To clear up any lingering confusion, there is a difference between the post-professional and entry-level doctoral programs in Occupational Therapy (OTD)
“I wouldn’t blame anybody for being confused because in 2017, there was a big push in our profession to move toward an entry-level OTD, which means you would typically go three years in a row full-time, on site, to get the entry-level degree to enter the profession,” said Fern Silverman, EdD, OTR/L,
associate professor in the University’s College of Education and Rehabilitation (CER) and assistant director of the OTD program.
Dr. Silverman said that might have been an interesting idea when it was first proposed 20 years ago, but by the time some institutions got around to actually trying to put it into practice, it was not well received by many clinicians and faculty members across the country.
“It also turned out to be an idea that was at the wrong time historically because there’s been a big trend in our country recently to make entry-level healthcare degrees more affordable for students and make the services they provide more affordable for patients,” said Dr. Silverman. “People go more to PAs than physicians, for example, in many settings. And, a graduating OT student with an entry level doctoral degree instead of an entry level master’s degree might find it harder to get a job now, not easier, not to mention having a lot more student debt. Students completing an entry level doctoral degree enter the profession after passing the exact same nationally recognized registration exam as students who complete an entry level master’s degree.”
In April 2019, the Representative Assembly (RA) advisory board of the American Occupational Therapy Association formally came out with a statement rejecting the idea of making an entry-level doctorate compulsory for entering the profession (this vote was reaffirmed in November 2019). The board recommended continuing to offer multiple points of entry. The entry-level doctorate can be a way to enter the profession as a registered occupational therapist (typically meaning three full-time sequential consecutive years) or an institution can continue to offer an entry to practice point with a master’s degree in OT, which are usually around two years full-time.
“And so, here at Salus, we have chosen to offer a master’s degree program with a post professional doctorate as a follow-on option. Our entry level master’s degree allows a student get out there and practice more quickly, and our graduates can pursue the post professional doctorate on-line while working full time as a clinician,” said Dr. Silverman.
That being said, how does a post-professional doctorate in occupational therapy and an entry-level doctorate in occupational therapy differ? Dr. Silverman offered the following points:
Most entry-level OTD programs:
Salus University’s post-professional OTD:
- Add a third full-time year as an on-campus student which extends the time students are unable to work and earn an income.
- Students complete a semester long practicum/capstone in a practice area chosen by their university.
- Graduating students are prepared for clinical practice/future leadership roles, however their degree is considered entry-level and not an advanced degree.
- Students can work full-time as an OTR/L from anywhere in the country while they take nine online courses (24 credits) and two five-day, on-campus workshop courses (six credits) over two years or more depending on the student’s preferred pace to complete the OTD program.
- Students complete a scholarly capstone project in which students themselves choose the setting, area of specialty, and project type with close faculty mentor support.
- Students gain and actually practice important skills needed to hold an academic position, including higher education teaching, leadership, advocacy, and scholarship.
- Graduating students are immediately ready to assume a leadership role in clinical practice or obtain a position in academia.
“We know that all of our master’s degree OT students are ready to practice as clinicians after graduating our MSOT program. However, there are some who have that special spark who want to go further, who feel themselves ready to advance further more quickly. And, for those students, we do offer what I think is a really unique post-professional doctorate program,” said Dr. Silverman. “We also have many students who enroll in our post professional OTD program after two, or five, or even 20 years in clinical practice, or who choose our OTD program after completing an OT master’s degree at another academic institution.”
The way the program works is that a student can take that full-time job anywhere in the country. For example, if a student moves to any state or wants to be a traveling OT and move from city to city, a student can do that and start making a full-time registered OT salary. And, at the same time, the student can continue witheducation by taking courses in a post-professional OTD program, which is offered online in the evening. “What’s really nice for post professional OTD students is that they learn advanced content from the vantage point of a practicing clinician. So whatever they learn in class they can interpret it immediately as far as its relevance to a clinical setting,” added Dr. Silverman.
As one of the OTD program instructors, Dr. Silverman stated that at first she was
surprised at how connected she felt to her students in her online courses. “Salus has a very rich platform for online education,” she said. “It’s not just a correspondence course where you read articles and write on discussion boards. Our online platform includes prerecorded lectures, synchronous classes, and other interactive tools. And, the two five day residency courses in our OTD program give us a chance to have some face to face classroom experiences together, too.”
Students who finish the post-professional OTD program will have a minimum of two years of clinical experience during the curricular sequence and are ready to assume a leadership position after graduating, either in a clinical or academic setting.
“If you finish the entry-level OTD degree, you have never practiced as an OTR/L. So you’re not ready immediately for a leadership position because you’ve never assumed the role of a practicing registered therapist, even for one day,” she said. “But I do feel that when you finish this program (post-professional), you are truly ready to step into a position that will elevate your status in the field.”
Another unique feature about the post-professional OTD offering something different than the entry-level OTD is that the entry-level OTD, like a master’s degree entry-level OT degree, is a generalist degree. Students do not specialize. Post-professional OTDs, including the program at Salus, allow students a chance to specialize in an advanced content area.
“Typically, the content area is synergistic with the university where you are located,” said Dr. Silverman. “Ours here align with what’s special about Salus. Two of our specialty areas (Remedial Vision Rehabilitation and Low Vision) have to do with vision because Salus University started as the Pennsylvania College of Optometry and has quite a history of training healthcare professionals who work with clients with vision needs. Our third specialty area also aligns with Salus because it’s about an interprofessional health and wellness perspective for OT.” Faculty in all three specialty areas consist of stellar scholars and instructors who are nationally known in their area of practice.
Dr. Silverman also mentioned there’s a noticeable difference when talking with a post-professional OTD graduate as compared to an entry-level OTD graduate.
“When they describe their research project and what they’ve learned and how they relate it to their clinical place of work or area of specialization, you’ll know the difference,” she said. “At the end of the day, though they are both called doctoral degrees in occupational therapy, but they aren’t the same, they represent very different academic experiences. No matter what you call them, an entry level OTD is going to be different from a post professional OTD degree because they are essentially different degrees despite having the same acronym.”