My Experience Pursuing OT as a 2nd Career!

Thinking about OT as a second career? Check out Kate Washa Boyd's experience and advice about what it takes to make the career leap!

If you’ve been considering pursuing OT as a second career, you may have many of the same questions that I also had just a few years ago.

  • Can I afford this?
  • Will it be worth it financially?
  • Will I feel more fulfilled in this profession than I have been with prior work?
  • What are the physical and emotional demands of higher education after having been out of school for years… or decades?
Sarah Lyon, OTR/L

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Why I chose OT as a second career & how I made my dream a reality

Kate Washa Boyd shares her experience pursuing OT as a 2nd career.
Kate Washa Boyd shares her experience pursuing OT as a 2nd career.

Of course everyone has their own unique circumstances so I can only speak for myself. At the time I learned about OT I was 10 years into a job that I enjoyed, but was grossly underpaid for, and the job was both physically and emotionally taxing. I had been looking for another line of work for years, but living in a declining rural town with no local opportunities I knew I’d have to pursue further education in order to find a career with good prospects. My husband and I had some savings and no debt other than a reasonable mortgage payment, so when I discovered OT (after minor surgery on my hand) I thought this profession could be a good fit.

Figuring out Finances

Prerequisites: My bachelor’s degree from decades ago was in an unrelated field, so I had to take every single prerequisite class required for all the MOT and MSOT programs I was looking into (and in some cases, prerequisites to the prerequisites!). Completing all these classes as a full time student took 2 years at my local community college (CC), but was well worth it. I used this time as an opportunity to explore whether I enjoyed being a student again after almost 20 years in the workforce. This was a very affordable way to dip my toe into academia again, and I met many new friends in the process. I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything!

Funding My Schooling

Due to the cost of post-graduate work I only seriously considered schools in my state (NC). Through my local CC I found some excellent leads on funding, the most promising of which was a Forgivable Education Loan for Service (FELS) that’s available in NC: https://www.cfnc.org/fels. I applied for FELS before even applying to grad schools, and consequently the funds kicked in starting my first OT semester and covered both academic years: $20,000. This funding didn’t cover all tuition, books and fees, but it did prevent us from having to take out any loans or tap our modest 401K funds.

I chose to quit my job to focus on prerequisites (and later OT school) to fast track the process, and we hemorrhaged money for my health insurance and all the school expenses beyond the $$ from FELS. Once you’re in your OT program, I recommend that you apply to any scholarships offered by your program, Allied Health, or anything else you can find. I applied for a $1,000 OT scholarship in my last semester of grad school and was given that one, plus another Allied Health scholarship for $2,000, which I believe may have been in large part because not many people applied for them. That was well worth the time it took to write a 1-page essay, and in retrospect I wish I’d taken the time to apply for other scholarships along the way.

In discussing pros/cons of OT as a 2nd career with a couple former classmates, it’s the general consensus that the time and expense was worth it. Primarily if taking a job that pays well, such as in a skilled nursing facility (SNF) or Home Health (at least temporarily) in order to more quickly pay down any student loans.

Navigating Physical and Emotional Demands

I took the summer off between prerequisites and beginning grad school to work on the house, improve my diet, and get fit. This time to myself was beneficial in that I was able to start OT school with a sound mind and body, and was able to carry these good habits over through at least my first year.

One unique thing about my own experience is that the school I attended was 300 miles away from my home and husband (and his good job), so I moved away for 2.5 years, which was more emotionally taxing than others may experience. I missed my husband, who is my rock, and was extremely lonely when my part-time roommate went home to her own family on the weekends. Additionally, I started grad school at the ripe old age of 44, most of my classmates were about half my age, and even a couple professors were younger than me. But many of my cohorts were wonderful, lived in my apartment complex, and taught me about popular culture, haha. After the first semester of being quite lonely, despite several friendships, I brought one of our cats from home to the apartment, and she was very good company for the remainder of my time there.

