UW-Madison considering online Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) Program

OT student doing research with child
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Forward thinking: UW-Madison considering

online Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) Program

Sharon Gartland, trained as an occupational therapist, was in the midst of pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago a little more than a decade ago — and then life got in the way. 

Art for OT feature storyAt that time, Gartland explains she was pregnant with her fourth child and decided it would be nearly impossible to both finish her degree and “maintain life with any kind of sanity.” 

But today, Gartland’s children range in age from 12 to 23, and the senior lecturer with UW–Madison’s Occupational Therapy Program says that she is ready to pursue some additional challenges and open some new doors professionally by working toward a post-professional occupational therapy doctorate (OTD). 

“I’ve been keeping the brakes on my professional life for a long time, and it just got to the point where I felt, ‘Well, if I’m ever going to go back to school for this degree, now is the time,’ ” says Gartland, who also works as a clinical instructor at UW–Madison’s Waisman Center.

Gartland currently is in the midst of OTD coursework via an online program offered by St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. 

“I’ve always been interested in expanding my options career-wise, and pursuing an OTD is mostly about professional growth and challenging myself,” she says. “It’s intellectually stimulating, and I really enjoy that.”

Although nothing is finalized, UW–Madison’s Occupational Therapy Program currently is exploring the feasibility of offering its own online OT doctorate, says Ruth Benedict, an associate professor with the Department of Kinesiology and the program coordinator for the university’s OT Program.

And according to recent reports, it appears there is a growing market for just such an endeavor. It’s estimated that there are more than 100,000 occupational therapists in the United States, and an analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the “employment of occupational therapists is expected to increase 33 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations.” Meanwhile, a preliminary review by EduVentures Market Analysis suggests that 55 percent of surveyed therapists report an interest in enrolling in an online OTD program in the future. 

UW–Madison’s OTD Program, as it currently is envisioned, would consist of two years worth of part-time, online coursework followed by a capstone project relevant to the student’s professional career goals or current practice, says Benedict. While in the program, she notes that students would be able to select electives and areas of specialization based on their individualized professional development goals. 

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It’s anticipated that the program would utilize a cohort model in which students transition through the program together as a group in order to foster collaborative learning, encourage creative problem solving and stimulate innovation in project development. 

Benedict adds that the university’s OTD Program would likely be targeted toward mid-career occupational therapists — including alumni of UW–Madison with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in OT — who are seeking professional advancement, development of leadership abilities and the skills to apply research evidence to practice within an inter-professional context. She notes that with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, there is a growing need for occupational therapists to be able to prove, with supportive evidence, the value of the services they are providing.

A secondary aim of the program would be to grow practitioner interest in the pursuit of careers in academia, as the profession is in need of therapists trained at the doctoral level to work as faculty members and teachers across the educational spectrum. 

The work to examine the feasibility of UW–Madison offering such a program is being funded through the university via an Educational Innovation award. This past spring, UW–Madison awarded Educational Innovation funding for 21 projects that advance the university’s commitment to exploring innovative approaches to curriculum and research that can be agents of change for the university. 

Gartland Pull Quote

If the proposal moves forward smoothly, Benedict says the program could start recruiting students in a year, with the first cohort potentially starting coursework toward an OTD in the fall of 2015. 

In addition to pursuing her own OTD, Gartland also is playing a key role in helping UW–Madison consider how such a program offered through this institution might look. 

“I think it’s a good, proactive move to be looking ahead to where OT education is headed — which is online,” says Gartland. “So we’re examining what we’ll need to d o to move some offerings online and remain a high quality, cutting-edge program.”

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