The Post Professional Occupational Therapy Doctorate (PP-OTD) Student Experience

For those of you, like myself, who attended an OT entry-level bachelors or master’s program, the increase in occupational therapy doctorate programs posed many questions for practitioners in the field. Many practitioners have asked “what does this mean for my career?” and “what does this mean for the profession?”. However, the shift from masters to doctorate level terminal degrees reflected the transition that occurred in occupational therapy from a bachelors to master’s degree by 2007. In previous years, a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy was the terminal degree. 

In 2006, the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) set the educational standards for the entry-level occupational therapy masters or doctorate degree. Since then, the occupational therapy education paths have allowed students to pursue an entry level masters or an entry level doctorate degree (AOTA, 2019). There is currently no mandate in place for an entry level doctorate degree (terminal degree is considered either master’s or doctorate).

When I enrolled in an occupational therapy program in 2014, most schools remained at a master’s level. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association 2017-2018 Academic Programs Annual Data Report, 162 accredited programs remained at the master’s level compared to 20 accredited doctoral level programs (AOTA, 2018). There has been significant growth in entry level doctorate and post professional doctorate programs over the past 5-7 years. The 2020-2021 Academic Programs Annual Data Report states that 199 OT programs were accredited or in a phase of accreditation (AOTA, 2022). 

After graduating from a Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy program in 2016, I knew that I would benefit from clinical experience prior to returning to school. I worked in high intensity inpatient rehabilitation and acute care at a few hospitals (life caused some moves) for five years prior to starting my PP-OTD degree. Most of my clinical experience is within neurorehabilitation, and I frequently sought evidence for the interventions that I was considering for implementation. The desire of being a leader of evidenced-based practice within my therapy departments fueled the need for pursuing an advanced degree (at least for me!).

Additionally, I served as a clinical instructor for level I and level II OT students, and found joy in being an educator. Starting in 2021, I began an appointment as an adjunct instructor at a local master’s level occupational therapy program. I soon realized that to continue my career as an OT educator, I would benefit from a focused curriculum on topics like active learning, course design, technologies in higher education, etc. In August 2021, I began a PP-OTD program. I simultaneously worked full time in high intensity inpatient rehabilitation, completed coursework remotely for the PP-OTD program, and continued adjunct appointments at local OT programs. 

One might ask how to decide if a clinical doctorate in occupational therapy is right for them. For me, it came down to options. At the end of the day, I wanted to have any and every option for working as an occupational therapist and I did not want to have limitations due to my educational background.

After a couple of years of clinical practice, I began to reassess my short- and long-term goals. I revisited the thoughts of one day returning to school to complete a post-professional occupational therapy doctorate. Thoughts that crossed my mind were “what will this degree allow me to do that I cannot do now?” and “how will this degree advance my clinical practice and professional growth?”. Therefore, I researched data reports on occupational therapy practice settings and non-traditional settings, degree programs and the climate of the profession. 

Here are a few things that I learned and things that you may consider: 

  1. PP-OTD programs allow you to keep working. Post-professional occupational therapy doctorate programs have provided opportunities for practitioners who are in the clinic to further their education while continuing to work. The flexibility that the programs offer renders the opportunity for earning advanced degrees without taking a break from practice and without taking a pay cut. In my PP-OTD class, for example, most students worked part-time or full-time. 
  2. PP-OTD programs can be on-site or remote. I attended a fully remote program (post-COVID but they were mostly remote before as well). I lived out of state from the school that I attended and was living in a different time zone than that of my school. Sometimes the time zone difference was difficult to keep track of, but after 1 semester it was rarely an issue. 
  3. PP-OTD programs offer various tracks. The students within my cohort expressed aspirations in management, leadership, academia, and entrepreneurship. My specific program offered a leadership track and a track for academia. When looking into schools, pay attention to the tracks that they offer to ensure that the curriculum supports the goals you have for obtaining the post professional degree. 
  4. PP-OTD programs have varying costs. When researching the costs of PP-OTD programs in 2019-2020 I discovered a $10,000-$15,000 difference in the schools of interest. In-state and out-of-state tuition still applies in many cases even if you are not completing classes on campus (enrolling in a remote program).
  5. Once enrolled, the demands of the PP-OTD vary. The program that I completed was 5 semesters long. The first 2 semesters I would primarily complete schoolwork on one of the weekend days and then overflow into the 2nd weekend day as needed. However, as the demands of the program and the completion of capstone grew this method was not conducive for success. I frequently re-evaluated my studying and coursework completion methods and adjusted as needed. Some weeks I would spend less than an hour a day on schoolwork, and others would spend 2+ hours a day. My advice is to re-assess your study schedule every 2 weeks or so to ensure that you are prioritizing adequately and distributing your time wisely. I had multiple irons in the fire (as the old saying puts it) while completing school, including working full-time and adjunct instructor. It can be done!

Following my completion of a PP-OTD program, I have reflected on the experience. I would 100% do it over again as the education provided and the connections that I gained from the experience are beyond valuable. While completing a PP-OTD program, I learned about other advanced degrees that can be obtained for occupational therapy practitioners, such as a CScD (non-entry level clinical doctorate). A CScD degree is an advanced clinical doctorate that emphasizes preparation for complex clinical practice, clinical teaching skills and leadership in clinical positions. There are many similarities in which both clinical doctorate programs (PP-OTD and CScD) prepare an OT practitioner for advanced skills in leadership, practice, and education. However there are differences in length of program, program tracks (i.e. clinical research, teaching), and project goals (quality improvement vs. research project). If you are considering a post-professional degree I would highly recommend researching CScD, PP-OTD, and PhD programs to ensure the program you choose matches with your clinical and professional goals. 

Through this experience I generated a few key points that I feel attributed to my successful completion. I’d like to share them with you. 

  1. Leaning into help from your faculty advisor, community partners, site facilitators and peers is crucial.
  2. Utilization of the school’s library resources is key, even remotely!
  3. Utilization of writing center services may give you direction in your cycles of editing your capstone manuscript. 
  4. When choosing a capstone topic, pick something you are passionate about because you are about to spend A LOT of time on it!
  5. Always keep in mind your “why”. When the going gets difficult, remind yourself of how the program completion supports your professional growth.

I am now a tenured-track faculty member at an entry-level doctorate OT program. Needless to say, my clinical experience and my advanced degree certainly supported the knowledge and skills I needed to be in this position. There is definitely a learning curve that comes with transitioning from full-time clinical work to academia (more to come on that soon!). But I’m learning more and more as I go! Just as I experienced as a clinician, it is imperative to surround yourself with good mentors to hold you accountable and guide you along the way! I consider myself lucky that I’ve had great mentors in all of my work settings, and I am where I am today also because of what I consider “the perfect storm”.


American Occupational Therapy Association. (2022). Academic programs annual data report.

American Occupational Therapy Association. (2019). ACOTE 2027 mandate update and timeline.

American Occupational Therapy Association. (2018). Academic programs annual data report.

Author: Sara A. Lum, OTD, OTR/L, CBIS, CSRS