The big question right now for prospective OT students is whether they should pursue a doctoral-level or an entry-level masters degree in OT.
With the AOTA and ACOTE stating the intent of making all OT programs transition to doctoral level degrees by 2027, it seems like a no-brainer to choose the doctorate degree over the masters. But there are still many concerns for OT students and prospective students, especially since the requirement for a masters degree is still relatively recent as well (1990).
There are many factors when it comes to choosing which degree is right for you: time, money, a desire to teach or complete research, among many others. It’s a lot to think about and not something to be taken lightly.
After much of my own research, I personally decided to choose the masters route and have thought about potentially pursuing a post-professional doctorate later on once I have gained experience in the field. I have many interests and I feel that by getting to work in the field and really finding my footing I will be more inclined to pursue that higher-level degree and use it to my advantage. I also believe, however, that with a masters degree and the level of passion and motivation that I have for this field, I can still pursue my goals and achieve so many things without having to stay in school for an extra year – after all, the pioneers of this field didn’t have OTDs 😉
But I didn’t want this to be a blog about my personal reasons- so I reached out to some fellow OT students and practitioners and asked them to write about why they chose a masters vs a doctorate, and how these degrees have helped them (or hurt them). I hope that you enjoy reading about why these students and practitioners chose the route they did, and that it helps you in your decision-making process!
Opinions from Students and Practitioners
Taelor is a final-year OTD student with a focus on childhood trauma and mindfulness. She presented at the 2018 AOTA conference and has two poster presentations scheduled for the 2019 AOTA conference in April. She plans to practice in pediatrics upon graduation and is passionate about advocating for OT and becoming a leader and innovator in the field.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve had big dreams of helping people on a wide scale. I had a goal of eventually completing a Doctorate degree, it was just a matter of when. That’s why when I found this program that was only 1-2 semesters more than many Masters’ programs, I had to apply. I won’t lie, my decision about the program was not because of the degree alone, it was also about how I felt in the school environment, how supported I felt, and a desired location. However, looking back, I’m so fortunate that I ended up where I did because there’s no place I’d rather be.
Throughout my program, I was provided with background on teaching, leadership, program development, over a year’s worth of research courses, many hands-on experiences, and an extra level I experience in addition to my doctorate project. I’ve been fortunate to be around people daily who are already leaders in the profession as students and who are just as passionate about shaking things up in the world of occupational therapy as I am. I plan to open my own practice in the future, and also teach occupational therapy later in my career. I feel confident that my educational background and the connections I’ve made will help me get there. If you’ve ever been into the literature, you know that we need more occupational therapy research. I wish more people would consider the OTD, however I also understand that it is a personal decision that everyone needs to make for themselves. For me, it was absolutely the right choice.“
Sabina K. Gojraty, OTD, OTR/L
Sabina has been a practicing OT for almost 7 years and currently works as a Neurocognitive Rehab Specialist in a TBI unit. Sabina also owns her own behavioral health private practice in South Florida where she works with individuals overcoming trauma offering EMDR therapy, individuals with sleep disorders, eating disorders and perinatal care. She has a post-professional OTD and is a PhD candidate studying nutrition on neurological processes and its impact on mental health.
Here, Sabina gives you a list of positive aspects of completing an OTD degree.
- Advanced skill set. The additional semesters in the OTD focus on clinical practice skills, staff development, leadership, program and policy development and research. Improving and growing your skill set as a clinician.
- Salary. Academic medical centers have started offering more pay by degree levels. https://www.aota.org/AboutAOTA/Get-Involved/BOD/OTD-FAQs.aspx. This is something often misconstrued, it’s not every medical facility currently employing a differential but per AOTA linked above, some ARE offering more. In my personal experience, Ive been able to negotiate more salary wise in particular positions as an OTD grad and what I can offer the organizations as opposed to what I would offer with my MS degree.
- Opportunities. It increases SCOPE of career opportunities. You’re additionally viewed as more competitive if you’re applying for a leadership position in the workplace and various clinics/institutes have begun favoring OTD grads. This doesn’t mean you have to be an OTD grad to obtain a leadership position by any means and is dependent on the organization and what you are looking to do. Many jobs CURRENTLY specify “Masters preferred” on job listings. In the future, doctorates are EXPECTED to be preferred.
- If you plan to work in Academia, professors are often required to have either a OTD or PhD. I have worked in two universities that both either prefer or require a OTD for teaching.
- Many jobs and agencies pay you to go back to school. If someone is working as a licensed clinician, this is something you can ask your employer. I’ve worked at several places that all reimburse you a percentage for going back to school and obtaining a OTD. This helps with the financial aspect of higher education. Diem OTD programs are cheaper than a Masters degree. The notion of it being “more expensive” is not necessarily true and this depends on the school/program you choose. Many state schools for instance have you graduating with your OTD for far less than some MOT/MSOT programs in private universities.
