There probably isn’t an occupational therapy practitioner out there who hasn’t thought about taking a break from patient care. Life happens—you may have an injury or health condition forcing you to step away from something you love, or you may simply be experiencing burnout, and longing for a change. Family or community commitments can also change over the years, which can impact your desire and ability to work in clinical care.
Maybe the pandemic made you rethink whether working with patients fits your family’s needs. Sometimes, though, you just want to learn something new!
The desire to change to a non-traditional occupational therapy career—whether temporary or permanent—is normal.
Luckily, there are tons of alternative jobs that you can land with your occupational therapy degree.
The good news is that the jobs are certainly out there! The not-so-good news is that you need to be a bit more strategic about how you find these jobs, at least compared to searching for clinical OT jobs. We’ve created this guide to get you started, and to help you find the top resources to make a career pivot.
This article walks you through the self-assessment of your situation and showcases OTs who have found jobs outside patient care.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What is non-traditional OT/non-clinical work?
- Self-assess your situation
- Explore different options/gain experience before leaving your day job
- 8 specific non-traditional OT jobs you can look into
- OTs who are rocking alternative work
What is non-traditional OT/non-clinical work?
For the purposes of this article, “non-traditional” refers to anything outside of conventional hands-on patient care roles. Office jobs, sales jobs, ergonomics/workplace evaluator jobs, telehealth, and assistive technology jobs are all considered non-traditional (or “non-clinical” or “unconventional”) in this article. Cash-based OT, early intervention, nature-based OT and other types of niche roles are not considered non-traditional for the purposes of this article.
Self-assess your situation
A career change is not something that affects you alone. Family members, significant others, and even friends might feel the impact of your change. It’s vital to consider how much of a change makes sense for you. Some of these roles require additional education or training, while others require self-discipline or the willingness to take a steep pay cut to enter the field.
Answering “no” to these questions certainly does not mean all non-traditional OT jobs are closed to you, but answering “yes” to one or more broadens your options.
Do you actually want to leave patient care?
Some people think they want to leave patient care, but they really want to leave bad managers, shady corporations, or unrealistic productivity expectations.
It’s definitely advisable for new grads (or people who have only worked in one setting) to consider whether they should spend a little more time in patient care before switching gears. It’s not necessary, but it’s helps you feel committed psychologically when you feel you’ve truly exhausted all options in clinical care before trying something new.
Can you move?
Not all unconventional OT jobs require relocation, but many do. For example, sales, business development, and clinical trainer jobs often require you to cover a particular territory, which might be far from where you live. Some roles with rehab tech companies may enable remote work (especially since the pandemic hit), but in most cases, you’ll be expected to work onsite, which might mean you need to relocate to a pricey city.
Can you earn less money?
Many of these non-traditional roles aren’t as lucrative as clinical roles, at least not at the beginning. After you’ve spent a few years getting your feet wet, you are more likely to catch up to what you were making as a clinician, and maybe even exceed your current salary.
This is not always the case, though; sales roles often pay much more than clinical roles do, but income is an important consideration to keep in mind when you plan your move.
Can you absorb the risk of having a gap in pay?
As noted above, financial considerations are real. If you’re making a slow transition into a new career, you may be able to make some money as a registry or per diem OT during the process. If you’re making a sudden jump to a non-traditional role, be aware that you might have a gap in pay while you return to school, job hunt, etc.
Do you have upfront time and money you could invest in a certification or new skill set?
This is an important question. If you’d like to switch to a public health, for example, you might need an MHA or certification to show you have an understanding of statistics. You can take coursework online or explore community college programs near you, but both will require an investment of your money and your time.
Are you OK starting small?
One of the biggest challenges of switching to a non-traditional OT job is the feeling that you’re a small fish in a big pond. As clinicians, we are usually pretty comfortable with our clinical skills, even if we don’t know everything. But it can be humbling to be brand-new at a company and using a brand-new skill set. It can be a strange feeling to start to self-identify as something other than an OT.
