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Bumps, Bruises, and Lessons Learned: Advice for Students Entering the Profession

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Cheryl Morris, OTR/L

As a blogger and occupational therapist, I get requests for advice from students and new practitioners every now and then via email. One thing I would like to say is that the path I have taken to become an OT is not the only way, and it certainly hasn’t been without its bumps! There are a lot of school- and job-related decisions that I've made that I would hope other people could learn from.

Don't think you need tunnel vision focus in school. I became one of the few people in the world who didn't ever change majors in college, and got my BA and MOT in 5 years. But there are things I didn't do in that process. I only was able to play softball one year in college. I didn't get to study abroad or do really awesome summer programs. I went in with blinders and finished on time. While I excelled at that, I think people should act on the opportunities they really want (within reason), especially while they're in college. So while tunnel vision will definitely get you through school on time, it certainly doesn't have to be the only way.

Don't apply for only one job. When I started applying for jobs out of school I figured that people would take a little time to get back to me and I'd have time to put in several applications, go on a few interviews, and choose the best from that group. Things moved much faster than I anticipated after I put in that first application. While I felt it would have been acceptable to ask for a couple days to consider the offer, I couldn't very well ask for a week or two to do other interviews. 

Don't allow work to overshadow everything else. I took a job in a major hospital of a big city. Work (and travel to work) started dominating my life. I wound up (as many salaried workers do) working more than a standard 8-hour day, working through lunch to catch up, and even working at home in the evenings. The day-to-day life was exhausting and completely unbalanced. It was not a sustainable situation and reflected very poor occupational balance.

Don't work for free. Along the same line as above, if you value yourself, you can't work for free. Don't write evaluations after hours. Don't stick around and do extra notes. If you have work that needs to get done, find a way to get it done during your workday and get reimbursed for your time. Also, don't bankrupt yourself buying fun treatment materials that can’t be reimbursed.

Don't interview or work burned out. Burn out is a real thing, especially in the "caring" fields. Being stressed and emotionally overloaded doesn't make for a good worker, and your mood and behavior will be reflected while interviewing for a new job as well. Take steps to prevent burnout to start with, but make sure you take time for yourself before you begin meeting and working with new people.

Don't take a job that is a major stretch from your interests. Sometimes, though you could imagine a way to make a situation work, it's just not a good fit. And if you know it's not a good fit, or there are red flags to indicate that it isn't going to work long term, just don't take that job. If you are already working at the job, start looking for other options.

Don't be afraid to try something new. It can be a scary world out there, and breaking out of your comfort zone into a new field is tough. It’s a lot of work to get ready to jump into a new practice area. But it can be very worthwhile, and you shouldn't let fear hold you back as long as you're willing to do the work and think that it will align well with your interests. OT Practice and OT Connections have had resources for changing practice settings. It can be done successfully.

Don't get desperate during a search. At one point, I started to get really depressed at the length and lack of results with my job search. I had offers after that and could have had a full-time placement, but it very clearly wouldn't have been a good fit long-term. By sticking with my other part-time work, finances remained stable, and I was able to wait for a better offer instead of jumping at the first life raft.

Don't be afraid to ask for what you want.  You always have the ability to ask for different hours, pay, or other flexibility. The worst that can happen is your boss or potential employer can say no. But if you don't ask for what you want, you won't know what can happen. One example is naming your salary. By forcing myself to have a bit of a backbone, my salary requests were usually exceeded, not just met. 

This article was originally featured on the Occupational Therapy Notes blog.

Cheryl Morris is an occupational therapist who has been writing the OT Notes blog for nearly 6 years. She has practiced in a variety of settings and is currently enjoying her dream job in a Maryland school district. Visit her blog at otnotes.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @otnotes.