- A post-professional OTD allows you to bring clinical experience into the program and improve your leadership skills. At the end of the day, the extra experience and education can only help you improve patient care.
You can find Dr. Sabina on Instagram @drsabina_phd
Ashley Winkeler, Future OTS
Ashley Winkeler graduated from Virginia Tech in May 2018 with a B.S. in Human Development. She will be attending an Entry-level OTD program in Pittsburgh, PA starting this summer, June 2019.
“I chose an OTD program for a few key reasons. Logistically speaking, the schools that I was interested in attending had already transitioned their program from a Master’s to an OTD. The doctoral component of an OTD program will allow me to continue to develop as a leader, enhance my clinical reasoning skills, and allow me to make an immediate impact on the field of OT and my community. In the future I see myself pursuing a career in pediatrics. I am highly interested in feeding therapy and may want to pursue research as well. The doctoral component gives me the opportunity to start to explore and pursue these interests. When looking at programs, I didn’t feel a master’s program could provide me with this.“
You can find Ashley on Instagram @ashley_wink
McKenzie Bolin, Future OTS
McKenzie is an aspiring OT who graduated with a Bachelors degree in Psychology and Sociology in 2018 from Jacksonville University, and has completed applications to begin graduate school in Fall 2019. She is hoping to complete a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, and then pursue an OT career, with her current interest being in neuro recovery. In her spare time she loves all things outdoors- hiking, camping, kayaking, you name it!
“Although it wasn’t an easy choice, I chose to pursue an OTD for a few different reasons. I will be starting my program in the Fall 2019, meaning I will be graduating in 2022, only a few years before AOTA is hoping to mandate the shift to requiring the OTD. Because of this tight time frame, many of my mentors and the OTs I shadowed recommended I pursue an OTD rather than an MOT. Many of the OTs I shadowed or spoke with (especially those who were younger and knew they’d be working for the next 15-25 years) told me they were looking at going back to school to pursue their OTD, but that they were paying out of pocket and employers wouldn’t cover the cost. I was also cautioned that although there isn’t a pay gap currently, this could change later on (especially since I’d be competing with people my age with relatively equal years of experience).
The other reason I chose to pursue the doctorate vs the masters was knowing myself as a student. Although I identify as a lifelong learner, I also realized during my gap year that burnout is very real! Given where I’m at in my life, I don’t know that there will ever be an ideal time for me to go back to school (online or in person) to pursue my doctorate, or if I’ll have the energy after spending 2-3 years in school for my masters. Because of this, I chose to pursue the doctorate and complete it all at once.“
You can find McKenzie on Instagram @mckenzie.bolin
Devin Diedrich, OTD, OTR/L
Devin was raised in Wyoming and has always had a passion for helping people, likely stemming from having a younger sister with a disability. After undergrad, she wanted an adventure and later found herself pursuing her OTD at the MGH Institute in Boston, MA. Devin’s research during school focused on increasing functional use of a weakened upper extremity after stroke, particularly after using robotic therapy aimed at re-routing neural pathways. She now works in outpatient rehab/hand therapy in Denver, CO, seeing mostly orthopedic cases. When Devin is not at the clinic, she enjoys spending time outdoors, working out, and baking goodies for her friends, family, and colleagues.
“When I was applying to schools, I was lucky enough to have been accepted into both MOT and OTD programs. I ultimately chose the OTD route for several reasons: 1) the OTD program was only 1-2 semesters longer than the MOT programs 2) when I finished OT school, I wanted to be DONE… I was already feeling burnt out after finishing my BS and did not want to risk a situation where I did the masters program, only to feel obligated later on to do an additional degree to keep up with the changing field 3) I wanted that additional experience in research 4) I wanted to be on an even playing field with my PT colleagues (who at this point are largely DPTs).
In retrospect, I am very glad I chose the OTD route and I am confident it was the best option for me. However, I think the MOT/MSOT degree can be the right option for some as well. If you want to “get in, get out” and start practicing ASAP, the masters is a great option! I like teaching, and could see myself teaching a few courses at an OT program in the future (of note, many schools require a PhD to be full-time faculty, so keep that in mind if that’s your ultimate goal… then it may be best to do a masters and later pursue your PhD). The OT world continues to expand, grow, and delve into more populations and communities and I am excited to be along for the ride with my fellow OT practitioners! We all have something unique to share and bring to the field.“
Becky Burgess, OTS
Becky is in her final semester of a BS/MS OT program. After graduation, she hopes to work on the east coast with pediatrics or geriatrics. When not studying, Becky enjoys shopping, blogging, playing with her dogs, and spending time with her family.
