List Building Toward Three Career Paths: Physical/Occupational Therapy and Athletic Training, written by CIT Consultant Tiffany Kolb

Written by CIT Consultant Tiffany Kolb

Becoming a doctor is not your only option! Explore careers in Physical and Occupational Therapy and Athletic Training. 

A torn ACL, repaired by surgery and followed up with months of physical therapy, is not an ideal experience for a high school athlete. However, an experience like this can increase awareness of the variety of health-related careers out there. Students get to see a physical therapist in action over the course of many sessions working together and gain a better understanding of what they do and what a difference they can make in the lives of their patients. 

For young people not necessarily interested in pursuing a pre-med track in college, you may want to explore physical therapy, occupational therapy, or athletic training. These career paths are for students with a strong background in science courses, who want to work with people solving health-related issues, and who are interested in earning an advanced degree. 

These three careers are described below, including a description of each job and educational path to obtain these careers. There is also a highlighted college that has a standout program for this career path that may be a good start for building a college list. 

Physical therapy

Physical therapists work with patients of all kinds and ages to help them gain mobility. PTs can work in hospitals, clinics, or elderly care centers, caring for individuals of all ages and abilities. Physical therapists assess balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility and then customize a plan to help the patient improve health. PTs can have a varied patient load, including children managing chronic conditions, aging adults working to maintain independence, and athletes recovering from injuries. 

In most cases, PTs need to achieve a doctoral degree, which typically takes about three years to complete, in addition to an undergraduate bachelor’s degree. Some colleges have accelerated PT programs that include undergraduate and advanced degrees. These programs can be 6-8 years in length and have varying requirements to get in and advance through the graduate program. After achieving a doctorate, PTs must pass a state licensure exam to obtain a license to practice legally. There are also residency requirements.

The University of Cincinnati in Ohio, a school that has been using experiential learning in its curriculum for over 100 years, is a smart fit for students who want to pursue a physical therapy career. Cincinnati offers a Pre-PT track that prepares students for entry into graduate-level PT programs by providing hands-on experiences through direct patient care, service learning, and research. The curriculum includes coursework in exercise physiology, biomechanics, and sports and wellness. The breadth of studies also lays the groundwork for alternate graduate school paths. High performing first-year students can apply to the High School Early Assurance Pathway, and high-performing juniors can apply to the Junior Early Assurance Pathway.

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists help patients do daily activities, including cooking, bathing, shopping, eating, getting dressed, and caring for loved ones. Occupational therapists may work with you in your home, workplace, facility, or community to help you do daily activities safely. OTs help patients through the healing process, including injury recovery. If you burn your hand, an OT may create a specialized splint for you then teach you exercises to increase mobility. Occupational therapists work with people of all ages in various settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and rehab centers. 

The entry-level degree for an occupational therapist is a Master of Science in occupational therapy. Some OTs may have a doctoral degree in occupational therapy or additional certifications. All states require occupational therapists to be licensed or registered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT), meaning they have passed the national exam and meet continuing education requirements.

If you are intrigued by this career path, please check out Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. Students can be admitted as incoming freshmen into the early-assurance program as one option. With this 5-year (plus one summer) program, a student earns a BS in Occupational Science after 4 years and then a Masters of Occupational Therapy with the completion of additional coursework and experiences. Students can also enter the graduate program after earning an undergraduate degree from SLU or another accredited university. 

Athletic Training

Athletic trainers are licensed doctors who specialize in sports injuries. They work with people of all ages to prevent and treat acute and chronic muscle, bone, and joint injuries. Athletic trainers review medical histories, and determine the severity of an injury through testing of balance, coordination, strength, and range of motion. The next step is to work with a patient to develop a treatment plan. 

Athletic training programs provide education on medicine, anatomy, and rehabilitation in the context of sports and athletics. Athletic training programs include classroom instruction, coursework, and in-person clinical learning experiences.

The path to becoming an athletic trainer can include an undergraduate degree in health sciences in preparation for a graduate program. Another option is a 3+2 combined program, like the one offered at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. At Drake, students take general coursework along with prerequisites for the Master’s in Athletic Training program over the course of three or four years. In the fall of year 3, students can apply to the graduate program, which continues for two more years. Upon graduation, students leave with a BS in Health Sciences, a Master of Athletic Training, and years of mentorship to prepare them for the national certification test

The program at Drake stands out not only because this small liberal arts school is home to the world-renowned Drake Relays and therefore equipped with advanced kinesiology equipment and labs to study human physiology but also because this D1 school of 2400 undergrads is small enough to provide athletic training students with a wide range of experiences. 

These three career paths are among many, many options that can be part of the college and career conversations beginning in the early high school years. Job shadows, volunteering at health-care facilities and information interviews with people in various career fields can provide insight into the careers and the pathways to achieve them.