Landing your first job as an OT practitioner is an exciting time, but no one ever said starting off in the field would be easy.  Managing your own caseload for the first time with little experience in a new professional environment it is a major change from life as a student.

We talked to Tracy McLaughlin, occupational therapist at Summerville Medical Center outside of Charleston, SC, who believes that your first few years as an OT practitioner can be a lot more rewarding and less daunting with a positive attitude and a forward-thinking perspective. Here are Tracy’s top 5 tips for how to make the most out of your first 5 years on the job.  

  1. Develop a mentor relationship. Look for others who appear happy and enthusiastic in their daily work and have expertise in areas you are interested in. Ask them for advice. Reaching out to establish a relationship in the beginning will build a foundation for potential growth into a formal (or informal) mentoring opportunity.
  2. Keep up with current research and pursue specialty training and education. Find an area that interests you and focus on learning more about that particular area. Gaining confidence in one concentrated area of interest will allow you to branch out and seek new responsibilities outside of your comfort zone in years to come. Budgeting for both AOTA and state OT association memberships will definitely pay off in the long run.  In my experience, the resources and networking opportunities have certainly been worth the effort over the years.
  3. Gain experience in more than one setting working with different populations. Consider seeking a PRN weekend job in a new setting. Acute care hospitals, home health agencies, and even skilled nursing facilities are often seeking to hire OTs who are willing to work just one weekend a month. Do your homework and decide if this would work for you. For example, I have a friend who works full-time as a school based OT. During summer months, she enjoys picking up a few extra weekends at the hospital where I work, and I love taking off a few extra weekends during that time. Our work relationship has been mutually beneficial. Plus, I enjoy meeting up with her in social settings so we can compare stories about life as an OT in an educational setting vs. hospital setting.
  4. Get your mind right.  I say this with a smile…and a wink.  In the beginning, even though it may not seem this way, the good days will eventually outnumber the bad.  I promise.  Let me share a secret with you: I require my own children to reflect on their day and say something positive (preferably expressing gratitude) before they lay their head on their pillow and say goodnight. You will be surprised how much this type of positive reflection will begin to influence your daily thoughts, attitudes, and decision-making.
  5. Learn how to fine-tune communication skills.  Sometimes looking at a caseload (or daily task list), we feel pressure to have all the answers. However, when we take the time to ask questions and truly listen, it enables us to draw from another person’s experiences and come up with new ideas moving forward. Listening is a valuable skill, without it, information sharing cannot take place between co-workers, clients, administrators, etc.  We all learn in school that written communication in the form of documentation is an important aspect of therapy.  I would also challenge you to expand on your verbal and non-verbal communication skills as well; eye contact and body language should not be dismissed.  For example, I once learned at a conference, when patients’ were asked to rate a brief interaction with a health care provider the ratings were actually higher, and the perceived amount of time spent in the room was even higher when the health care provider simply sat down instead of standing in the room.  Very interesting. There are lots of books and online resources available on this topic as well. 

For more related resources, check out AOTA’s webpage for New Practitioners and Recent Graduates.

What are your top tips for the first 5 years on the job? Share them here!