“I decided on OT when I was in high school and researched all the different types of programs (MSOT, OTD, and combined BS/MS programs). I chose to attend a combined BS/MS program because it was the fastest option. It would also save me money due to spending less years in school. Another big reason for my decision was not having to apply to grad school or change schools. With my program, I was guaranteed my spot as long as I maintained a certain GPA. I’ll graduate in May and planning to apply to a bunch of different settings, but would love to work in peds at some point in my OT career. I’d be interested in possibly starting my own business at some point using my OT skills and knowledge. I feel confident that my master’s degree has prepared me to be an entry-level OT and know that I can pursue an advanced degree in the future if I choose to further my education.“
You can find Becky on Instagram @beckybfutureot
Robyn Foley, MS, OTR/L
Robin graduated with a combined BS/MS in OT in 2012.
“My BS/MS program took 5 years to complete and upon graduation we received both of our degrees at the same time. I liked the pace of the accelerated program and never felt like the content was “too much”. Our program was a little unique in that we completed our level II fieldworks during our senior year and then returned to campus for our final year for graduate classes. This felt a bit backwards because we had a taste of the “real world” and many of us would have been offered jobs at our placements; however, we obviously could not accept because we needed another year to complete the program.
I was happy that I was in an accelerated program, although I do wish there had been an accelerated OTD program. I had friends who were able to get their DPT in 6 years and this would have been ideal for me if that had been an option. Upon graduating I considered going into an OTD program, but by that point I had so much student debt I felt obligated to start working rather than continue my education. In hindsight an OTD would have made sense for me financially. I work in a public school and the way our salary schedule works, I would make approximately $8500 more each year if I had a doctorate degree.“
You can find Robin on Instagram @spill_the_ot
Jenna Nguyen, MS, OTR/L
Jenna is an Occupational Therapist currently working in both acute inpatient rehabilitation and outpatient rehabilitation. She is interested in research and practice in the areas of cardiac rehabilitation, hand therapy, neuro rehab, and Parkinson’s Disease. She is also an LSVT Big Certified Clinician. During her time in OT school, she was an active member of her school’s Student Occupational Therapy Association, Pi Theta Epsilon Honor Society, and attended the AOTA National Conference as a representative to the Assembly of Student Delegates. She is dedicated to demonstrating the distinct value of occupational therapy and helping her patients participate in everyday life. Outside of OT, Jenna enjoys reading, writing, tap dancing, and spending time with her family.
“I chose to pursue a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy from a five-year combined BS/MS program. This allowed me to build relationships with my peers and OT faculty beginning in the first year. I also liked the chance to collaborate with other disciplines throughout my undergraduate and graduate years, while getting a liberal arts education. When I was searching for OT schools, I primarily looked at 5 year BS/MS programs, as entry-level OTD programs were not as prevalent. With that being said, the college that I attended has since started an entry-level combined BS/OTD program.
During my undergraduate years, I was able to minor in General Psychology, take interesting electives in the English and Religious Studies departments, and be involved in clubs that allowed me to learn and serve others while strengthening my personal and professional identity. During my final two years, I engaged in an individual honors in the discipline project and a collaborative graduate research project. My OT education allowed me to be trained as a generalist, with electives in Acute Care & Rehabilitation and Geriatrics in my final year. Those years prepared me for a fieldwork and first job in acute care, before transitioning to an inpatient rehabilitation setting.
I have plans to pursue a Post-Professional Doctoral Degree in Occupational Therapy. I wanted the opportunity to refine my interests and gain clinical experience as an occupational therapist before getting an OTD degree, so that I might focus on those areas throughout my doctoral experience. I am passionate about clinical research and the process of OT education, and would love to get into program development and teaching in the future. I would also like to continue writing and present my research at state and national conferences.
My OT education ignited a passion for knowledge that I hope will continue to drive me throughout my work as an occupational therapist. Being a lifelong learner is so important to me and for the future of our profession.“
You can find Jenna on Instagram @jenna.ot
Katie Zelinski, MS, OTR/L
Katie Zelinski has been a pediatric OT for 5 years now. She graduated from NYU in 2014 and started in Early Intervention after moving to Chicago. She found an amazing company that focused on therapist education and support despite many people steering her away from EI for her first job. She then transitioned to an Ayres Sensory Integration clinic in Northern California and is certified in Ayres Sensory Integration.
“I started my MS OT program almost 8 years after completing my bachelors in Psychology. It took me quite some time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do, which is totally okay. I’m always so impressed with those of you who know in undergrad! I chose a Masters program simply because of timing. I was 30 and going back to school. I wanted to jump into working with clients as soon as possible instead of spending an extra year or two in an OTD program. The OTD would open doors for teaching, but those weren’t doors I was even interested in knocking on.
In an ideal world, I’d continue seeing clients, provide parent education classes (for typical and atypical development) and eventually incorporate yoga into my practice. I know this decision is probably weighing on many of you as you choose your path. As long as Masters remains entry level, I want you to think about what you want out of your career AND what you can afford if you are considering an OTD. We often don’t want to put a price tag on helping others but it is something you should strongly consider in this decision. Good luck!“
You can find Katie on Instagram @katie_lately__