Are you prepared for lots of questions?
Your coworkers will ask you, your future employers will ask you, and you will ask yourself:
- Why are you doing this?
- How will you afford this?
- Why did you go to OT school, only to leave patient care?
It can hurt to have what is already a stressful decision be questioned like that. Be confident in yourself. You’re doing this because you’re excited to try something new.
Even if an illness or injury is the impetus for this move, explain that to yourself, and to others, with confidence and eagerness for what lies ahead. Once you’ve made your move, those same people will often come around asking for your help to do the same.
Explore different options/gain experience before leaving your day job
One of the hardest parts of leaving patient care is figuring out what to do next. Here’s where working with a career coach or career counselor can be very helpful. A career coach keeps you on track and working toward your goals, while a career counselor will work with you to address underlying fears, roadblocks, and challenges that prevent you from making moves professionally.
Here are some other ways to explore what is out there.
Line up informational interviews.
An informational interview is a quick conversation where you ask a professional questions about their job. The rules of thumb are to keep these calls quick, only ask questions about the people you’re interviewing, and to send a thank-you note afterward. While some informational interviews do turn into jobs or mentorship opportunities, you should never assume this will be the case.
If tapping people to ask for their time gives you the heebie jeebies, don’t worry! Meredith has a huge list of non-clinical career spotlights on her site, which you can explore to get a done-for-you informational interview experience 🙂
Go to a healthcare hackathon:
If you’re interested in a career in rehab technology—and you can afford the time and cost—you must try out a healthcare hackathon. These are weekend events where you’ll team up with engineering and business professionals, as well as other clinicians, to tackle big problems in healthcare. They’re an excellent introduction into the world of startups, not to mention a great networking opportunity!
Keep in mind that the hackathon scene has slowed since the pandemic hit, but we expect more of these events in the future!
Explore The Non-Clinical PT
The Non-Clinical PT was created to provide pathways to non-traditional career opportunities for all rehab professionals, including PTs, OTs, SLPs, and assistants. The site is chock-full of great information to help you launch a non-traditional OT career. Here are a few resources offered by The Non-Clinical PT
- Non-Clinical Jobs and Networking for PT/OT/SLP Professionals – This is a free Facebook group where you can connect with other non-traditional OT, PT, SLP professionals.
- Non-Clinical Career Crash Courses – These are low-cost courses designed to help you pursue specific career paths in the non-clinical world. With each course enrollment, you get job application materials (sample resumes, sample cover letters, etc.) and recommendations for how to interview, search for jobs, and more!
- Non-Clinical 101: The Complete Guide to Launching Your Non-Clinical Career. This is Meredith’s flagship course. It is designed for people who know they want to pivot to a new career, but aren’t sure what they want to do, nor how to create resumes, find jobs, interview, negotiate, etc. Non-Clinical 101 gives lifetime access to a proven four-step system that helps you identify which roles are best suited for you, then walks you through the process of getting there. The course comes with tons of resume downloads, interview prep materials, self-assessment activities, and help with finding jobs (including a private LinkedIn group with jobs exclusive to students). Plus, you get ALL of her crash courses included with your enrollment.
Network, network, network
Networking has a new meaning since the pandemic struck, but there are plenty of ways you can make connections.
First of all, you can join some of the free Facebook groups below.
- Occupational Therapy Entrepreneurs is moderated by Laura Park Figueroa.
- Non-Clinical Jobs and Networking for PT/OT/SLP Professionals, mentioned above, is moderated by Meredith Castin of The Non-Clinical PT and open to all rehab professionals!
- Holistic Occupational Therapy is a group of OTs with a passion for finding ways to integrate their OT skills and complementary medicine. This has led to several venturing into non-traditional OT work.
You can also look outside the rehab world and join groups geared toward the career path(s) of your choice.
As the world gets back to normal and in-person events become the norm, you’ll want to explore in-person networking events. Some professional organizations have a non-clinical presence, and there are tons of groups out there for all sorts of career paths.
