →

        This has definitely been the post/pep talk I needed. Thank you!

  • Tara June 30, 2019   Reply →

    I’ve been a therapist for 22 years and this week along with a half a dozen of my colleagues got laid off from Genesis. We were replaced by new grads and because there are no jobs anywhere the new grads are willing to take $20 an hour and no guarantee of any work past 20 hours a week. All positions are part time everyone rotates the weekends everyone’s doing holidays. This is in prep for RCS one in October 2019 Please reconsider if you’re thinking of going into therapy and do not go into the doctorate program for physical therapy. I myself am getting out of the field permanently

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L July 1, 2019   Reply →

      I’m so sorry to hear you and your colleagues are going through this! I’m not sure how commonplace the layoffs are in the skilled nursing settings, but as an acute care OT, we are seeing more hires than we’ve had in the past several years with no layoffs in sight. I’ve also been told by staffing agencies that while subacute jobs will take a hit with the Medicare changes, there will be more home health positions available since there is a big push for patients to go home with HH. If you do decide to stay in the field, definitely consider acute care, home health or outpatient, since the Medicare changes will not have the drastic effect that they will have on SNFs. And for any new grads reading this, I would NOT recommend taking any job that is $20/hr. When you’re interviewing, absolutely be sure to look at the averages in your area and nationally on OTsalary.com, and don’t settle for such a low rate. You will likely need to negotiate but using these numbers while you do will help you get the rate you deserve.

  • Kristy Guzman July 22, 2019   Reply →

    Hi Sarah,
    This post made me feel more at ease with being a new grad. I’m a newly certified COTA and I’m running into similar problems of positions only wanting OTR’s for full-time work. I accepted a PRN job at a SNF but have only been called in one time to treat. I’m having a hard time looking for other jobs because I don’t know when I will be needed at the SNF. I looked into ABA therapy to just get into a similar scope in the meantime. Any thoughts on that? It seems to be a significantly lower pay rate. I don’t know if I should accept it to just get familiar with working with kids as a new-grad and to have a job when I’m not needed at the SNF. Any thoughts and advice would help!

    Thank you!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L July 23, 2019   Reply →

      Hi Kristy, I’m glad the post made you feel more at ease! I’m not as familiar with ABA therapy but if they have an open position, it might be worth taking it in the meantime while you continue to look for COTA positions. I would also keep applying for more PRN COTA positions since it seems like you aren’t getting solid hours with your current one. You can always keep it and pick up when you have the time but it doesn’t hurt to have multiple PRN jobs anyway to ensure you’re always getting enough hours. I hope this helps!

  • Kristy July 24, 2019   Reply →

    This helped very much! Thank you

  • Cindy Kisik, COTA/L August 27, 2019   Reply →

    I so appreciate the article but am having a horrible time finding ANYTHING. I got my certification in MARCH and have only had one interview to date. I have applied to a lot of different facilities and am discovering there just aren’t enough jobs for the number of COTAs here in Northeast Ohio. I am very worried that I won’t remember any of my training once I DO get hired. Have you ever heard of it taking this long for someone to get their first job? Thanks so much!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L August 28, 2019   Reply →

      Hi Cindy, I’m so sorry to hear this! I have heard it’s much harder for COTAs to find jobs right now due to the upcoming SNF Medicare changes. If your area has multiple OT and/or COTA programs, you might consider expanding your search to areas that have minimal or no OT/COTA programs. This can help your chances of finding something. In the meantime, you could read your textbooks or take short online continuing ed courses to keep the knowledge fresh. Best of luck to you!

  • Tara August 28, 2019   Reply →

    Honestly the company that I just got hired by no longer uses assistants. Occasionally a PTA on a weekend or holiday but never COTA. The market is flooded with OTR’s and they are getting hired a record low hourly rates that I knew COTA’s a few years ago that made more. My advice is to get into a rec therapy position as a Cota…I’m really thinking the profession is on the way out at least on the west coast. We don’t hire them anymore because no need to.

  • Cayla October 28, 2019   Reply →

    I graduated last year and went right into travel OT. I instantly got hired in Virginia and then Texas full time positions. I have great references and have been complimented on my OT work. I’m now back in my home state of Michigan and have been looking for a permanent position since May, it’s been 7 months now and I’ve been PRN with several home health companies that either never give me patients or I’ll get a max of 3 patients per week. I can’t travel anymore I really have to stay in Michigan. I was so desperate that I had 2 job interviews with Henry Ford and Beaumont hospitals just part time and Contingent positions. My mom passed away a month ago and I still showed up to the interviews the day my mom passed. I was turned down by one hospital and still haven’t heard back from the other. It’s insane to me that I can’t even get a contingent position right now. I’ve thought about going back to just be an RN because I’ve almost lost all desire to be an OT at this point. But then again I’ve had a very difficult couple of months in general. Michigan is oversaturated with OTs because they have 6 OT schools. So I feel like I made a huge mistake getting a Master’s degree and might just get a minimum wage job to even get by right now. I really don’t know what else to do.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L October 31, 2019   Reply →

      I’m so, so sorry you’re going through this. I’ve heard Michigan is tough for jobs due to that saturation factor. Can you try to apply for a few more PRN positions? I just moved to CO and applied to four (!) PRN positions just to make sure I would get an offer (which I did, thankfully!) It seems like nowadays we have to apply to multiple PRNs and even get hired by multiple PRN positions to get enough hours. Definitely keep trying though! If you want to talk more about this, please email me any time at [email protected] and we can brainstorm a few more strategies. I wish you the very best of luck and keep at it for a little while longer before you consider going back to school!

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