The Pay-Off of a Major in Exercise Science

What do you do as an Occupational Therapist?

As an occupational therapist I help people engage in the activities that they want, need, or are required to do on a daily basis. We help give people the skills they need to be able to re-engage in these meaningful life activities when their lives are disrupted by things like accidents, injuries, diseases, addictions, and aging. Our profession addresses limitations or client challenges in areas such as activities of daily living (e.g. eating, bathing, dressing, hygiene), home management (e.g. meal preparation, care of others, finances), transportation, education, work, and leisure. In our profession, we address barriers that a client may have personally (e.g. physical or cognitive challenges), limitations within the environment itself, and ways we can adjust the activities themselves to help make clients more successful.

Seeing as it is common for Pacific students to drop their Exercise Science major, did you ever consider switching, and if so, what made you decide against it?

I actually never considered switching my major as an undergrad at Pacific. I really loved the study of the human body, and I found that the skills and knowledge that I was learning as an Exercise Science major prepared me very well for occupational therapy school. We have to have an intricate knowledge of the human body and mind to be successful occupational therapists. The Exercise Science Motor Behavior track really gave me everything I wanted. It not only gave me knowledge related to the human body, physiology, and biomechanics, but it also gave me knowledge related to how motivation and human psychology play a factor in movement and the ability for a person to learn new skills. I did end up minoring in Disability Studies as well. I have always been fascinated with the experience of individuals who have disabilities. I wanted to learn about that population and how I could best serve them as a future therapist. All the classes I took for that minor were so helpful in giving me perspective for so many of the clients I have the opportunity to work with in my profession. I highly encourage anyone looking at becoming a physical, occupational, or speech therapist to look into it! At one point, I considered minoring in psychology because of how much I enjoyed it and how well it fit into the profession I was preparing for. However, I felt that the several psychology classes I did take (Abnormal Psychology, Psychology of Ethnic Diversity, Lifespan Human Development) were sufficient to prepare me for my graduate program, without needing to actually minor in the subject.

Why did you decide to continue your education after you earned your BS degree?

I decided to go to graduate school because you have to have either a Master’s or Doctorate level degree to become an occupational therapist. I couldn’t really reach my goal of becoming an OT without going for that next step. There were a lot of people who took time off between finishing their Bachelor’s degree and going to OT school. I’m really glad I didn’t. I think it would have been so much harder to motivate myself to continue to go back to school if I had taken a break. It would have gotten me out of the “school mode.”  A graduate-level program is really intense academically, pretty much no matter what field you choose. So I think it was important for me to continue straight through and get it all done. I’m so glad I invested the last three years in going through Occupational Therapy school, despite how challenging and exhausting it was at many points. It’s wonderful to have that all behind me and finally be able to do what I’ve been working towards for seven years. And it feels quite amazing to be 25 and already a real occupational therapist!

How many internships did you do, and were there any that you especially liked/did not like?

We had three main internships, and a few shorter mini ones throughout our program. My favorite internship was at Salem Hospital here in Oregon. It was an acute care rotation, so I got to work with patients who were pretty sick and just had been admitted to the hospital after an illness or injury. I loved that setting because there are always new people to meet, your job is never the same, and you’re up on your feet moving around all day long. I also love the variety of conditions/diagnoses that people come in with, because it means I always have something new to learn, and I never get bored. In acute care, we focus on making sure people can take care of their daily activities once they go home, so we work a lot on basic tasks like dressing, grooming/hygiene, toileting, and mobility. I also had an internship in the Salem-Keizer School District. In this setting, I did a lot of student observation in the classroom, consulted with teachers about strategies they could use to help particular students, and did standardized assessments. OT’s in Oregon school districts operate on a consultation model for therapy, so in that setting you don’t get to do direct treatment with kids. Although there were a lot of valuable skills I learned during this experience, I didn’t enjoy it as much because I didn’t have the opportunity to learn hands-on therapy skills with kids, which is what I really wanted.

How did you hear about your job?

