7 Tips for Selecting your First Occupational Therapy Job


Selecting your first occupational therapy job is a significant milestone in your professional journey. It's the point where theory meets practice, and where you begin to shape the impact you'll have on the lives of those you serve.

This decision can influence your career path, personal growth, and overall job satisfaction. 

It is so important to select the first job! I have seen way too many new OTs not happy with their jobs and consider leaving the profession. Please select wisely!

Here are seven essential tips to help you navigate this crucial phase and find a job that fulfills your professional aspirations and personal needs.

1. Consider the Setting and Population in your First Occupational Therapy Job

Occupational therapy offers a diverse range of settings, each with its own unique challenges and rewards. Whether it's working in schools, hospitals, private clinics, or community settings, think about where your passion lies. If you feel a strong connection to helping children overcome developmental challenges, a pediatric setting or school may be your calling. 

On the other hand, if you are drawn to helping adults regain their independence after injuries or illnesses, consider a hospital or rehabilitation center. Your choice should resonate with your interests and strengths, as this will be the environment where you spend your days and make a difference in people's lives.

Population Considerations for Occupational Therapists

When selecting your first occupational therapy job, it's crucial to consider the population you will be serving. This involves thinking about the age groups, types of conditions, and the specific needs of the clients you are most passionate about and equipped to help. Your choice should align with both your clinical interests and your training, as this will influence your job satisfaction and effectiveness as a therapist.

Pediatric occupational therapists might work with children experiencing developmental delays, learning disabilities, sensory processing disorders, or physical impairments. In contrast, those focusing on adults may encounter clients recovering from injuries, dealing with mental health issues, or navigating age-related changes. Each population presents unique challenges and rewards, requiring different therapeutic approaches and personal attributes.

man in blue crew neck t-shirt holding black and white bottle

Choosing the Right Setting in Occupational Therapy

Consider what setting aligns best with one’s career goals and strengths, such as schools, hospitals, outpatient clinics, or private practices. Each setting has different roles, responsibilities, and benefits.

Choosing the right setting for your occupational therapy job is as crucial as deciding on the population you want to serve. The setting where you work will significantly impact your daily responsibilities, the type of interventions you provide, and your overall job satisfaction. 

Common settings for occupational therapists include hospitals, schools, outpatient clinics, community health centers, and private practices, each offering unique advantages and challenges.

When considering the setting for your first occupational therapy job, reflect on where your skills and interests best align. Think about the pace of work you prefer, the type of team you want to be part of, and the impact you wish to have on your clients’ lives. Each setting has its own rhythm, type of client interaction, and opportunities for professional growth. Your choice should not only reflect where you can be most effective and fulfilled as a therapist but also where you can achieve your long-term career goals.

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2. Skillset Alignment: Matching Your Experience with the Occupational Therapy Job

Ensure the job’s scope of practice matches one’s skills, training, and professional interests. It's important to feel competent and ethically sound in the services being provided.

There is nothing worse than feeling totally incompetent in your job.  Where you completed your fieldwork will greatly impact your competency at your first job.  There is nothing wrong with selecting a setting you have not worked in yet.  However support, supervision and mentorship will be even more important with that first job.

For example, I don’t recommend therapists jump into pediatrics if they have no experience with OT and children.  It is much easier to make the transition after you have some experience as an OT.  Even more so in the school system or early intervention, where you will be working alone.

Let me tell you a story about a therapist I met. She had 5 years of experience as an OT but none in pediatrics.  She was working at a clinic that I was familiar with that advertised they only hired “the best therapists for your child”. They expected this therapist to not only evaluate the children with no prior experience in pediatrics but to supervise a team of COTAs.  This is the type of job I call ”Being set up to fail”.

When evaluating potential job opportunities in occupational therapy, it's essential to consider whether the position fits your experience and expertise. This alignment is crucial for ensuring that you can perform your duties effectively and continue to grow professionally. A job that matches your skills and experience will allow you to provide high-quality care to your clients, feel confident in your role, and meet the expectations of your employer.

First, assess the specific clinical skills and knowledge required for the job. If the position focuses on a specialty area where you have little to no experience, consider whether you are ready and willing to undergo additional training or education. Conversely, if the job requires skills that you've already mastered on your fieldwork, then you are more likely to enjoy and excel in the placement.

Finding a job that fits your experience is about balancing the need for a role where you can confidently apply your current skills with the desire for professional growth and learning. A good fit will not only make you more effective in your role but also contribute to your overall job satisfaction and career development in occupational therapy.

3. Evaluate Mentorship Opportunities

The transition from student to practicing therapist can be daunting. Mentorship is a crucial element that can smooth this path. A good mentor can provide guidance, share knowledge, and support your professional development.

When considering job offers, inquire about mentorship programs, the experience and availability of potential mentors, and how the organization supports ongoing learning. A supportive mentorship environment can significantly enhance your growth and confidence as a new therapist.

Especially for new graduates or those new to the pediatric field, finding a job that offers mentorship is key. Mentorship provides guidance, skill development, and support, helping to build confidence and competence in the field.

Ensuring that your first occupational therapy job offers mentorship can be a pivotal factor in the early success and development of your career. Mentorship in the occupational therapy field is not just about having someone to show you the ropes; it’s about building a relationship with a seasoned professional who can guide you through complex clinical situations, offer career advice, and help you develop your professional identity.

4. Reflect on Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is about finding a job that allows you to excel professionally while also fulfilling personal responsibilities and passions. Consider factors like work hours, commute time, flexibility, and job demands. A job that respects your personal time and offers flexibility can contribute to your overall well-being and prevent burnout. Remember, a fulfilling career should enhance your life, not overwhelm it.

