Occupational Therapy Doctoral Degree Program Will Welcome its First Cohort in 2023

By Kerry Regan, September 1, 2022

New program gives IC grads the field’s highest entry-level degree.

Ithaca College is now accepting applications for a new six-year undergraduate-plus-doctoral degree program in occupational therapy (OT). It will be the college’s second doctoral program, joining the Doctor of Physical Therapy offering in the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance.  

The inaugural cohort will have its first classes in the fall of 2023. They will earn a bachelor of science degree in occupational science after four years and a doctor of occupational therapy degree (OTD) at the end of their sixth year. It replaces the current five-year bachelor’s and master’s degree program for new applicants. Students currently enrolled in the five-year program will continue in it. The current stand-alone professional entry level master’s program also will be replaced by a three-year stand-alone OTD, with the first admission cycle beginning in summer 2025.  

“I am very proud of the occupational therapy faculty for the work that they have put into developing the OTD-granting program. The new clinical doctorate curriculum has an expanded ability to serve the needs of the community and provides the highest level of preparation for our graduates as clinicians, specialists, healthcare policy and practice advocates, and higher education faculty and leaders.”  

Linda Petrosino, Dean of the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance

Either a master’s or entry-level doctorate in occupational therapy is required to take the national occupational therapy certification exam and qualify for employment. 

“We recognize the importance of preparing our graduates with the highest entry-level degree possible to ensure they're competitive, and we’re pleased we can offer it in a really efficient way,” said Julie Dorsey ’01, M.S. ’03, professor and chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy. “The industry is moving in this direction, and the strength of our master’s program gives us a solid foundation that eased our transition. We’re really just taking it to the next level.” 

“I am very proud of the occupational therapy faculty for the work that they have put into developing the OTD-granting program,” said Linda Petrosino, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance. “The new clinical doctorate curriculum has an expanded ability to serve the needs of the community and provides the highest level of preparation for our graduates as clinicians, specialists, healthcare policy and practice advocates, and higher education faculty and leaders.”  

The new program aligns with IC’s Ithaca Forever strategic plan, which prioritizes expanding graduate program offerings. The field’s future is bright, with 17% job growth projected between 2020 and 2030 and a current average annual salary of more than $85,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Building on a Solid Tradition

IC’s occupational therapy program began in 1995 and has had a strong track record of graduates passing the licensing exam, getting jobs, and having successful careers, according to Dorsey. A contributing factor: the five-year master’s program that goes above and beyond what the accreditors require for the degree thanks to “a very robust research sequence,” and additional fieldwork opportunities, Dorsey said.   

Indeed, when the members of the OT department first considered offering a doctorate, they realized they were already close to the doctoral level. That was in 2017 when the field’s accrediting body, the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), mandated the doctorate as the entry level degree, eliminating the master’s degree. When ACOTE eventually backed off the requirement due to a variety of complex factors, “it gave us a little bit more time to critically examine our current programs,” Dorsey said, which led the department to not only create the doctorate, but to overhaul the curriculum as well.  

“A lot has changed since our curriculum underwent its last revision,” she explained. “The new curriculum is reflective of what today’s OT practitioners need to be successful. Curriculum design takes significant time to ensure it fully meets the needs of a changing student body, a changing profession, and all accreditation requirements.” 

New Courses Added

One of the new program’s most significant undertakings was creating the culminating doctoral level experience: the capstone project. The IC capstone is a 14-week experiential initiative closing out the final semester, preceded by a year of preparatory work under the mentorship of a faculty member. For their capstone, each student designs a project such as an intervention for a particular population or an advocacy project, implements it in the field, then measures the results and disseminates the outcomes.  

Capstone-related classes are among a handful of new courses the faculty team created for the program. Others address required components on leadership and advocacy, and for the first time IC is requiring a course on disability culture and communities, partly in response to student feedback as well as needed shifts in the profession.  

“The social model of disability says that people are disabled by their environment. For example, using a wheelchair is not a negative thing- it is simply another way to get around. The issue arises when a wheelchair user encounters a space that’s not accessible, such as when there’s no ramp or the elevator is locked, or when an employer is hesitant to hire them due to concerns about the cost of accommodations thereby creating barriers to spaces and opportunities. Students in the program will be educated from this perspective and will be well prepared to be change agents in the profession.” 

Julie Dorsey, Professor and Chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy

“Most OT programs are rooted in the medical model of disability, which says that the problem lies within the person, and they need to be fixed,” Dorsey said. “The social model of disability says that people are disabled by their environment. For example, using a wheelchair is not a negative thing- it is simply another way to get around. The issue arises when a wheelchair user encounters a space that’s not accessible, such as when there’s no ramp or the elevator is locked, or when an employer is hesitant to hire them due to concerns about the cost of accommodations thereby creating barriers to spaces and opportunities. Students in the program will be educated from this perspective and will be well prepared to be change agents in the profession.” 

Students in the new program will benefit from a streamlined and efficient schedule. A stand-alone doctorate runs three years, but that is cut to two in IC’s combined degree program, because some graduate-level courses are taught during the undergraduate years. Further, students don’t have to reapply for the IC graduate program—they are guaranteed a spot if they meet the academic requirements. This enables students to earn two degrees in six years while developing their OT skillset beginning in year one. 

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