There has never been a better time for graduates from occupational therapy schools to find a job. U.S. News and World Report ranked occupational therapy as one the top 50 “Best Careers” in 2011, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that occupational therapy jobs will increase up to 23 percent through 2016. Some of the factors driving this growth are the aging of the baby boomer generation, improvements in medical and rehabilitative care, a growing need for specialized assistance, the increasing availability of new technology, and efforts to rein in the cost of health care delivery by relying more on outpatient care. Growth in home care and nursing home services are especially promising areas for graduates of occupational therapy schools.
Even so, finding a job can be a time-consuming and often frustrating process. It is important to remember that, while a graduate degree and certification by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) are required, applicable clinical and field experience can set an applicant apart from the competition for jobs, as does developing supportive contacts within the profession while still in school. The supervised fieldwork students are required to perform is an excellent way to develop such contacts and potential job leads after graduation and certification.
A review of just one job website for occupational therapists revealed more than 13,000 job postings, while the leading job website for occupational therapists posted more than 18,000 jobs in 2010. Because the demand for graduates of occupational therapy schools is greater than the supply, most graduates should not have trouble finding work in most urban areas after passing the NBCOT exam.
However, finding the right job can take time, because each job is differs by a number of factors, such as salary, location, hours, benefits, and other considerations. Remember that looking for a position involves more than just sending out a résumé; it takes a well thought-out job search campaign and the discipline to pursue it.
One excellent tip is to join Pi Theta Epsilon, the national honor society for occupational therapy students, while still in school. Affiliated with the American Occupational Therapy Foundation, it hosts regular seminars and conferences, which are excellent places to network to find potential employers, and the society also has a job database and provides access to its membership roster.
Developing a solid list of character and professional references is a vital part of finding a job for a graduate of occupational therapy school. It should always be in the back of students’ minds throughout their education and fieldwork, and it is never too soon to start cultivating good relationships with professors and practicing occupational therapists through courses and field study.
Try to impress them with your initiative and desire to help others, and do not be afraid to ask them for advice and guidance. Most will gladly welcome your interest and remember you better than if you just attend classes. Also, volunteer whenever possible when opportunities arise. Knowing someone in the profession is also helpful, especially if he or she has followed your educational track, and keep in mind that your contacts do not necessarily have to be occupational therapists. A reference from anyone involved in health care delivery can help.
Before asking people for recommendations, first make sure that they are aware of your deadline and have the time available to write reference letters. Also, ensure that they know you well enough to describe your academic skills and/or your competency working with others, and always use your best contacts for references, based on their academic or professional stature. Try to make an appointment to request s recommendation. Sending a letter or e-mail is never a good idea because they can easily be lost, misplaced, or overlooked. Most occupational therapy professionals have been asked to write letters for others, so a follow-up thank-you with a reminder of the due date can avert unnecessary oversights and delays.
Before submitting a list of references to a prospective employer, make sure each of your reference contacts has an updated copy of your résumé, and make sure to describe the company and position that you have applied for as well as the contact person who will be calling, if you know the name.
Some employers search social media sites like Facebook to find out more about job applicants, and your profile, comments, and online network of friends can be revealing and potentially damaging. Clean up or edit your home page before sending off applications so that it reflects you in a favorable light. Another recommendation is using different services for your personal and professional networks. For instance, you might use LinkedIn for professional contacts and Facebook for friends, but be careful to avoid making any comments anywhere online, including blogs and chat rooms, that might reflect poorly on your character in the eyes of a potential employer.
Few things are more nerve-wracking than a job interview, and this is no different for OTRs. But the interview process can be less stressful if you understand several important tactics that can help. There are even professional counselors who prepare applicants for the face-to-face ordeal.
The Internet is a valuable source of information on interview dos and don’ts. Some of these are obvious: be on time, dress professionally, be personable, and make eye contact with the interviewer. Looking right above an interviewer’s eyes works if you are uncomfortable looking directly into them. Also, sit straight, and lean slightly forward (this is a subtle body language technique indicating interest and enthusiasm). Try to be personable, and always be honest because most interviewers are experts at detecting lies and evasion.
Equally important is being prepared for some of the questions that most interviewers ask. Interviewers rely on a number of tactics to assess applicants, independent of any school record or work experience. They look for cues, many of them subtle and subconscious, in the way the interviewee responds to questions. These reveal whether an interviewee is relaxed or tense, defensive or forthcoming. They pay attention to how interviewees hold themselves and what their eyes and hands do during the session.
