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Professional Development

Vol. 24 •Issue 5 • Page 41
Professional Development

Growing as an occupational therapist

Professional development does not have to mean becoming the next president of the American Occupational Therapy Association, an Eleanor Clark Slagle lecturer, or even seeking a new career direction. In other words, professional development is not meant to be a dramatic life change (although the previously mentioned ideas are optimal professional development activities).

Professional development can occur through many venues, including: seeking new assignments at your current job, seeking or becoming a mentor, taking a course, or pursuing a degree or advanced certification.

But how can you seek professional development beyond clinical skills and grow as a leader in the profession? With the business of daily life, it can be challenging to explore professional development, but there are simple things any therapist can do to grow professionally and contribute to the profession.

1. Conduct a Self Assessment

The best place to begin your professional journey is with a self assessment. Knowing where you are professionally and personally can help show you where you want or need to go in your development. Furthermore, professional development must be personal in order to be meaningful. A self assessment will ensure you develop a plan catered specifically to your needs.

One of the keys to professional development is not only to focus on areas where you need to improve, but also to recognize your strengths and build upon them. Various self-assessments are available that can determine both your strengths and challenges. Some assessments are free and will give you a glimpse into your current professional behaviors; others are available at some cost but offer a more in-depth analysis.

Several tools have been widely researched and justified, including the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, and the StrengthsFinder (Table 1).

The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) also offers self-assessment tools for OTs and OTAs on its Web site at

The self-assessment process does not have to require a fancy instrument. Some individuals may find it simply easier to reflect on their current accomplishments and jot down some potential future accomplishments. Simply updating your resume or curriculum vitae can help you reflect on your current professional accomplishments and contemplate the next steps for your professional growth.

You may also want to make a list of aspects of your professional life that you find meaningful and those that you find challenging. Similar to a pros and cons list, this process provides you with objective insight into your professional stance.

Another way of reflecting on your professional development is through journaling or reviewing previous journals. Journaling increases your self-awareness and helps you organize your thoughts. (Ryan, 2002)

Lastly, seeking help from others is a strong method for gaining insight into your professional development. Asking peers or a mentor about potential for your professional growth will help you begin brainstorming your action steps toward future development.

2. Create a Development Plan

Once you have completed the self-assessment process, it is time to consider a plan for your professional development. I once spoke to a life coach who wrote a quarterly professional development plan. That might work well for him, but there is no timeline or guide to when a professional development plan should be updated or revised.

As an OT, I think the key to a successful professional development plan is focusing on the individual—this promotes meaning, similar to the concept of occupational engagement.

Occupational therapists write treatment plans for our clients. In a sense, your professional development plan is a treatment plan for yourself. A successful professional development plan includes long- and short-term objectives and measurable outcomes. If you prefer, you can include action steps or outcome indicators in your plan (Table 2).

Short-term plans are often more effective and attainable. Professional development plans that are lofty are like New Year resolutions—we quickly drop or fail at them. Own your plan, and you will be on the road to success.

AOTA has a Professional Development Tool available to members on its Web site that includes self assessment, plan development and portfolio creation.

3. What's Your Personal Mission?

A personal mission statement will guide you in your overall professional development and can be a lifelong statement. Your objectives may change but your mission may remain the same.

A mission statement outlines your purpose, personal values and future direction. Companies use mission statements to convey to customers why they exist. Vision statements, on the other hand, convey what a company or individual hopes to attain.

It is important to remember that mission statements are meant to be practical and realistic. For many people, mission statements convey passion and provide meaning to their professional development. A mission statement not only provides personal guidance but lets other professionals know your purpose and professional journey.

Some tips for developing a mission statement include:

  • Do some research. Find mission statements of organizations that you admire or feel are easy to understand.

  • Don't just repeat your resume. The purpose of a mission statement is not to provide accolades to your successes but to state your values and premise for your professional work.

  • Avoid emptiness. Do not write a mission statement that does not encompass any of your personal or professional values. You should feel passionate about your mission, and that passion should be articulated to others through the mission statement.

  • Keep it short. Mission statements should not be a page long, but a brief snapshot to give others some insight into your journey.

  • Be discipline specific. In most cases, you want your mission statement to acknowledge your background as an occupational therapist.