Adjusting to Schoolwork

Switching from CC level demands to grad school level demands was often difficult for me. In my two years of prerequisites I routinely made the highest grades in my classes and garnered praise and admiration from professors, but this abruptly changed with my first semester of OT school. My younger classmates seemed to struggle less than I did to understand challenging concepts (neurology, yikes!) and it occurred to me that many had come straight from a bachelor’s program and had finely honed study skills that I didn’t possess. It got easier after that first semester, particularly after I developed methods to organize the immense amount of work that had to be done. To be clear, not all of the classes were tough… some were a breeze, and it really depended on both the subject and the professor. Out of the entire program I made two B’s and the rest A’s, which isn’t too bad for an old fart in a sea of wonderfully sharp young people.

I wouldn’t say that the program was physically exhausting other than a lack of sleep on occasion when studying for a challenging midterm or final. In retrospect I performed much better and was most healthy physically and mentally when I took time for healthy meals, exercise, and rest. This is also true now that I’m a year into my first OT job. I happen to be working as the only OT here and am relying on FB groups for mentoring, as well as very intimidating professional resource books. I’ve been a little stressed with these circumstances and have really let my health go, which is a drain on my energy. I wouldn’t say the job itself is physically taxing at all, though that may be different for OTs who choose to work in pediatrics and are crawling around on the floor all day.

Looking Back Now, Has the Change Been Fulfilling?

I think fulfillment has a lot to do with making sure you find the right fit with your job. There are many days when I feel like dancing because I’m having such a good time at work, learning, honing my skills, enjoying my coworkers, seeing positive results with my clients, and finding many opportunities to laugh. There are other days that remind me of my old job, in that the tasks ahead of me are tedious or not interesting and I don’t particularly want to get out of bed.  

Is it better than the job I had before becoming an OTR? Yes and no. The focus on productivity and documentation can be stressful, but I happen to have a job where there isn’t a lot of pressure to hit productivity daily, and I often don’t even think of it let alone stress over it. For me a lot of productivity success has to do with the census being high vs low, whether the clients are motivated, if outpatients keep their appointments, and navigating my job as the only OT with essentially no mentoring. I spend a lot of my own time looking up research, and in FB groups asking experienced OTs for advice.

I’m earning roughly $10/hr more as an entry level OTR than I was working in an office pre-OT, and am hopeful that I’ll get a decent raise at my 1-year review as I’m frequently told that I’m exceeding expectations, even as a recent grad. This may simply be due to life experience that younger new grads lack, through no fault of their own. This is a better environment, I feel appreciated by my supervisors, and I usually feel confident that I’m helping my clients. I’m mainly only frustrated when having to constantly define what OT is to people who should know… but that’s a whole other story.

Regrets I Have About the Process

My nearly daily regret is only that I didn’t know about OT decades earlier. I think of what I’d like to accomplish in the field, including research and various specialties, and 20-ish years before retirement just doesn’t seem like enough time. But I don’t let that hold me back, and most days I choose to view it as a challenge to squeeze as much fulfillment out of my new role as I can. I don’t believe that we should ever let age dictate our dreams.

Final Advice on Getting Into a Program

I quit my job to focus on prerequisites with the goal of making an A in every class (which I did!) so I could demonstrate to the application committee that I would be a safe bet. I took a pre-OT class that one of the NC schools offered in order to have some working knowledge of OT to inform my application essays. I also had a friend with grant writing experience go through my application essay and help me with concepts and wording. I did all of these things to make my application as competitive as possible, especially given that I was pretty sure my GRE math score would lower my overall GRE score.

In retrospect: I wish I’d done more shadowing in different settings during those non-stressful CC days to give me a better idea of the vast range of OT, and to better inform my interest areas for selection of fieldwork sites. There’s no way to predict the future, but I wish I’d done a 3-month fieldwork in a setting that had at least some resemblance to the area I wound up working in.  

If you have any questions or thoughts about this transition, please leave them in the comments! 

Kate W. Boyd, MS, OTR/L, is an Occupational Therapist at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital and Rehabilitation Services in Spruce Pine NC.

21 replies on “My Experience Pursuing OT as a 2nd Career!”

That’s a really awesome post. I, like you, came to OT having a previous career. I think the course and the role demands real emotional changes to develop and communicate and come alongside your patients. I went from a career dealing with things (my case, airplanes !) to people. This demanded so much and can be hard at times but it’s definitely for the better. The theory is great but if you can’t apply it you are gonna struggle. My course was excellent in the U.K. for this at preparing and I think in some ways being mature, at 27, I had some life experience which I could bring. This was a great help to me and I’m not sure that I would have been ready for it when I was younger.

