How to go to OT graduate school after being out of school for a long time — Step 3: Getting volunteer hours with an occupational therapist*
November 12, 2021
One of the things I struggled with doing in my attempt to apply to graduate school was figuring out how to observe or gain direct experience in an occupational therapy setting in order to meet those mandatory volunteer hours so many OT graduate schools list as an application requirement. Right now with the pandemic, the ability to do this is even more daunting. Unfortunately, some graduate schools are still making this an application requirement. Depending on the graduate school, the volunteer requirement might be a minimum amount of hours shadowing an occupational therapist or the requirement might be stated more generally during the application process where the school tells applicants that admissions preference will be given to those that have volunteer experience in a clinical setting related to occupational therapy. To me, the latter statement was the worst because I interpreted it to be saying you better get a gazillion volunteer hours if you even want to be considered…and I had no clue what a gazillion hours could possibly mean. You also have places like USC that don’t require any hours at all because there is a recognition that volunteer experiences can sometimes be good, sometimes be bad, and that getting a volunteer experience is not always possible (especially in these times of Covid). So for those of us folks that are working and maybe have kids, or are caring for older family members, etc., how do we even consider trying to fit in observation or volunteering before applying. I mean come on…I work, I got bills to pay, I have to take my mother to her doctor’s appointment, and I’ve got to drop off and pick up my kid from school. Do I really need to do this? How can I do this? Well the answer for me was yes, you do need to do this, and you can do this. I came to the realization that this was not just a performative step I had to take for graduate school admission, but more importantly, it could be a way for me to get a better understanding of occupational therapy and help me feel more confident in my decision to make this career change.
But how would I do this? Just a reminder before I describe what I did, don’t forget to do what works for you. You do you! To start I had to sit down with my partner and discuss how and why I needed to do this, and how it could impact my ability to work and maintain family commitments. We needed to determine how much time I could dedicate to volunteering/observing on a weekly basis. That was the easy part. I decided I could do 2 hours or 3 hours one day a week. Then I needed to figure out where I would volunteer. That was the hard part. Well, I started by making cold calls to a few places where occupational therapists work: skilled nursing facilities, rehab facilities, and outpatient clinics. If I was able to get someone, those conversations usually were a dead-end, either because they didn’t allow for volunteers (usually because of HIPAA), or they had OT grad students doing fieldwork. One occupational therapist at a skilled nursing facility actually seemed excited to have me come in for an interview only to then call back to tell me her boss said “Nope!”. After making calls to around 30 places, I decided I would start to visit places in person (this was during pre-Covid, and in New York City, which is really easy to get around on public transportation and there are many many facilities with occupational therapy).
While these visits didn’t necessarily land me a volunteer opportunity, with each encounter I picked up invaluable information about the settings and got a better feel for my future career. I saw privately operated hand clinics, outpatient neuro rehab clinics, skilled nursing facilities, inpatient rehab facilities, long-term care, sensory gyms, group homes, and even hippo-therapy. The process of looking for a place to observe/volunteer became an education in and of itself. I not only became better acquainted with the various occupational therapy practice areas, but I started to hear about places that actually take volunteers on a regular basis, and I just became better acquainted with the practice areas of occupational therapy. This led me to a teaching hospital with a structured volunteer program for people interested in occupational therapy in their outpatient clinic. I was all set to go when I found out that the commitment was a 4-hour shift on a day that conflicted with when I needed to go to work. I asked if I could come in for only two hours instead of 4. But they said they just didn’t want to commit to a person who could only give a couple of hours a week…The good part of all of this was it made me realize I needed to revisit the amount of time I would need to set aside for volunteering. I just didn’t know that most places don’t want someone to come in for just a couple of hours. If I was going to make this happen I needed to be able to recognize I might need to commit up to 4 hours or more for a shift. I found that it’s just how things seem to work.
In the end, I was able to volunteer at the VA thanks to that occupational therapist who walked into the bar. I also had the chance to volunteer at an inpatient rehab facility after getting a tip during another conversation with someone who knew someone who volunteered at that facility. While it took a while to find these experiences, both experiences were invaluable in helping me to feel secure in my decision to change careers.
If you are looking for volunteer opportunities, and don’t know where to start, just start asking around and visiting places. Also, USC has this handy list.
*With the pandemic, I know securing an experience with an occupational therapist can be very hard to do right now. Hopefully, this will change soon.