  • Write well. Grammatical and syntax errors in your mission statement can can distract readers from understanding your mission. Write in a clear and concise manner so your mission statement is easy to grasp.

  • Be humble. You do not want to sound like you know it all or plan to accomplish it all.

  • Ask others. Seek advice and feedback.

  • Do not settle. Continue to revise your mission statement until you feel satisfied and passionate about it.

  • Be yourself. The mission statement is about you, so make it unique to your values and professional growth.

    4. Develop a Professional Portfolio

    According to Nagayda, Schindehette and Richardson, "a portfolio is a visual representation of personal and professional goals and accomplishments." (2005, p.7) Portfolios are a method for collecting current accomplishments and making a plan for future professional growth.

    A professional portfolio is like a map of one's professional growth: it shows one's current professional location and helps build a path for future direction. Furthermore, portfolios can act as a tracking mechanism for professional growth.

    Portfolios can facilitate confidence as well as critical self-reflection. Secondarily, they provide others with a visual reference of your accomplishments in the professional arena.

    Many professionals both in and outside health care use portfolios. They should be dynamic and fluid, based on an individual's professional growth. This means that a portfolio is never complete, but can grow with an individual as he or she grows professionally.

    There are several steps in creating a portfolio:

  • Identification: Determine what to place in the portfolio based on your professional development.

  • Collection: Collect these items.

  • Presentation: Organize the portfolio in a creative yet easy-to-review manner.

  • Feedback: Seek input; this can come from peers or a mentor.

  • Reflection: The reflection process promotes clinical reasoning skills and helps identify the direction for professional growth.

    5. Find a Mentor

    Mentoring "is a close, personal relationship that differs from supervision. Supervision is a way to monitor and shape someone's behavior so that organizational and professional goals are met." (Roberston & Savio, 2003, online)

    Finding a mentor means seeking development from someone you feel has expertise or the ability to guide you in your professional development. This person can be an OT or can be someone in any field you feel can provide development as needed. Mentors do not have to be someone you see everyday but someone you can contact when guidance is needed regarding professional matters.

    The American Occupational Therapy Association has a lot of quality information on mentoring that can assist you in seeking an appropriate mentoring relationship. Visit for more information.

    6. Get Involved in Your Community

    There are many ways to facilitate leadership in your own community, and these activities do not have to be directly related to OT practice.

    For example, volunteering promotes leadership skills and broadens understanding of social issues. Practicing in any kind of community setting also requires flexibility, awareness of others, and can require cultural awareness. These skills all relate to practice and can promote your professional development.

    For leadership ideas related to the community, review your mission statement. Often a mission statement offers hints at areas of community service that are both interesting and relevant. Follow that up by contacting local organizations, such as your local United Way chapter, to explore volunteer or service opportunities.

    Providing pro-bono services can also help you develop leadership in the community, and further your clinical skills. Many organizations can benefit from free OT services. Explore local free health clinics or non-profits focused on health care delivery to see how you can help.

    Lastly, a great method for developing leadership skills in the community is to join a board of directors. Non-profit organizations are always looking for community members with expertise in specific areas to serve on their boards. Contacting the United Way can help you find a board that works for you; most boards are very specific on the responsibilities of their members. Boards also do not require an extensive amount of time, meeting as little as twice a year to once a month.

    Make sure you agree with and buy into the mission of the organization for which you choose to be a board member so you feel motivated and passionate to help with activities.

    For more information on community leadership and service, visit

    7. Be Active in Professional Groups

    One of the best ways for developing leadership and professional development is to become active in state and national professional organizations. This means more than paying your membership dues. This means sponsoring events for OT Month, partnering with your local Rebuilding Together as supported by AOTA, assisting your state with developing continuing education events, or serving in a leadership position in the association.

    Become a part of the American Occupational Therapy Political Action Committee (AOTPAC) by donating money or advocacy by contacting politicians in support of specific legislation.

    Professional development can be a challenge—we all have busy lives and schedules—but it does not have to be impossible. There are many ways to promote individual development. The key to success is getting started and investing in it! Once you are on your journey, you will grow in directions you wanted to go and in ways you never imagined.

    References available at or upon request.

    Joy D. Voltz-Doll, OTD, OTR/L, is an assistant professor of clinical education in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Creighton University Medical Center. You are encouraged to reach her at


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