If you are interested in a career that helps people gain, maintain, or relearn the strength and skills needed to stay active and participate in daily life, physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) are both great choices. Since both of these professions help people with movement and strength, it can be hard to determine why to choose one profession over the other. This article will explore some of the differences in the goals of these therapies, as well as the day to day and career prospects for these professionals, so that you are better equipped to choose a career path.

Sponsored Program

Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapist Job Descriptions

Physical Therapist Job Description

Physical therapists help those who suffer from medical injuries, degenerative conditions, developmental delay, and other health issues that affect movement and function. To help their patients, PTs use exercise as a means of improving strength and mobility, regaining strength and mobility that was lost, or slowing loss of function associated with degenerative disease. Through exercise, patients can achieve improved quality of life in the form of increased mobility and decreased pain. Physical therapists may work with young children with conditions from autism to muscular dystrophy or with older patients struggling with balance.

Occupational Therapist Job Description

Occupational therapists also treat patients with injuries and disabilities, but the focus of their efforts is on the ends (increased ability to participate in everyday activities), rather than what could be considered as the means (increased strength and function through exercise). OT goals focus specifically on improving the working and living experience of a patient. OT also not only helps patients improve skills, but also develop skills that they may not have, or regain skills that they used to have. OTs, like PTs, may work with patients across the lifespan.

Similarities Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy

Although the philosophies of physical and occupational therapy differ a bit, there are many similarities in the day to day of the two professions. As therapists, both OTs and PTs must follow the same steps to help their patients:

  • Assessment – assessing the patient’s condition and what their needs are
  • Diagnosing – making a diagnosis based on patient evaluation
  • Treatment – formulating and executing a treatment plan to help improve the patient’s condition
  • Evaluation of outcomes – determining if the treatment plan has helped the patient, and how the plan should be adjusted to improve outcomes
  • Education – educating the patient and his or her family so that they know what to expect and can be of the best assistance possible during the recovery process

Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Education/Certification Requirements

Occupational therapists must hold a master’s degree to become certified and practice their profession. All entry level OTs will be required by AOTA/Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) to hold a doctorate starting July 1, 2027. Entry level physical therapists are already required to hold a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree.

Physical Therapy Certification Requirements

Doctor of Physical Therapy Prerequisites

Before applying to a doctor of physical therapy program, you will need to meet prerequisite requirements. Common doctor of physical therapy prerequisites that require planning ahead include:

  • A bachelor’s degree, unless enrolling in a combined bachelor’s and doctorate program
  • PT-supervised observation hours- this requirement will differ by program, so investigate the requirements for the schools you wish to apply to
  • GRE scores

Doctor of Physical Therapy Programs

Aspiring physical therapists must earn their doctor of physical therapy degree. It typically takes 3 years to earn a doctorate of physical therapy, though some programs will have what is called a “3 and 3” which combines a bachelor’s and doctorate into a 6 year program. DPT programs typically consist of 80% classroom work and 20% clinical education. Clinical education involves on-campus lab work as well as off-campus clinical experiences.

National Physical Therapy Exam

In order to become certified as a physical therapist, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. To sign up for this exam, you must have your DPT degree, register and pay a registration fee, comply with test security requirements, and be approved by your state to take the test (this involves submitting an application to the board of physical therapy in your state).

Once you are approved to take the exam, you can schedule a date to take it. It is a 5 hour, 250 question exam. A passing score is 600.

Physical Therapy Certification

Once you pass your exam, you will have already gotten approval through your state board and met the required practical hours, so you will typically receive a license from your state in the mail. Most states do not require further action after taking the exam, but check with your state board in case.

Sponsored Program

Occupational Therapy Certification Requirements

Prerequisites for Occupational Therapy Master’s Programs

There is no list of specific requirements published by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). However, there are several requirements that you can expect to have to meet to apply to an occupational therapy program. Mainly, you will need to meet any foundational coursework requirements, which are usually in the sciences. Like physical therapy, you will need a bachelor’s if not enrolling in a combined program, as well as GRE scores depending on the school.

Occupational Therapy Graduate Programs

Occupational therapy graduate programs are typically completed in about 2-3 years. These programs include Level I and Level II Fieldwork. Specific fieldwork requirements will vary by school, but AOTA does require Level II Fieldwork to be a 24 week full time experience (or equivalent in part time). Fieldwork will be completed in a variety of settings, with a variety of populations.

Remember that AOTA/Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) will require a doctorate for all entry-level OTs from July 1, 2027 onward. 

Occupational Therapy Certification Exam

Passing the national certification exam is required in order to become certified as an occupational therapist. You must submit your occupational therapy transcript and a character review as part of the process to apply to take the exam. You will receive an Authorization to Test if you meet all of the requirements. Once you pass the test, you will be certified as an occupational therapist.

State Licensure for Occupational Therapists

Always check with your state on occupational therapy licensure requirements to see if there are additional requirements for licensure after passing the test. After receiving state licensure, continue to follow all state and national renewal requirements.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy Salary

Both physical therapy and occupational therapy are fast growing fields offering high pay. On average, physical therapists earn slightly more than OTs, and demand for PTs is also 4 percentage points higher:

Physical Therapist Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2018 data, physical therapists earn an average salary of $87,930 per year. The top 10% of physical therapists earn $123,350 per year.

Growth in demand for physical therapists is expected to be 22% between 2018 and 2028, over 4 times the national average.

Occupational Therapist Salary

According to the BLS, the average salary for occupational therapists in 2018 was $84,270, with the top 10% of salaries being at least $120,750.

Demand for occupational therapists is expected to grow 18% between 2018 and 2028.

Physical Therapy vs Occupational Therapy Work Settings

Although occupational therapists and physical therapists both work in a variety of settings, there are differences in which settings each type of professional is more likely to work in.

According to the BLS, the top two settings for each of these professionals is hospitals and offices of PTs, OTs, and speech pathologists. 

About 1 in 10 OTs works in a school, which is not a top setting for physical therapists. So, if you are interested in working in an educational setting, occupational therapy may be for you.

Some PTs and OTs also work in nursing homes or in home health.

Last Updated: 2/26/2020