Currently I work as an on-call/unscheduled therapist at Salem Hospital in Salem, OR. I’ve only been working there for about a month so far. Since I did an internship there, and it was where I really wanted to work after graduation, I just kept in contact with the therapy supervisor. I was able to talk with her about my needs/desires related to a job (which were pretty specific since I have a 5 month old) and about how that fit in with what they needed at the hospital. It really helped to have job connections from my internship. Being familiar with the staff and practicalities of the hospital made the whole application, interview, and training process a lot less stressful for me than if I had gotten a job somewhere else.

Was it a stressful competition for your career position?

I wouldn’t say that there was stressful competition for my current position. There actually wasn’t the specific position I wanted in place at the hospital when I inquired. But I worked with the therapy management and they helped set up a position for me that would meet both their needs and mine. Luckily, on-call positions are flexible, so it worked out great!

Did you feel overwhelmed at all when you first started working?

Yes! Absolutely. I took almost seven months completely off after graduating from OT school because I had my son two months after graduation. Because I took so much time off, when I started my job I felt super rusty. My brain hadn’t been in “OT mode” for a while. On top of that, there is just a lot to remember in acute care--lab values, monitors and tubes, signs of medical problems/emergencies, where things are located in different buildings. Like in every OT job, there is also a lot to know in regards to electronic documentation, the logistics of how to do evaluation and assessments, what treatment strategies to use for people with various conditions, and how to work well with a variety of healthcare practitioners. More than anything, I feel like it just takes me a long time right now to make sure that I cross all my T’s and dot my I’s when I go throughout my workday.

What about your career do you find most rewarding?

That’s a hard one to narrow down, because there are honestly so many things! I love being able to walk into a patient’s room after they have been through so much and be able to make their day a little brighter. I love showing people that I care by going the extra mile, because you can tell it makes a difference. It’s things like seeing a person relax when you hold their hand, seeing the light in people’s eyes when you listen to their story, or having family members thank you for taking the time and energy to really care about their family member that make my job so worth it. I also love seeing the amazing functional gains that people can make in a few days’ time. Seeing someone go from completely dependent for all their needs and unable to get out of bed when they first come in, to tying their own shoes, being able to walk, getting themselves dressed, and doing their own hair by the time they leave--that’s amazing. And knowing that I have been a part of that process is so fulfilling and rewarding.

What about your career do you find most challenging?

I think the thing that is most challenging in my job right now, is not being able to motivate some people. Unfortunately, sometimes patients just don’t want to work with you when you work in a hospital, for one reason or another. Sometimes you know that if they would just get out of bed a few times a day and work with you (and other therapists), they could make some incredible gains and get so much better. You can want people to change and you can try your hardest and use your best tricks to try and motivate people, but unless they want to put in the work and change for themselves, there is nothing you can do. It’s frustrating to sometimes see that potential there and not be able to do anything about it.

Which certain qualities do you think are especially important to have in your line of work?

Compassion and creativity are essentials. I think that ability to think on your feet, the desire to directly interact and converse with others on a daily basis, organizational skills, and the ability to multi-task are also important. If you want to work in a hospital setting, I think the ability to be calm under pressure, enjoying being up and on your feet all the time, and the desire to work collaboratively with others are all really important.

Do you have any advice for students following in your tracks?

Stick with it. If this is your dream, go for it and don’t give up! The educational journey to become an OT is a long one. Especially those years through grad school...sometimes they feel like they will never end. At some points you are going to feel like you want to give up and will wonder if all the work you are putting into this journey is worth it (I promise you I have been there several times myself). I promise you it will be worth it. The time, energy, money, and work you put in now is an investment.  

What are your career goals for the future?

While we have little kids at home, I hope to continue to work as an on-call therapist. I really enjoy the flexibility of my current position; it fits this season of my family’s life very well. In the future, I’d still love to work in acute care, since I don’t foresee myself getting bored anytime soon. I’d love to hone my skills in working with people who’ve had strokes, brain injuries, and cognitive deficits. Someday, I’d also love to try my hand at consulting with businesses/organizations to modify environments to make them more accessible for people with disabilities.

Apr. 18, 2017