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Getting qualified

If you don't already have a OT qualification, the College of Occupational Therapists (www.cot.org.uk) lists all of the accredited training institutions in the UK with links to their websites. The listing can be found in the "About OT" section of their site. The COT will also send, on request, a directory of all the accredited courses available.

For general information on careers in OT, check out the NHS Careers website (www.nhscareers.nhs.uk) and their pages on OT. The site includes details of types of courses and how to apply.

Courses usually lead to a bachelors degree (honours or ordinary) and qualify you for state registration. Courses are usually three years full time or four years part time in-service. You can expect to do over 1000 hours of clinical placement, usually split into 5 separate placements. You will be studying anatomy, physiology, psychology and ergonomics as well as the core skills relating to the choice and performance of human occupations and modalities such as drama, crafts and other practical skills. There are also some two-year accelerated courses (such as London South Bank University, Colchester Institute, Derby Queen Margaret Edinburgh...) for people with a previous degree and (usually) relevant work experience. As of June 2003 a Graduate Entry Masters in Occupational Therapy (Professional Qualification) will be available at the University of Limerick. This course is the first of its kind in Ireland and will run over two years.

This is an incomplete list and courses tend to change yearly so check with the College of Occupational Therapists (www.cot.org.uk) for up to date information.

The 2-year accelerated courses for people with a previous degree and some relevant experience mostly lead to a qualification somewhere between Bachelors and Masters (mine was a PG Diploma). There was talk of making our course a Masters, but it never got anywhere, and my impression was that I wouldn't have been any more competent a practitioner had it been — I would probably have been a better researcher, but not necessarily a better therapist.

However, there is a clear value to the profession in having a strong research component to the qualification course, as you get a cohort of therapists with the confidence to take on research without too much fear, but I guess that's fairly obvious. A strong research component will also tend to produce a therapist with a better ability to read and evaluate published research.

I don't think students find a 2-year accelerated course much more difficult than a 3-year degree course and I doubt there are higher drop-out rates — probably the opposite. I don't have the statistics but they shouldn't be too hard to compile should anyone wish to do so. I regularly take students from those courses on clinical placement and they don't express any more stress or anxiety than the Bachelors students — maybe less, as they have prior work and academic experience so are usualy quite confident. There's less down-time but, on the upside, one has to endure the dubious luxuries of student life for a shorter time.

To qualify for a 2-year accelerated course you usually need a previous degree, but it doesn't neccesarily matter which subject you took. When I trained, social science degrees predominated but there were also students with degrees in subjects as diverse as biochemistry, Chinese studies and music studies. Some previous relevant work experience is usually required and experience as an OT Assistant is an excellent start, but any face-to-face experience with people in a social care, medical or educational setting will also assist in gaining entry.

Some questions and answers:

Q: "I've just finished my undergraduate degree in Physiology and want to do the 2 year course but had no idea where to start looking for the information. I will look at the web pages you suggest.".

A: "My friend is in the middle of the 2-year course at South Bank at the moment and all seems well. I regularly take students from that course on fieldwork placements and there seem to be no noticeable problems with the course. I did the same course when it was based at QMW/Barts and it was fine: the same amount of lecture hours and fieldwork hours but fewer holidays and a shorter period of penury.".

Q: "I've come across two types of post-grad courses, one being the 'Post-grad diploma in OT' and the other being 'MSc in OT'. Would both courses be respected in the same way? I mean, are they essentially the same course but with a different name?".

A: "I don't think it will make any appreciable difference in getting a job, as you'll get one easily whether you have a degree, PG-Dip or MSc. My team advertised 3 posts recently but got no applications at all. Most of the people who would be interviewing you when you apply for jobs will have a BA, BSc or maybe a Dip-OT so they probably won't be overly set on applicants needing an MSc. I haven't thought that having a PG-Dip rather than a degree has made any difference to me since qualifying.

"Would it make any difference in your ability to move onward and upward later on? I very much doubt it, as post-qualifying experience will count for much more. I guess one advantage may be that if you decide to do a PhD later, you'll already have the MSc under your belt, but I'm not sure if that is essential. Maybe an MSc might make it easier if you want to teach OT later on, but I don't know.

"Of course, it seems a no-brainer that it's a better deal to have an MSc rather than a PG-Dip to show for your two years of study and I remember wishing that the college I attended would act on the hints they dropped about upgrading our course to an MSc, but I really don't think it'll make much difference. You'll probably find that considerations such as location will be more important to you when choosing a course.".

Q: "I'm trying to build up my experience in order to put it on my applications for the 2-year course. What I'm doing is getting work experience with OT's and joining the NHS nurse bank in order to have experience of working in the NHS. Is there anything else that I could be doing to increase my chances of getting on the course?".

A: "Your plan sounds fine. I know people who got on the 2-year course with only teaching experience rather than direct social or medical care experience. The more relevant experience you have, the better it is when competing for a place on the course, but experience isn't everything and you shouldn't be put off applying just because you don't have years of OTA experience behind you. Voluntary work is good, too, if you have the time. As for the interview itself, you would probably do well to be thinking about questions such as: why you want to be an OT, what you understand of the role of the OT, how you cope with work pressure and deadlines, how you understand equalities and equal opportunities, how you would work effectively with clients from different cultural backgrounds, etc.".

Opinions expressed are the author's own and should not be treated as authoritative.

[Last updated: 14th October 2004].

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