Exploring an Occupational Therapy Career
Shadowing serves two purposes. First, it allows you to immerse yourself in the job of what occupational therapists do. You are in the real working environment of occupational therapists. For students considering a career as an occupational therapist, shadowing is one of the best ways to get an idea of what an OT does. This is important because no one occupational therapist does what the entire field of occupational therapy has to offer.
Occupational therapy is a broad field and there are generalist occupational therapists as well as specialist occupational therapists. Occupational therapists work with people across the lifespan from in the NICU to the end of life. They work with the very young, the very old, and they even work in mental health such as in prisons! Therefore, no one shadowing opportunity can allow you to see what occupational therapists do overall. You would need to observe multiple settings – schools, homes, nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, private practice, the VA, nonprofits, and so on – to see what all OT’s do! There is also an entrepreneurial and research side of occupational therapy too.
Do you need to decide which path you want to take in your occupational therapy career when you shadow? Not necessarily. It would benefit you from shadowing in several different settings to not only give you a better idea of where your fit may be, but also to make you more distinguished as an applicant to OT schools.
The second purpose of observing is less glamorous – to fulfill the requirement for the application process. Here are some helpful tips to get you started on the right track!
There are two ends of the spectrum – those who are considering occupational therapy and those who are serious and going to apply to an occupational therapy school.
If you want to get an idea of what occupational therapists do without shadowing, we created an Introduction to OT course that can help answer this question.
What do the two have in common? They should start early. Procrastinating for this requirement could cost you to miss the deadline. Things like resumes, applications, and transcripts are less difficult to complete than something like shadowing hours and prerequisite courses (which are only offered once each quarter/semester).
The reality is that there are a limited amount of slots available for shadowing. An occupational therapist would not be able to perform their duties of work with several shadows following them at a time. There may also be a waitlist, especially for high-demand settings such as hospitals – which have their own rules, regulations, and procedures altogether that demand even more time to prepare for.
So start early if you are even thinking about occupational therapy as a career. Set a goal to complete X number of hours by such and such time to motivate you.
Update your Resume
It’s time to dust off your resume (or re-open the file) because you could be potentially dropping it off (more on this later) or submitting it to a facility after getting accepted. If I was a gatekeeper to potential shadows, I would want to see their resume to see what their experience is and how it may be relevant.
Of course, don’t worry if you have an unimpressive resume and have unrelated experience. Many occupational therapy students have majored in unrelated fields! This is just something that facilities like to see. It’s not a bad idea to update your resume anyways.
Pro tip: keep a master file of all your jobs and create a separate resume files for the specific employer or school you will be giving it to as you go. Not only is this good recordkeeping, but it gives you insight into what you have done in your life and you can recycle some lingo to use in newer jobs. No use in reinventing the wheel if you already phrased something perfectly for your previous jobs. This can help give you insight into your lifetime skillset from working in the past
Seriously, go shopping. Why? You’ll want to present yourself professionally either when you drop off your resume, show up to the interview, or when you shadow itself. No you won’t necessarily need a suit, dress, or to get scrubs, but something nice like polo shirt, slacks, and nice matching pair of shoes goes a long way compared to a t-shirt, jeans, and sandals. While you’re at it, get a nice haircut if you are expecting to show up to a facility. If you are on a tight budget, consider second-hand stores or shopping online. Many people are donating or getting rid of their clutter these days, especially due to the pandemic.
Practice your Spiel
Whether you are serious about occupational therapy or not, facilities will want to see that you are interested in occupational therapy. Research what occupational therapists do and dig deep into yourself and reflect on why you may want to be an occupational therapist yourself. Do you like helping people? Do you want to advocate for the underserved? Do you like working with kids? Are you a creative person who likes to solve problems? Are you good at working with people? Are you a good listener? You might get asked these why’s, so it’s best to prepare ahead of time. Also, thinking about this early on can help guide you in your career.
Stay on Top of Vaccinations and Shots
You’ll want to stay on top of your vaccinations and shots. This is an important consideration if you are vaccine-hesitant and feel strongly against taking vaccinations. Why? Some shadowing facilities may require that you have your vaccinations. Also, when you are an OT student, schools will want you to have this when you go out on fieldwork anyways. As a hospital employee, I am required to have my vaccinations and flu shot. If this is a dealbreaker for you, then you should know this early and maybe start considering another career. In fact, most healthcare professions require that you are on top of your vaccinations to work on the job. Getting these vaccinations also takes time, turnaround time, and scheduling appointments.
