Diverse Perspectives & Advocacy

My Journey to Becoming a Travel Occupational Therapist

Alex Harvey-Sprague
January 17, 2024
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Are you intrigued by the idea of becoming a travel Occupational Therapist? Whether you're a new graduate eager to explore various healthcare settings or an experienced OT seeking a change of pace, the path to a travel OT career is both exciting and demanding. 

The promise of adventure, flexibility, and attractive compensation are just a few reasons why many are drawn to this career path. Yet, the journey involves more than just the allure of traveling; it encompasses rigorous education, navigating licensure complexities, and adapting to diverse work environments. As a seasoned Travel OT myself, I'll share my personal insights and experiences, offering a realistic and practical roadmap for those aspiring to this fulfilling career.

Join me as I share how I became a Travel OT, the joys and hurdles along the way, and the profound impact this career choice has had on my personal and professional growth.

Educational Steps on the Road to Travel OT

Becoming a travel OT starts with getting your advanced degree in Occupational Therapy. You’re looking at options like:

  • Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT): this type of program is rooted in the completion of research
  • Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT): while there are still research courses involved in this type of program, it is less of a focus
  • Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD): this can be a great option for those interested in ultimately pursuing teaching and research roles

I was a high school senior when I knew I wanted to be an OT.  I shadowed an OT and immediately fell in love with the combination of creativity and science in occupational therapy. Knowing this, I applied only to direct entry OT programs. Fast forward to 2018, I had my dual bachelor's degrees in Occupational Science and Sociology tucked under my belt, and by 2019, I was proudly holding my MSOT. Now, if the educational path to an OT degree seems daunting to you, the alternative is to become a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA), which can also be a great career path.

At a professional event, the author is joyfully raising a sign above her head that declares 'Future OTR!', alongside a supportive friend.
Embracing my first steps towards a thriving career as a Registered Occupational Therapist!

School was no walk in the park for me. Neuroscience, anatomy, physiology – these subjects had me up at 2am swearing “I can’t do this.” School admittedly didn’t go exactly as expected - I took extra time to complete my degrees. But as it turns out, those extra miles weren’t detours; they were building blocks. I learned an incredible amount about managing my mental health during challenging times, which are skills I still use today when I feel overwhelmed. 

These stress management skills also came in handy when it was time to study and sit for the NBCOT (National Board for Certification in OT exam). This is my major piece of advice for students: learn how to manage your stress and balance your mental health. It isn't just good for school, it's a life-saver for your career too.

If I could turn back time, I’d tell my younger self not to pigeon-hole into a single specialty.  I took primarily pediatric occupational therapy electives and classes to align with what I thought I wanted to do. However, as a travel OT, it’s best to be a “jack of all trades,” someone with a wide range of knowledge – versatile and ready for anything. Keeping myself open to varying electives would have made both studying for boards and my leap into travel a bit easier.

Navigating Licensure as a Travel OT

After you sit for the NBCOT, you’ll need to apply for state licensure – say hello to the “L” in your credentials! Specific requirements for each state can vary, but generally, this is what you can expect:

State Licensure Essentials:

  • License Applications: Fill out those state-specific forms.
  • Score Transfers: Send your NBCOT scores to each state you’re applying to.
  • Transcripts: Get your OT program transcripts out there.
  • Background Checks: A little peek into your backstory.
  • Juris Prudence Exams (Sometimes): Some states require you to be familiar with their laws and rules.

You can find more information on what each state requires in Trusted’s OT Licensure Guide

The author piggybacking on her husband in front of the iconic Fort Worth, TX Stockyards flag, celebrating securing her Texas OT licensure.
Taking on Texas after navigating state OT licensure requirements. 

If you plan to travel and practice in multiple states, be sure to check if your primary state is part of the OT Compact. The OT Compact is an interstate agreement between states which allows practitioners who are licensed and in good standing in a compact state to practice in another compact state via their “compact privilege”, which is equivalent to a license. If you qualify, this will add incredible ease to your travels between compact states. 

Challenges and Triumphs of Travel OT Life

Here’s something you may not know: unlike other healthcare specialties, traveling as a new grad OT is possible. Right out of the gate, you have access to a wide array of settings, regions, and populations.

Here’s a snapshot of what this journey has been like for me:

  • Diverse Work Settings: I’ve worked in home health, outpatient, acute care, a skilled nursing facility, pediatric outpatient, and in a school
  • Broad Patient Spectrum: I’ve treated patients across the lifespan ranging from infancy to end of life.
  • Networking: I’ve worked with and learned from people from states I’ve never been to, new grads, and some therapists who have up to 40 years experience in the field.
The author is assisting a young child on a slide in a pediatric therapy session.
Pediatric Occupational Therapy has always been a joy for me! 

The diversity of being a travel therapist keeps my attention and curiosity and pushes me to be the best I can be. That doesn’t mean that traveling doesn’t come with challenges, though. There are some hurdles to overcome:

  • Recruiter Roulette: I’ve struggled to find a recruiter that I feel I connected with and trusted.  You have to find the agency who will be the best partner for you.
  • Confidence Crash Course: I’ve had to learn confidence in my craft very quickly, because as a traveler you often have little mentorship or guidance and are expected to “hit the ground running”. Travelers are hired, after all, to fill open positions in areas in facilities of high need. 