Understanding Productivity Expectations in Occupational Therapy Jobs

Ask about the expected number of billable hours or clients per day. High productivity demands can lead to burnout, so it's important to consider whether these expectations align with one's ability to provide quality care.

Productivity expectations are a critical aspect to consider when selecting your first occupational therapy job, as they can significantly affect your work-life balance and overall job satisfaction. These expectations refer to the amount of billable work or client contact time you are required to complete within a given timeframe, often measured on a daily or weekly basis.

In settings where productivity standards are high, occupational therapists may face pressure to see a large number of clients each day, leading to longer hours and potentially affecting the quality of care provided. This pressure can result in stress, burnout, and a feeling of being overwhelmed, particularly if the expectations are unrealistic or if there is insufficient support from the employer.

It's essential to understand the specific productivity requirements of a job before accepting it. Ask potential employers for clear details about these expectations and how they are measured. For example, in a hospital or clinic setting, you might be expected to bill for 75% to 85% of your time, meaning that the majority of your workday is spent in direct client care, leaving less time for documentation, planning, and collaboration with colleagues.

Consider how these productivity demands align with your work style and personal life. If you value thoroughness and deep engagement with clients, a high-productivity environment may be challenging. On the other hand, if you thrive in fast-paced settings and can efficiently manage your time, you may find these environments rewarding.

Ultimately, choosing a job with productivity expectations that align with your ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance is crucial. Ensure that the job allows for adequate time to provide quality care, fulfill professional responsibilities, and maintain personal well-being. Striking the right balance will help you build a sustainable and fulfilling career in occupational therapy.

4. Research the Company Culture of the Company

The culture of a workplace can greatly affect your job satisfaction and professional growth. A positive, supportive, and inclusive culture can make the daily challenges of the job more manageable and rewarding. Investigate the company’s values, mission, and how they treat their employees. Look for feedback from current or past employees, and during interviews, ask questions that help you gauge the working environment. Choose an organization where you feel you can belong, contribute, and thrive.

Reputation and Ethics 

Research the potential employer’s reputation within the industry. Consider their ethical practices, how they treat employees and clients, and their standing in the professional community.

The reputation and ethical standing of a potential employer are critical factors to consider when selecting your first occupational therapy job. Working for an organization with a strong ethical foundation and a good reputation in the industry can significantly enhance your job satisfaction, professional development, and the quality of care you provide to clients.

Look for reviews from current and former employees, feedback from clients or patients, and any news or reports about the organization. Pay attention to how the employer handles issues related to client care, employee relations, and community involvement. An employer that upholds high ethical standards and is respected in the field is likely to provide a supportive and positive work environment.

Consider how the organization's values align with your own professional and personal ethics. Does the employer prioritize client-centered care, uphold the dignity and rights of clients, and foster an inclusive and respectful workplace? Are there any red flags or concerns raised by others in the industry regarding their practices or treatment of employees and clients?

I never really considered this piece of my job search until I worked for a few questionable employers. Please please please consider this factor. More money isn't always worth it.

5. Understand the Benefits and Compensation of your First Occupational Therapy Job

Salary is an important consideration, but it's not the only factor. Look at the whole compensation package, including health benefits, pension plans, continuing education support, and paid leave policies. These benefits reflect how much an employer values their staff and can significantly impact your job satisfaction and financial health. Understanding and negotiating your compensation package can ensure you receive a fair and rewarding offer.

1099 or W2 Employment

When embarking on a career in occupational therapy, one of the key decisions you'll face is whether to work as a W-2 employee or a 1099 independent contractor. This choice significantly affects your job structure, income, benefits, and overall career path, so understanding the nuances between these two options is crucial.

This is a complicated decision and in many areas of the country you will not have a choice, so make sure you read up the differences.

1099 (Independent Contractor): Generally offers higher hourly rates but lacks benefits like health insurance and paid time off. It requires managing one’s own taxes and may lack job security and workplace protections.

W2 (Employee): Typically includes benefits, tax withholdings are managed by the employer, and offers more job security and legal protections. However, there may be less flexibility compared to a 1099 role.  W2 also can mean you are paid as a full-time employee, part-time, or even hourly and not paid for cancellations.

7. Listen to Your Gut

After all the research and rational consideration, don’t underestimate the power of your intuition. Your gut feeling about a job can often give you insights that facts and figures cannot. Reflect on your interactions with potential colleagues and employers, the workplace atmosphere, and how you felt during the interview process. Trusting your instincts can lead you to a job where you'll be happy and successful.

Embarking on the path to selecting your first occupational therapy job is an exciting yet daunting journey, filled with potential and promise. The choices you make now will lay the groundwork for your career, impacting your professional development, personal satisfaction, and the lives of those you aim to help. From considering the right setting and population to understanding the intricate balance of benefits, work-life equilibrium, and the ethical standing of your potential employer, each factor plays a pivotal role in shaping your future in this amazing profession.

What it takes to write each of your notes in 5 minutes or less

FORGET about just writing less

Learn what you really need to decrease your note writing time WITH Roadmap to Writing Quick Daily Notes

Roadmap to Quick Daily SOAP-Notes for pediatric occupational therapists

As you navigate through these decisions, remember that this journey is not just about finding a job; it's about discovering a path that aligns with your core values, nurtures your passion for helping others, and fosters continuous growth and learning. Trust in your education, your experiences, and most importantly, in your instinct. It will guide you towards choices that not only fulfill the immediate needs of your career but also contribute to the long-term vision of who you want to become as an occupational therapist.

Take these steps thoughtfully, embracing each opportunity to learn more about yourself and the vast field of occupational therapy. The job you choose should not only challenge you professionally but should also bring joy and fulfillment, resonating with the reasons why you embarked on this career path in the first place. Here’s to the beginning of a rewarding journey, full of possibilities and the opportunity to make a profound impact on the world, one patient at a time.


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