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November 17, 2011 3:02 PM   Subscribe

What skills and characteristics make someone better suited to a career in physical therapy versus occupational therapy?

I have been working pretty hard to gain admission to a very competitive Physical Therapy Assistant program, and yesterday I did a lengthy observation at a rehab/assisted living facility where both PT and OT are conducted. I could see myself working in either discipline, but in my rush to apply for the PTA program I have failed to give due consideration to a career in OT. I'm correcting that now, but am having trouble deciding which of the two I would enjoy more or be better at. Why do people chose one over the other? Can anyone help me determine what personal characteristics and traits would make someone better suited to PT or to OT?
posted by Jaie to Work & Money (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You might find something useful in this article, Stereotyping between physical therapy students and occupational therapy students, or by seeking out some of the references it cites. Reading the Bureau of Labor Statistics' descriptions of physical therapists vs. occupational therapists might also give you more insight into the differences between the two fields.

IANAPT or OT but it seems to me that physical size would have a lot to to with which field you choose. It seems like you'd need to be a lot stronger to work in physical therapy than occupational therapy.
posted by jabes at 6:26 PM on November 17, 2011

Jaie -- I'm in a similar-ish position as you (I'm about to start volunteering in an OT clinic after volunteering in PT and not liking it much) so I'm not sure that my insights would be any better than yours. But here are the things drawing me to OT:

-- It seems more practical. PT is all about gaining general mobility and strength back, and that's awesome and important. But to me that seems a little boring for a day-to-day job. In OT you focus on helping people do the actual tasks that they want to be able to do in life, and it's not all about a future goal. It's about helping people right now, today, to live a full life. Which leads me to . . .

-- From what I hear, clients/patients frequently find OT more "fun" than PT. PT is literally painful; and again, I know that it's really important that people push themselves thru that pain to get better. But I don't think I could handle making people do really painful things everyday. I'm sure OT isn't a walk in the park for people either, but what I think sounds cool about OT is that the client sort of directs the treatment -- they can say, hey, I want to be able to play guitar again, because guitar makes me happy. I like the idea of helping people be able to have fun again.

-- It seems like you have the chance to be really creative. Again, I know this is true of PT as well, but again the creativity in OT seems like it has a more practical side. And it also seems easier to test. Like you could create a system for a handicapped person to be able to feed themselves, and you would probably know pretty quickly if it does or doesn't work. With PT, it's basically, hey, do this for a month and see if it helps. If it doesn't, we'll have to figure something out. That doesn't have the immediacy that I think I need in a job.

-- There's a lot of patient non-compliance in PT. I think that would get really, really frustrating, though I'm sure it exists in OT as well.

-- I'm very small. As jabes mentioned, you need to be strong for PT -- you need to be able to lift people, even. I know there are hacks for short people, but it's still gonna be tough. When I volunteered in PT I followed a petite female PTA who complained a lot about what the job had done to her body. She might have just been a complainer, but it definitely made me think.

Check out the Prospective Student page of the American Occupational Therapy Association website -- it has lots of info and videos interviews with OT's. Obviously these are going to be overwhelmingly positive about OT, but it's a good place to start.

I'd love to hear what you decide!
posted by imalaowai at 10:00 PM on November 17, 2011

Both of these answers were incredibly helpful, as were the O*Net summaries: Physical Therapist and Occupational Therapist.

In a perfect world I'm pretty sure I'd go with OT, but in the real world where I have to look at cost and location of the programs, I'm still undecided. Two years for an associate's degree and become a PTA, or three years for a master's and become an OT? I'd probably have to relocate for the OT program as well, and it is more expensive in general (community college vs. university). I think it may depend on my ability to find financing.
posted by Jaie at 9:18 AM on November 18, 2011

There are also Occupational Therapy Assistants --> I believe you would also get that degree from a community college (obviously dependent on whether any CC's near you have the program). I believe they make a good deal less money than PTA's, though.
posted by imalaowai at 6:41 PM on November 23, 2011

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