Some of the younger students were wonderful working with being fresh ideas and excitement – it worked really well and enhanced my experience so that I could then apply it to the job when I finally qualified 10
ago.

I’m so many ways this career has helped me both personally and professionally. You can take the girl out of OT but not OT out the girl. It’s a wonderful life skill if nothing else!

Thank you so much for this post! I was recently accepted into OT school and I’m sooo nervous about being a more "mature" student (I’m 32). I’ll be getting married right before grad school starts and I’m a bit overwhelmed because I want to enjoy married life with my husband but know there won’t be much time for that. Helps to know there are other career changers out there who did it!

You’re so welcome, Carrie! If this eases any concerns: I had a few classmates who married just before or during school breaks, and even a two who gave birth, and they managed it all beautifully. My class was pretty diverse (age, race, gender), and though I was the oldest by far, I had several classmates in their late 20s or 30s. You may find that there are other nontraditional students in your class as well, and if not, you will blend in fine. Try not to focus on age – your life and work experience puts you a big step ahead. Use it to your advantage! I made many young friends in grad school, and I wouldn’t trade them or this experience for the world!

This is a timely post for me. At the age of 41 I’m switching careers to OT after 10+ years in the arts and higher education. Thank you for sharing this info — it’s helpful to hear another person’s story.

You’re welcome, Jeff! I spent all of my life in the arts as well! I worked in photo finishing (back when there was film!), was ceramic artist & teacher, then worked at Penland School of Crafts doing fundraising and event planning. I think the life experience is very helpful, both in school and when working with people who are often in a vulnerable position and can use some kindness and perspective. Welcome to OT!

Thanks for an interesting article.
The fact you are earning $10 more than you were caught my attention. In Israel with over 20 years experience they want to pay me under $10 an hour. Not more but only. It’s a reason why I am exploring all kinds of other ways to use what I learned in OT school. I do still work privately and am getting more involved in writing. I have my first book out explaining what OT is for the non-OT and am busily writing my next book.
I’m also building a website to sell my art and creative gifts. Art is my first love and I’m loving discovering ways to market it.

Thank you for sharing your story. OT is my 3rd career, and I know it was all about timing for me. I am where I should be right now. In my 20s or even 30s it would not have been a good fit. I just turned 50 and am in my 2nd year of being an OT. I look forward to working in this field as long as I possibly can.

Recent OT grad here, I will be turning 48 in a couple months! Thanks for this, my story has so many similarities to yours, nice to know I’m not alone out here as a second career OT just starting out in the field! I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything and love my job, but it’s a different experience starting over in middle age!

We must be twins – I turn 48 in March! It really is a different experience. I’m glad we both found the profession – better late than never!

Well I guess I have you all beat… I turned 60 last october and am due to graduate this coming May! This is a third career for me, having worked previously in Investment then Retail Banking for MANY years. I basically just burned out of finance and this field just feels right to me (as a sociology major in undergrad) I have to say being in school again has been fun as I could pretend to be 25 again while simultaneously being one to ask a lot of questions. Life experience has also been helpful in my discussions with patients (I can relate) although they often think I’m in charge of everything given my age. I’m in my last fieldwork now and am concerned about taking the licensing exam given my long term memory isn’t so great. Any recommendations or suggestions??

Thank you for sharing your story, as I just found out 2 days ago that I passed the NBCOT, and I will be turning 45 next week! I found that it was a bit difficult to return to school after such a long hiatus and after having careers in two unrelated fields, but I feel so excited to begin this next phase of my life!
Kate, I was in an almost identical situation as you, except that I was able to attend a university near my home and my wife & children, so I did not have to contend with that added stress. Kudos to you (and everyone else in these comments) who decided to take the bull by the horns and to follow our dreams, regardless (or in spite of) our age. And good luck to everyone who is deciding on this path or just beginning- you will rock it!

