As you prepare for a future pursuing a master’s in occupational therapy degree, one of the highest paying master’s degrees, you also need to think about the more immediate future. What should you study at the undergraduate level to prepare you for this master’s degree program? Most master’s in occupational therapy programs don’t require a specific undergraduate major, but they do require prerequisite coursework in fields like biology, psychology and anatomy and physiology. To develop a strong foundation for graduate study, consider majoring in a subject like kinesiology, anatomy, biology, psychology, the social sciences or the liberal arts, as the American Occupational Therapy Association suggests.
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Perhaps the most relevant field of undergraduate study for occupational therapists is a major that many students haven’t even heard of. Kinesiology is the study, based in the life sciences, of physical activity as it is used for fitness, work, entertainment and other activities of living.
When you major in kinesiology, you will complete courses in anatomy and physiology, the physiology of exercise, muscle physiology, neurophysiology, cardiovascular exercise physiology and exercise behavioral science. In addition to understanding the concepts and foundations of physical activity, you will learn skills like how to take measurements and conduct research in kinesiology, how to plan and evaluate physical activity programs and how to promote physical activity.
Some schools offer a major in exercise science, a subfield of kinesiology, rather than in kinesiology. Although exercise science is a narrower field of study, it also is more self-explanatory and better known among students who haven’t yet taken a kinesiology class.
If your school doesn’t offer a major in kinesiology or exercise science, or that major doesn’t appeal to you, studying anatomy is another great option. Anatomy is a specialization of biology that deals with the structure of the body and the parts that make up the body. Students majoring in anatomy take plenty of biology courses, but they also take a more specialized series of courses in gross, developmental and applied anatomy, as well as classes subjects in pathology, immunology, neuroscience and diagnostic imaging.
Although anatomy is often lumped together with physiology, anatomy has more to do with the structure of an organism, while physiology is more concerned with the functions of those structures and the physical and chemical processes that occur in them.
Biological sciences is the most common major for aspiring medical school students, according to U.S. News & World Report. It stands to reason that biology would also be popular among aspiring occupational therapists, who are also healthcare practitioners and who need to have a solid understanding of the structure and functions of the parts of the human body. Biology is the life science concerned with the study of living organisms. While biology isn’t specific to only human structures, an undergraduate curriculum in biology will offer you the opportunity to delve into the molecular and cellular structures of biology in human beings and the procedures used in medical laboratory work.
Although less common than pre-med courses of undergraduate study, some colleges offer a pre-occupational therapy series of courses that can be completed in conjunction with any major. These tracks align with common graduate school prerequisites.
When you look at the list of prerequisites for a typical master’s in occupational therapy program, you might be surprised at how many psychology classes are on the list. Although each graduate school has its own set of admissions requirements, it’s not unusual for applicants to an occupational therapy program to be expected to have prior knowledge of general psychology, abnormal psychology and developmental psychology.
You don’t have to declare a major in psychology to take these courses, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt if you did. Besides these prerequisite classes, your undergraduate curriculum in psychology might include studies in quantitative psychology, psychology research methods, the history of psychology, clinical psychology, community psychology, behavior modification and cognitive processes.
Studying psychology as an undergraduate won’t derail your plans to go into occupational therapy or restrict your graduate school options. Many psychology majors go on to work in careers outside of psychology, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Majors
As long as you take your prerequisite courses, what your official undergraduate major was won’t matter too much to an occupational therapy admissions team. Plenty of occupational therapists come from a broader academic background, such as a major in the social sciences or in liberal arts.
Some of the more common social science major options are anthropology, the study of human behavior and culture, and sociology, the study of social change, interaction and behavior. Liberal arts, one of the broadest academic majors, allows students to develop strong skills in critical thinking and communication while studying a variety of topics in the arts, natural and physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.
Although occupational therapy is a healthcare role and a scientific area of study, it is meant to be applied in the service of helping people. Having strong communication and skills and understanding individual and social behaviors can help you connect with patients.