Learning the details and nuances of travel life took some time, but along the way, I’ve expanded my confidence in finding contracts and reading and signing offers, increased my negotiation skills, and have become a better advocate for myself and my patients. I’ve learned my boundaries and how to stand for them, all the while increasing my confidence in my craft.

Choosing Travel Assignments: A Personal Approach

Choosing my first travel contract was a challenge for me. I was nervous to make the leap to an unfamiliar setting. For my first assignment, I played it a bit safe and chose a familiar setting that I had completed a level II fieldwork in. This gave me the background knowledge I felt I needed to be successful and confident in beginning my travel journey. Since then I have taken assignments in unfamiliar settings, fueled by the confidence I’ve gained as I’ve traveled. I’ve found that each challenge I face becomes a stepping stone, always leading to professional and personal growth opportunities. 

So, how do I pick my next adventure in the world of travel OT? Here’s a little peek into my process:

  • When I’m beginning the process to look for an assignment, I always narrow down my search to a region I’d like to be in next. 
  • I reach out to my preferred agencies and relay my preferences for that contract.  I’m sure to communicate whether setting, pay, or a specific state is the priority to me in the upcoming contract. 
  • Length of contract is also something I take into consideration. Most contracts are 13 weeks, frequently with an option to extend. However, some may be to cover a leave of another therapist resulting in different requirements. I just wrapped up a contract that required 6 months minimum, which was a bit longer than standard
The author concentrating as she navigates stepping stones in an occupational therapy gym.
Finding my footing through the diverse experiences I’ve had as a travel OT.

I try to balance my personal and professional desires when selecting my next destination, and always take into account cost of living, what I’d like to do in the area, and the pay the contract can offer.

Embracing the Travel OT Lifestyle: My Story 

I’ll be honest - pay was a large reason I first decided to begin traveling. The thought of earning enough to help alleviate my student loan debt, while also having the flexibility to take time off to enjoy personal travels and visiting family? Yeah, that was pretty enticing. I’ve doubled my weekly take home pay compared to when I was working my staff job. 

However, it’s the people, the places, the experiences that have kept me traveling, assignment after assignment. I feel privileged to have had so many new experiences and moments of growth with my husband and my dog by my side. 

Author pictured with her husband in a small aircraft, smiles wide with anticipation as they embrace new experiences
With each assignment, new adventures take flight!

Here’s a snapshot of my travel OT scrapbook:

  • Memory Making: From little moments to big milestones, I’ve created memories to last a lifetime and have crossed many destinations off of my bucket list.  
  • Life-Changing Encounters: I’ve been able to support and educate patients through life altering moments, hold hands in final hours of life, and support families while they navigate their loved ones' diagnoses. 
  • Community Connections: I’ve had the privilege to work with amazing rural communities, the foster system, and various community resources to help increase their outreach and impact. 

Each of my experiences with these diverse populations have impacted me and left marks on my heart that I’ll carry with me forever. I feel as though I leave a piece of me in each location I work and live. 

Frequently Asked Questions for Travel OTs

How do I start my journey as a travel OT?

If you want to become a travel OT, begin by reflecting on your career goals, reach out to agencies for discussions and job availability, research state licensure requirements, read blogs, join travel OT groups, and engage in social media platforms for more insights.

Can OTA’s Travel?  

Yes, absolutely! Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTAs) can certainly embark on travel assignments, much like Occupational Therapists. In fact, travel OTAs are in high demand in multiple settings across the country. You can start by searching for travel OTA jobs to find assignments that match your preferences and expertise.

How much does a travel OT make? 

Travel Occupational Therapists (OTs) often find themselves in a financially advantageous position compared to their counterparts in permanent positions. On average, according to recent data from ZipRecruiter, they can expect to earn between $1,500 and $2,100 per week, but I’ve known people to make up to $2,600 per week. This higher earning potential is one of the attractive aspects of choosing to travel.

How can travel OTs find short-term housing for their assignments?

Finding that perfect little spot to call home, even if it’s just for a short while, can seem like a big task. But no stress! There are lots of resources available – Trusted’s Short-Term Housing Guide, for example. It's packed with all sorts of tips, tricks, and insider know-hows to help you find a place that’s just as comfy as it is convenient. 

What is a tax home?  

The IRS defines a tax home as “the entire city or general area where your main place of business or work is located, regardless of where you maintain your family home.”  It's a pretty important concept when it comes to managing your pay and taxes on the road. Dive into the details and figure out how it applies to you by reading Trusted's Tax Guide for Traveling Healthcare Pros. 

Taking the Leap: Is Being a Travel OT Your Next Adventure?

The journey to becoming a therapist, and to travel therapy, looks different for everyone.   Reflecting on my own journey, I sometimes wish I had embraced the travel OT life earlier, not letting fear hold me back. I knew I wanted a life full of adventure, diversity, and a refreshing change of pace from the norm. And that's exactly what I found.

I encourage you to reflect on your current situation, whatever it may be, and decide what you want in your professional and personal life. If my story has sparked even a glimmer of interest in you, maybe it's time to explore the possibility of becoming a travel OT. I encourage you – sign up for a profile, start conversations, do some research. Read blogs, join travel groups, engage in social media discussions. Get a feel for the lifestyle, the challenges, and the rewards. 

Remember, every big journey starts with a small step. For me, it began with a simple job search online. Before I knew it, I was swept up into a life I had only dreamed of. 

Ready to see where your path might lead? Why not take a moment now to search for travel OT jobs? Who knows – this could be the moment that changes everything.

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