PP-OTD Excellence

Online Post-Professional Occupational Therapy Doctorate

by Michele Berhorst • April 5, 2023

Mack uses the lightboard in the ID Studio to record a PowerPoint presentation.

Amanda Mack, OTD, OTR/L, CLC, understands the challenges of being an adult learner. In 2017, she decided to pursue her post-professional occupational therapy doctorate (PP-OTD) while managing a full-time job, several professional obligations and a growing family.

Mack’s professional and personal experiences made her the right choice to transition the Program in Occupational Therapy’s existing PP-OTD to a fully online degree program, the first at Washington University School of Medicine. It’s the next stop on a career dedicated to occupational therapy (OT) education excellence and advancement.

Path to OT

Mack grew up in rural Minnesota, and in the third grade, a classmate suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a farming accident. “He was riding on a tractor wheel cover and slipped off. He was swept under, and the tractor ran over his skull. He was airlifted to the Mayo Medical Center in Rochester, where he made an incredible recovery from his TBI,” Mack recalls. “He was out of school for a long time, but when he came back, I saw the gains he made through OT. I remember an OT assistant on the playground coaching him while we were playing games to help him control his emotions and words. I was hooked. I decided then to be an occupational therapist and never changed my mind.”

Mack earned her bachelor’s degree in therapeutic studies in 2011 and her master’s degree in OT from Boston University. Her first fieldwork experience put Mack in a brain injury rehabilitation center at Unity Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., working with adults. Since she was drawn to pediatric brain injury based on her classmate’s experience, she chose an outpatient pediatric clinic associated with Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago for her second fieldwork experience. “I really did not enjoy it. It was not my thing,” Mack admits. “I quickly learned that I love children, but my passion in OT lies elsewhere.”

Those experiences led Mack to work as a staff occupational therapist in the Rehabilitation Department of Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care in Cambridge, Mass. “It was an interesting place to work because it was end-stage oncology, so most of my patients did not live much past the time I worked with them. As a new therapist, they taught me the joy of doing the things that you care about, even when you have limited time, and that meaning can bring to your life and to your family’s life. OT became real to me.”

Changing Plans

Mack was two years into her 10-year plan of working as a clinician and earning her PP-OTD so she could eventually transition to academia. She developed an interest in higher education while working as a work-study student in Boston University’s OT fieldwork office for four years. “I loved it, and I was good at it. I knew the system and how it works, was able to make improvements, implement new software, and really learned the ins and outs of fieldwork.”

She had worked for Mary Evenson, OTD, OTR/L, FAOTA, who was now a professor and the director of clinical education at MGH Institute of Health Professions (IHP) in Boston. Evenson needed help in the fieldwork office for a new OTD degree program, and she reached out to Mack. “When you are asked to do something that aligns with your dreams and your goals, you say yes,” Mack says. “We worked out a way for me to be part-time there and continue in my role at Spaulding part time.”

Following the birth of her daughter in 2016, Mack transitioned to a full-time fieldwork coordinator staff position at MGH IHP. As part of her career development, Mack participated in AOTA’s Emerging Leaders program (2017-2018). Lisa Connor, PhD, MSOT, OTR/L, then chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy at MGH IHP, encouraged Mack to earn her doctoral degree online. “My husband and I talked, and I decided to take one course in January 2017 just to see if it was doable. It was. The flexibility of the program made it 100% manageable. I was able to take breaks as needed, and I finished the program in 2 1/2 years.”

It was a standard curriculum and did not have specific courses on how to teach in academia. Since Mack was in an academic setting already and teaching in course assistant and lab instructor roles, she was learning from her colleagues and instructional designers. However, she was aware that other students did not have the same support. “I had a good experience in the program, but I also had some pretty strong ideas about what I think could have optimized my experience,” Mack admits. “I shared those ideas with Lisa.”

Mack earned her PP-OTD in 2019 from Boston University and was on track to be instructor and fieldwork faculty when Connor made the announcement that she was leaving MGH IHP and returning to Washington University to be the director of the Program. Ironically, they both started their new positions on the same day—July 1, 2019. Less than a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted all levels of OT education and learning, especially fieldwork as sites were shut down.

For the next two years, Mack taught several entry-level OTD and online PP-OTD courses, mentored students, and helped run the fieldwork program. Wanting to give back to the profession, she became an on-site evaluator for the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Now a mother of three, Mack’s clinical interests shifted to the maternal aspects of infant feeding, and she founded the interprofessional Breastfeeding Support Group at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2022, she became the director of the Occupational Therapy Center for Learning, Participation and Rehabilitation, an experiential learning center that provides pro bono services to youth and adult client community volunteers.

Periodically, Connor would check in with Mack. “At first, Lisa would ask how I liked teaching and being on faculty,” Mack recalls. “Eventually, the conversations shifted to Lisa’s goal of having an online PP-OTD degree program and hiring a director to develop and design the curriculum. Eventually, she said, ‘I’d love for you to apply.’”

For the second time, Mack had an opportunity to propel her academic career forward.

“My husband and I had to make a decision. We loved Boston and the community, and I loved my position at MGH IHP. We were also expecting our fourth child,” Mack says. “Lisa wanted me to come to St. Louis and see the Program for myself before deciding. I interviewed twice in person, met the faculty and staff, and presented my vision for the online PP-OTD. They made the offer, and I accepted.”

Curriculum Design

Mack started on Aug. 1, 2022, and began designing a high-quality, innovative PP-OTD program for practitioners to further their learning and career opportunities while working full-time and attending to family and other obligations as she did. She wanted to have specific tracks for those who want to take on leadership roles or teach in higher education.

“Every occupational therapist is going to lead and/or teach in some way where they are. However, there are lots of faculty out there who never received any formal training in teaching. There might have been a course in general teaching principles, but that’s a huge disparity in the effectiveness of the curriculum. I want our graduates to feel prepared to teach,” Mack explains. “Same for leadership —practical leadership that’s applicable to a variety of settings such as health-care administration or running your own business.”

Mentorship is another key component of the PP-OTD design. “All students are assigned a faculty academic mentor to provide advising throughout the program. This advising is facilitated by core Program faculty,” Mack says. There is additional support for each student’s individual doctoral project as well: “Each student also has a primary doctoral project mentor with relevant expertise to the student’s project to guide them through the process. Two times a semester, students participate in group mentorship with a group of content mentors and peers.”

Mack has embedded in the coursework the application of evidence and theory, participation in scholarly work, and the incorporation of principles of anti-racism; diversity, equity and inclusion; and occupational justice. “The goal is to cultivate excellence within a diverse and talented workforce in all practice areas,” Mack says. “Success means our alumni will be working toward innovation, change and growth within our profession.”

The WashU OT Value

There is a distinct value in WashU’s name recognition and reputation. The PP-OTD is part of an innovative and interdisciplinary university and medical center environment. A WashU OT graduate is highly regarded because of the Program’s academic rigor and excellence. The entry-level degree programs have been ranked in the top three in U.S. News & World Report for decades. Being connected to the WashU OT community has advantages as graduates seek to move their careers and practices forward.

“The profession itself is relatively small, and occupational therapists are relational people. Building relationships and a professional network is extremely valuable. You never know when someone is going to come back into your professional life through work, serving on a committee or attending a conference,” Mack explains. “You can be reading an article, recognize one of the authors and say, ‘I know them — I’m going to shoot them an email.’”

“The Program has a long history of providing the finest in OT education and client care, all built on a strong foundation of innovative research,” Mack says. “We are well-positioned to deliver a PP-OTD degree program with a modern, relevant and meaningful curriculum to shape future leaders and educators in the OT profession.”

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