In preparation for these events, you’ll want to:
Print some business cards.
You’ll want to have your title and a personal email address on hand for anytime you meet folks at networking events, healthcare hackathons, or even happy hours!
Get a professional headshot.
A headshot is an easy way to start establishing your personal brand. Use it on your LinkedIn page, in your bylines, and for your online profile in professional networking groups. I (Sarah) got one done in the early stages of my website and, honestly, it has just made life easier. It feels like every company I work with requests my headshot at some point.
Identify problems that you would love to solve
If you develop a skill set that solves a specific problem that people are having—and a problem that you enjoy solving—you will become extremely marketable. For example, most OTs and PTs have a very difficult time selling themselves and their services, and very few are savvy with social media and digital marketing. If you make yourself an expert salesperson, or you learn the ins and outs of online sales strategies, you will easily excel in a role as a social media manager, or where you’re marketing (selling) rehab practitioners’ services.
For me (Sarah), my hobby of writing an OT blog became a career when I switched my mindset. Rather than seeing my website as a fun pastime, I realized that I was serving fellow OTs—I was solving a problem by filling in gaps in the information about OT careers that was available online.
I made solving this problem my focus and went after the skills I would need to solve it:
- I read about copywriting.
- I learned about website building.
- I studied how I could make my articles align with the questions people are asking.
Start making some money
Unless you get really lucky and land the first non-traditional job you apply to, you’ll probably wind up slowly easing out of your day job and into your new career. If you’re a writer, designer, usability expert or anything else, once you have your basic skills established, a great place to start is by picking up freelance work.
- Creative Circle and Aquent offer contract work (similar to registry or per diem work) for creatives.
8 specific non-traditional OT jobs you can look into
There are many avenues your non-traditional OT career could take, but here we highlight 8 of the most common.
Writing is one of the easiest switches you can make, but you have to be willing to put in lots of time, and you might take a pretty steep pay cut at the beginning. Writing is awesome, though. It’s flexible, you can do it from anywhere, and it’s really easy if it comes naturally to you. You’ll know if you’re one of those people pretty quickly 🙂
Even if you love writing, but have some questions about grammar or how to make money doing it, here are courses you can take that will expedite the process! That said, you don’t need any additional training to write for your next career!
- Breaking into Health Writing – The definitive beginners’ course for clinicians launching careers in copywriting.
- Getting Started With Freelance Writing – This course is not specific to clinicians, but is a great quick start to freelance writing.
- Therapy Blogging 101 – This course is designed specifically for PT, OT, and SLP professionals who want to build, grow, and monetize websites or blogs. Therapy Blogging 101 is a joint course created by Meredith of The Non-Clinical PT and Chanda of Pink Oatmeal. Both are PTs who have monetized blogs without being sleazy or sketchy, and they teach techniques for others to do the same.
How to get there:
The first thing you’ll need as a writer is to get published online. You can start your own blog really easily (here is an excellent course on how to use WordPress, which is what many bloggers use). You can also reach out to websites to get bylines. A byline is an attribution for authorship of an article. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a picture and short bio. Your first byline is most difficult to attain.
Here are some examples (Meredith’s is cooler):
Consider reaching out to write a guest post for your favorite publication. Here are some sites that sometimes accept high-quality guest posts from occupational therapists.
Once you have a published article under your name, you can start using sites like Upwork to start getting freelance and contract work.
If you want more info, here’s a comprehensive guide to transitioning from clinician to copywriter.
The world of education is filled with opportunities for OTs. You can become an OT professor, an adjunct instructor, a tutor, a subject matter expert, or a con-ed instructor.
How to get there:
Given the number of paths you can take within education, there’s really no one set path to get there. Definitely contact your school’s alumni association to see if there’s anything you can do to network or put your name out there.
You’ll also want to beef up your resume to reflect any research, tutoring, lab assisting, or clinical instructor roles you’ve held since your student years. If you were a career changer, any previous leadership or instructing roles are relevant, too!
