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6 Things to Expect Your First Week as an Occupational Therapist

by Mallory Palmisano, LOTR, MOT


The moment you’ve been waiting for is finally here! Your OT school journey is officially over, and your OT career is finally beginning. All your hard work has paid off: the prerequisites, the application to OT school, the rejections and acceptances, the late-night studying, fieldwork, and the daunting NBCOT. Not to mention the job searches, job interviews, the rejections and acceptances (once again), and decisions upon decisions that had to be made. But all that is over!

You graduated, you passed your boards, and you’ve accepted your first job! You’re finally an official, professional, credentialed, paid occupational therapist! Congrats, you’re done! Only, you’re not. It’s really just beginning. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a super exciting time, but it can also be a bit nerve-wracking. You might have a million expectations that leave you feeling anxious the night before your first big day of the job. So what should you expect?

1. You’ll still feel like a student

Depending on where you work, you’ll likely have some training or shadow time before you actually begin working completely on your own. This will vary though, and you might just be thrown to the wolves. You might also shadow for a month and start itching to treat clients by yourself. Whether you’re ready for it or not, you are now the professional.

There’s definitely a mindset shift that comes with transitioning from student to therapist. I remember feeling the need to shadow, shadow, shadow because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still a student. But I wasn’t a student anymore, and I had to keep reminding myself of that. There’s obviously still tons to learn, especially if you’re at a new setting, and you may feel like you want to treat clients with the same style as the more experienced OTs so you don’t stick out like a sore thumb as the newbie. But, don’t be afraid to treat like yourself!

Everyone has their own unique style of treating clients, and that is the beauty of OT! I guarantee that you will bring something awesome to the table that the experienced OTs will think is a great idea. Yes, you will still feel like a student at first, and that takes some getting used to but don’t let that prevent you from feeling confident in yourself! You got this!

2. You will be very tired — mentally and physically

There’s a different kind of tiredness that washes over you when you’re a working professional than the one you experienced as a student. Being an OT can already be a physically and mentally demanding profession, but the first week on the job adds a little bit more pressure. This is doubly true if you’re someone like me who had 6 weeks off between fieldwork ending and real work beginning. I wasn’t exactly living an 8:00-5:00 work routine during that time off.

You're just getting started in your career! Use these 3 Tips to Avoid OT Burnout and learn to take care of yourself early.

It might take a little time to adjust to your new sleep schedule. Not to mention, you are soaking in a lot of new information and trying to look like a confident, competent, I-hope-I-don’t-look-like-a-deer-in-headlights professional doing it. But it’s nothing you can’t handle! One way to help combat the exhaustion is simple: self-care.

Prepare for a good night’s sleep, plan ahead for packed lunches (and snacks) so you’re not rushing in the morning, preset the coffee maker the night before, and pack a workout bag! You might feel like a walking zombie after work, and nothing fixes that better than a good workout, a quick walk, or yoga! No matter what you do, include something in your day that helps you recharge mentally and physically. Because, trust me, you’ll need it!

3. Most people don’t know this is your first rodeo

No one really knows that this is your first OT gig. Obviously the people who hired you and your close coworkers will know, but your clients, their families, the speech therapist down the hall, the billing department, and even the janitorial staff will most likely have no idea it’s your first job as an OT. Most of them don’t know that you are fresh out of OT school and you actually have no idea what you’re doing (I'm kidding, but that’s how you will feel at first).

4. Confidence is everything

I’m not saying that you shouldn't ask questions or accept help (please, please ask questions when necessary!), but I am saying that people are trusting you and building respect toward you. If you look like a deer in headlights, they will sense that you don’t know what you’re doing. So be prepared for clients and other departments to ask you for suggestions and ideas.

If you don’t know the answer to something, stay confident, stay calm, and let that person know that you will find out and report back. Body language is everything! Stand up tall, do your best to look put together, and smile, alternatively: fake it ‘til you make it!

5. Therapeutic use of self is invaluable

One thing that sets OT apart from other professions is therapeutic use of self. I personally believe this is the foremost important skill to build as a new graduate OT. Yes, it’s important to learn how to document, and yes, it’s important to teach your client to how to don their shirt, but if you don’t know how to build rapport with your clients (and feel comfortable doing so) then you’re in for a long, hard career.

I spent the first week or so just getting to know my clients and learning about their strengths, challenges, and idiosyncrasies. Granted, I work with the same kids every week, so it was really important for me to get to know them. But even if you’re working with someone in acute care for a few days at a time, this still applies. Remember that making your client comfortable and feel that they can trust you is your number one priority. Start forming the habit now; build relationships with people and start working toward their goals. After all, that’s what makes our job so rewarding!

6. Signing with your new credentials

Nothing will feel sweeter than the first time you sign your name with your new credentials. Make sure you use your favorite pen and let this one feel really special! You've earned it!

The transition from student to therapist takes some getting used to, and the new responsibilities can be a tad overwhelming. However, there’s a beautiful moment when it hits you and you realize: you made it! You’re proud, eager, excited to do what you love (and get paid for it), and help people live life to the fullest every day! And that truly makes it all worth it. Although the first week can be a little rocky, just remember: you chose an amazing career, you are making a difference, and you are ready.

Looking for more tips about starting your new OT career? Check out these 6 awesome tips for your first OT job!



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