Pro Tip: If you do not have health insurance, consider clinics that offer some for free or at a reduced cost. You may also want to look into low-income health insurance options or subsidized programs. Medicaid (not Medi-cal) is also another good option for low-income citizens. Many OT students (including my peers when I was in school) were on Medicaid until they started working. Some places even pay you to get a flu shot!
Research Local Settings & Compile a List
Make a spreadsheet or list of potential settings of where you want to shadow. Some lists are even provided by OT schools themselves. For example, the University of Southern California posted a list of sites that provide volunteering and shadowing opportunities. Even if you are nowhere near California, take a look at this list to get an idea of which types of places you can reach out to. You can do a google search for “[facility type]” e.g., skilled nursing facilities near me into Google, which does a good job of finding places in your actual area. Then gather the relevant information such as an address, contact person, phone number or e-mail. You’ll also want to make sure an actual occupational therapist works there and is able to have you shadow them.
In your spreadsheet, narrow the sites down by distance, setting type, and of course – availability. Include on this list the information mentioned earlier, the date you contacted them, and any important requirements before you can get started. Keeping a spreadsheet helps you stay organized, reduce anxiety, and avoid fails like contacting the same place twice – oops!
Pro tip: when calling or e-mailing, make sure you speak to the best person. You’ll want to make contact with the Director of Rehabilitation (DOR) or other similar roles. Other people who pick up the phone may not be familiar with shadowing and may turn you away prematurely. I prefer phone over e-mail in this case since it is much more efficient and the other person can actually hear your voice and interest!
Pro tip 2: consider becoming CPR certified with the AHA (red cross is fine, but working OT’s are required to have AHA certification).
Consider Cold Visits
Just like job hunting, it may be worthwhile to do a cold visit at the actual facility. Why? This serves multiple purposes.
- You familiarize yourself with where it is located.
- You get a feel for the facility – how clean it is, how the staff are, what kind of patient population, etc.
- You may see other shadows and volunteers and if appropriate – ask them about their experience.
- You may even catch what an occupational therapist is doing in action.
- You show genuine interest, commitment, and make a good first impression to the coordinator and staff.
- You get to meet the coordinator – which could potentially bump you to the top of the list.
- You can drop off your resume – which will be on the coordinator’s desk and help speed things along.
- You will have less anxiety the next time you come (and you’ll already have met the coordinator and other potential staff).
- You will have practice with cold visits which may help with landing your first OT job in the future. Pro tip: some jobs are so competitive that a cold visit is the only way to even get your resume in the pile.
Short success story: I secured a volunteer opportunity at a skilled nursing facility by doing a cold visit. I met with the DOR and dropped off my resume. I followed up with a phone call the next day and was asked to come in the next week. Use your best judgement as not all facilities are conducive to cold visits, e.g. prisons, locked mental health facility, or dementia facility.
Follow-up can be with contacting after your cold visit or from your phone calls and e-mail. DORs, coordinators, and occupational therapists are generally very busy – theyre’ at work. Things may get lost or buried in an inbox. Don’t be discouraged and it may take another phone call or e-mail or two. Just don’t come off as desperate and spammy. That’s why it’s such a good idea to track your contact dates on a spreadsheet because it’s a lot of information to keep track of in your head. As always, be professional and thank the other party for their time.
- Look and act professionally.
- Silence your phone.
- Offer to help when appropriate.
- Ask questions related to occupational therapy.
- Respect patient confidentiality and privacy, e.g. don’t take pictures of them or documents without permission!
- Express thanks and gratitude.
- Don’t look bored or go on your phone, except on break.
- Don’t forget your hours log sheet.
- Make a good impression – you never know if you may do fieldwork or work here in the future!
Practice Good Recordkeeping
Since you have been keeping good records with your pre-shadowing research – keep it up. OT schools will require that you submit your shadowing hours. Some OT schools have their own forms, but a general list and signature (if you have not decided on a school) are fine as well. You can always contact the coordinator afterward and have them transfer to an official school version. Send them a thank you card when you are finished because there may be a good chance you ask for a recommendation, referral or who knows, even a letter of recommendation.
Pro tip: take a picture of your hours sheet in case you lose it in the future.
Pro tip 2: do more than the minimum hours if you can. It could only help in giving you more insight into the job. It’s like free job training!
Shadowing provides many benefits for pre-OT’s. It can provide you with insight into what occupational therapists do and help you decide if occupational therapy is the right fit for you. Finding your first shadowing placement can seem daunting, but with preparation, research, and some luck – you should have no problem landing your first placement. Even with COVID-19, you’ll never know what you can find if you get a little creative. Don’t stress over it during these difficult times if you cannot find a placement as schools are making exceptions. If are having an especially difficult time, reach out to potential schools and their coordinators for advice and referrals. Good luck out there. Stay safe and curious!