Also, check out Arameh’s interview on her career path into OT academia and what she has found fulfilling and challenging about it.
OTs are usability experts, and we’re perfectly positioned to take on consulting roles involving workplace safety, design challenges, and the removal of barriers in parks, office buildings, and residential complexes.
We can also move into roles where we consult with practices to help them improve their billing and workflow practices. The sky is the limit with consulting, so think about where your unique skill set can serve others’ needs best! Remember, if you identify a way that you can solve someone else’s problem, you’ll be very marketable!
How to get there:
This is one of those times when you’ll have to get out and volunteer and network as much as possible. When there is new construction in your area (especially smaller projects like parks or municipal buildings), reach out and offer your services for free. Then list those experiences on your resume.
If you’re lucky enough to live near any of the 10 ADA centers in the U.S., you can also offer to volunteer. Once you’ve made contacts with key players in the contracting and architecture/design industries, you can really beef up your resume (or maybe even your references, if you make nice)!
Non-Clinical 101 also contains an entire lesson to help you learn how to identify your marketable skills, find clients, and price yourself.
Director of Rehab and OT Supervisor probably sound familiar to you. They are probably some of the few non-traditional roles you’ve considered, because they’re the only ones with real visibility for OTs.
These roles are great when they’re great, but if you’re not a manager type—or if you want to avoid getting sucked back into patient care from time to time—you might wind up miserable.
How to get there:
When you’re a staff OT, ask to help out in as many unique and unconventional ways as possible. Organize lunches and in-services. Offer to cover the scheduling board or take point on busy days.
When you show that you can stay calm under pressure, you’ll stand out as a logical next-in-line for the managerial roles. Even if you don’t move up in your existing company, you can list those roles on your resume and start applying for lead roles at other facilities!
5. Rehab liaison
If you love patient care, but hate the physical and emotional toll it takes, definitely look into becoming a rehab liaison (or clinical liaison). Rehab liaisons, also known as intake coordinators or intake liaisons, are responsible for finding the right patients for inpatient rehab facilities/inpatient rehab units (IRFs, IRUs).
You’ll spend much of your days seeking out and/or addressing patient referrals, then meeting, interviewing, and running insurance on the cases that come your way. Liaisons face quotas, so if you hated productivity requirements, you might not enjoy this role. That said, the quotas are usually very reasonable, unlike productivity expectations these days!
How to get there:
Try to work in multiple acute care hospitals within your region and get to know the case managers in those facilities. This might mean picking up 2-3 per diem OT jobs for a year and networking as much as possible with case management during that time. Then, when you apply for the rehab liaison roles, play up your connections big time—you’ll need them! Also, note any experience you have with running insurance or auditing charts. It’ll help your case!
6. User experience/user interface (UX/UI)
Usability is what we know as OTs! There are tons of software and tech companies that need help with usability. The main issue is that, even though we have the perfect background for these roles, we are not landing them. This is a real issue that we OTs need to address as soon as possible.
It’s not just young, tech savvy OTs going into usability design, either—check out this inspiring story about a 90-year-old occupational therapist who’s helping design products for older adults at IDEO.
How to get there:
You’re going to need to network as much as possible. Go to usability meetups. Join online forums. Also, you’ll definitely want to take few courses on usability and user experience to legitimize yourself as a candidate. The initial leap into a non-traditional role will be the most challenging, but once you’re there, you’ll rock it!
Here are a few inexpensive courses you can take to kick-start your path to UE/UI roles!
- UX Design and User Experience Design for Beginners
- User Experience Design Fundamentals
- Become a UX Designer – Learn the Skills and Get the Job
If these courses seem a bit daunting (even though they’re designed for relative beginners), consider taking a basic course in Adobe Photoshop, like this one!
7. Assistive technology professional and/or seating mobility specialist
If you enjoy working with patients, but you hate the time constraints and pressure of traditional settings, you can consider a role as an assistive technology personnel (ATP) or seating mobility specialist (SMS). These terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually quite different in terms of responsibilities and scope.