Hi Kate, Thanks for sharing your experience. I do think that OT’s with a different career history can add so much value to the field. I am wondering if you have any suggestions about tackling the GRE, specifically the math section, for those of us who haven’t done math in a long time!

Hi Laura! I used https://gre.magoosh.com/, and really liked it. The math section was very tough for me, as my mind just doesn’t work like that. I studied a LOT, and asked a friend (a math professor) when I got stuck on concepts that I didn’t understand. Honestly, I bombed the math and writing sections, but more than made up for it in the verbal section. I was denied admission to one school due to my math score, but luckily the school I attended looked at the total score, not the separate section scores. Sorry I don’t have more solid advice. I also took a (bad) prep course, and the main takeaway from that is not to look at it as a math question but as a problem solving question.

Hi Kate! Congratulations on such a notable journey to your life. I hope since transitioning into this new path, it has been treating you well to this date.

I am a recent undergrad student with a B/A in Psych. I am pretty intimidated with jumping back into a science oriented major, is there anything you would suggest to studying and preparing for the graduate level courses? Also, how did you cater your resume to work in your favor of acceptance like your personal statement?

Any response would be greatly appreciated!

Hi Alice!

Congrats on finishing your undergrad degree, and that’s exciting that you’re considering a career in OT! I definitely recommend investing in some anatomy flashcards, and memorizing things like muscle actions, as well as their origins and insertions. A strong understanding of anatomy is super helpful before you enter OT school.

If your school of choice does require a resume as part of your application package, you want to put a summary section up top (just under your name and contact information), explaining that you have a undergraduate degree in psychology and are excited to move into a holistic healing career, where you can help people live their lives to the fullest following injury and illness. If you don’t have actual work experience, you can use a functional/skills-based resume format, and expand on awards, honors, extracurriculars from your school days. Any volunteering work would be great, too! Hope this helps! Best of luck on your journey :):)

Great questions Alice, and I agree 100% with Meredith’s response. My only addition would be that if time is limited, focus on the upper body and hand anatomy (actions, origins, and insertions as she mentioned), and also start looking at brain anatomy. I found the neuro course in OT school to be both fascinating and challenging. Anatomy coloring books and drawing the bones, muscles, brain are a great kinesthetic complement to flash cards. Best wishes!

I just graduated cum laude, BA Psychology and I’m 49. I started the university at 44 and did all my prerequisites for the MSOT program during my summer and winter sessions. The GRE was probably the biggest hurdle. I studied for three months and killed it. I’m just glad I’m starting in Jan as it may soon take a PHD to get this done.

Hi there! I just started the first step in my OT journey as a second career and am currently taking A&P I! I feel lucky that I’m 24 and have realized that I want to be an occupational therapist. That being said, I’m really struggling with the finances and figuring out what prerequisite courses to take and if I should take the GRE (I’m absolutely horrendous at math/standardized testing)- all while feeling immense pressure that OT is transitioning to a doctorate in just a few years! I’m not in a financial position where I can quit my full time job, so I’m resigned to taking night courses. Do you have any thoughts on how I can best narrow down the schools I should apply to that have the same prereqs without breaking the bank?

Hi Sarabel! When I was going through the application process, I decided there was so much information that I needed to sort out that I organized it all in a spreadsheet so I could do some un-emotional comparisons of cost per credit hour/semester, cost of housing if I had to move away for a couple years, prerequisites for each and which elements overlapped between schools. There are 4 OT schools in my state, and most of them required GRE, so I obviously had to take that. I bombed the math portion, but my overall score was right at the score that my preferred program required, so it was fine. I chose to apply to 3 of the 4 schools that has the most application elements in common, in order to get the most bang for my buck.

Don’t worry too much about the OTD conversations. The mandate vote failed to pass a couple years ago, and it is my belief that it will continue to be voted down, at least for a while. Good luck, and try to enjoy the process. You can do this!!

Hi Kate,
Thanks for sharing your experience, it is a great motivation for me to pursue a career in OT.
I am a bachelors in Business Administration and don’t have any prerequisites (or in most case any prerequisites to the prerequisites as I haven’t really studied science in high school), to get into the OT Masters program. I wonder how can I plan to complete these prerequisites if I choose to study full time, can you help me figure out some ways ?
Thanks!

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