Here are some typical questions and suggestions on how to respond that will leave a positive impression.
- Interviewers will always start with what seems to be small talk, but they develop an almost intuitive sense on how an interviewee responds, and creating a great first impression is a critical factor. It is important to quickly establish yourself as an upbeat and enthusiastic person, so without going overboard, always smile and respond positively. Speak clearly and at an appropriate level. Do not speak too softly or loudly but with a degree of confidence. Emphasize how grateful you are for their consideration.
- You will usually be asked to tell them a little about yourself and why you chose to attend an occupational therapy school and this career path. State why you are interested in working in the field, especially any personal reasons. Mention teachers and clinicians who have helped you, and tell them about your volunteer experiences. Always be prepared to briefly emphasize what you have accomplished academically and in the field, as well as what you would like to do with your skills. Rehearse it enough so that it does not sound rehearsed, and avoid seeming overly confident. Be relatively brief and on point. And, mention hobbies whenever appropriate. If you are a runner or love boating, tell them. It is surprising how many doors open when you and the interviewer share a common outside interest.
- Rehearse sitting comfortably during pauses during an interview. Be aware that we all have almost subconscious physical tics when we are nervous, so become aware of yours in order to avoid them. For example, do you reflexively touch your chin when asked a question, or tap your fingers or thumb, or make any gesture that could suggest impatience? Always try rehearsing interviews with a friend, family member, or even a school counselor. Videotaping practice interviews and then viewing your performance is almost always helpful, especially in pointing out inadvertent tics or nervous gestures.
- Expect to be asked about your strengths and weaknesses. Be honest, but always try to turn any weakness into a strength as it might apply to helping others so that your response always ends on a positive note. Invariably, you will also be asked where you would like to be, professionally, in ten years. Try to be realistic and positive. You might also be asked about the most difficult part of your occupational therapy education or fieldwork or about any time you fell short, how you handled it, and what you learned from the experience. Again, be honest and heartfelt, but do not go overboard.
- If they ask you to explain an academic shortcoming, for instance, why you might have dropped a class, try not to sound defensive. Explain that you realized the workload was affecting your overall studies or that you had to work as well as attend classes. But, emphasize that your GPA went up (if it did) as a result.
As a recent graduate of an occupational therapy school, your résumé is both a record of your academic and personal achievements and a promotional tool. It is extremely important to be completely honest on your résumé because everything you include can and likely will be checked. There’s an entire professional résumé writing industry out there, but whether or not such services are needed is debatable, given the large number of free templates available on the Internet. Some of these are even specifically designed for students of occupational therapy schools.
Even if you are a do-it-yourself type of person, it always helps to have someone with a writing or editing background look it over and offer suggestions. Try to get at least two persons to proofread your final copy. Perhaps the most damaging thing an applicant can do is submit a résumé or cover letter with a typo or glaring grammatical errors. Also, always double-check all telephone numbers to make sure they are correct.
Do not make the mistake of trying to make your résumé stand out by being clever or humorous, and never include a picture of yourself.
The most important part of sending out your résumé involves following it up with a call to the company, clinic, or individual to thank them for their consideration, to make sure they received it, and to check whether they need any more information or references. This not only shows your interest, but it also serves to put a voice to your name and résumé in the mind of the person sorting through responses. It can even mean your résumé will be pulled to the top of the pile as the contact person reviews it again when you call. This simple tactic can improve your chances, but never call more than once.
All occupational therapy students are required to participate in a certain number of hours of supervised field study in order to graduate, and most will also have to complete an internship. School programs help students secure appropriate internships and assist in providing mentors.
Many students of occupational therapy abandon their programs in favor of other majors because they feel the internship and fieldwork requirements are too difficult or time-consuming. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that many students simply choose the wrong internship—they fail to take the time to explore the range of available internships and find the best fit and miss out on developing valuable contacts in the field.
In addition to providing real-world experience in occupational therapy, fieldwork and internships help you establish relationships with companies and clinics as well as with individuals working in the field, some of whom are often willing to serve as references. While an academic reference from a professor is important, employers tend to look more closely and make hiring decisions based on what a student has done as an intern.
Students should always do some checking into companies that they might want to work for after graduating from occupational therapy schools and whether they offer internships. Search a range of companies and whether they’re seeking interns or not. By learning what a company prefers of applicants, you can determine what contributions you can make. There are many resources to turn to for internship opportunities. Talk to your academic advisor for any insights he or she might offer to help you get started.