- ATP professionals create accessibility technology for those with disabilities. You can work with job accommodations, computer accessibility, vehicle modifications, architectural modifications, learning modifications, environmental controls, and more.
- SMS professionals are actually specialized ATPs! They spend their days creating seating, positioning, and mobility solutions for people with disabilities, and tend to spend quite a bit of their days working with wheelchairs.
How to get there:
You’ll need special certifications from Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America for both ATP and SMS roles. This means a time commitment—and, yes, a money commitment. You’ll also need to take exams to get certified.
8. Home safety professional
If you enjoy working with new people all the time, you might really enjoy a job in home modification (also known as home safety). These roles are ideal for OTs who have an eye for noticing potential hazards in people’s homes.
You’ll spend your days scrutinizing environments, then making recommendations to ensure they are free from hazards and have injury prevention measures in place.
How to get there:
If you’re going in this direction, check out Home Modification OT Alliance! Networking is also vital. Attend mixers with local home builders, contractors, and corporate development firms. Get business cards printed with your OT credentials (and any other special certifications you pursue).
OTs who are rocking alternative work
Seeing is believing, and these nine occupational therapists have successfully transitioned into non-clinical roles! Take a look at all the interesting ways you can leverage that OT degree, if you’re ever ready to try something new!
Fawn serves as the managing editor of occupationaltherapy.com, an industry leader in providing CEUs for occupational therapists.
Lisa Westhorpe, OTR/L
Lisa founded Nurture Occupational Therapy to meet a significant unmet need in her area: supporting new parents. Lisa is passionate about supporting birth choices, educating parents-to-be on the fourth trimester, and ensuring parents can take care of their bodies while taking care of baby. Lisa also provides courses for OTs who are interested in supporting new moms.
Rachel Coley, OTR/L
Rachel now uses her pediatric occupational therapy expertise to help parents around the globe through her website, CanDo Kiddo!
Erik has a huge passion for occupational therapy and how our profession is represented world wide. He is the chief medical officer for Warfighter Engaged, which works to enhance the lives of veterans. In this roles, Erik is a consultant in the video game industry and advocates for accessibility across the spectrum of care.
Dairian Roberts, MS, OTR/L, IBCLC
Dairian created Humbled by Motherhood to fill in the gaps of our healthcare system that consistently fails mothers. This is a holistic occupational therapy practice that emphasizes wellness, individualized care, and clinical expertise.
Ingrid M. Kanics, OTR/L, FAOTA
Ingrid was able to launch her career right out of OT school in inclusive design. She now owns Kanics Inclusive Design Services, LLC. Read more about her journey in the post Inclusive Design and Starting an OT Consulting Business.
Lauren Sheehan, OTD, OTR/L
Lauren has spent the last three years of her career working for rehabilitation technology companies, assisting with product and process development for products that serve stroke patients. She’s currently the Field Clinical Manager for NeuroLutions, a device company committed to developing quality products that incorporate innovation such as BCI (Brain Computer Interface) stroke rehabilitation technology. You can listen to Lauren on the OT Potential Podcast!
It is possible. There are people doing it. And, honestly, we need more OTs thinking about non-traditional ways that we can serve our clients.
Looking creatively at your career and skill set may enable you to help more people than ever would have been possible in 1:1 therapy.
Hopefully, within this article you found concrete steps for taking initial steps and found new career opportunities to explore.
Got more questions for us? Leave them in the comments!
About the Authors
Meredith Castin, PT, DPT – Meredith worked as a physical therapist for 5 years before becoming a writer and PRN rehab liaison. She created The Non-Clinical PT to help rehab professionals feel excited about their careers again, by helping them leverage their experience and insight in non-clinical jobs.
Sarah Lyon, OTR/L – Sarah wasn’t looking to leave patient care, but about five years into her career, realized that she could potentially help more patients by serving occupational therapists through her website OT Potential. She now spends her work days connecting OTs with new research in the OT Potential Club. She is also the host of the OT Potential Podcast.