OT Settings

OT Settings Series: Academia and Occupational Therapy with Khalilah Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L

Did you think that OT Practitioners can only work at hospitals? Think again!

Next up on our #OTSettingsSeries is Khalilah Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L. Dr. Khalilah Johnson is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her clinical and research interests focus on racial equity in service access and participation for African American adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Additionally, she is an advocate for equity in occupational therapy education. 

Here is a graphic I put together to list out the magical settings that OT practitioners can work in. I know I have missed a few… This graphic has been numerously updated! I am sure it will have to be updated again soon!

MEET KHALILAH (But out of serious respect, I will refer to her as Dr. Johnson in the majority of this blog post!)

Name and credentials: Khalilah R. Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L

Number of years in practice: 15 years

OT setting/s: Before becoming an Academic, I worked in Acute Care and Inpatient Rehab, then Home Health and Independent contracting. 

Shannen: Hi Dr. Johnson, it is a great honor to interview you. I admire your zest for the profession, commitment to lifelong learning, and also your impeccable cocktail connoisseur abilities. Can you share about your practice setting of academia? Please also share about your extracurricular committees and advisory roles.

Dr. Johnson: My “practice” setting is academia – Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at UNC School of Medicine and the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention, Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Broadly, my roles as professor are to educate and mentor occupational therapy and occupational science students. Courses I’ve taught at UNC include Inquiry-based Learning and Applied Research I and II. Additionally, I implement programs of research based on my areas of expertise (i.e., intellectual and developmental disabilities) and disseminate knowledge for use in practice, policy, and education. Professors are also required to engage in service to their profession and their university! At UNC, I serve on departmental level committees; and outside of UNC, I serve on the boards of the Society for the Study of Occupation: USA (Membership Chair); the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity; Autism in Adulthood (editorial board), and several advisory boards. I also advise students in our MS and PhD programs, and mentor students of color in other academic programs across campus.

My colleagues hold degrees in occupational therapy; although, an occupational therapy degree is preferred, it is not an absolute requirement to teach in an occupational therapy program. There are four other programs in the state, with the Duke University program being closest geographically. Who benefits from OT services in your setting? (Specific to a certain population? Describe a “typical patient” in your setting? What are the typical patient diagnoses? How does or how can a person get referred to your setting? Who qualifies?)

We serve students as well as partner with practitioners in the community to address the occupational needs of a number of populations. 

Shannen: You are amazing!!! Okay, so how do you answer your students if they ask, “What is occupational therapy or rather – what is occupational science?” 

Dr. Johnson: In addition to what I alluded to in my previous answer – I typically explain…

occupational science as the study of human doing – how people come to access or choose what they do, organize, participate and derive meaning; and occupational therapy is the rehabilitative or habilitative mechanism through which people are able to return to/engage those activities with the quality with which they want to do them.

Shannen: Simply and elegantly stated, thank you for your definitions of occupational science and occupational therapy. What certifications or specialties do you have? Why and how did you pursue them?

Dr. Johnson: I hold a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in occupational science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in occupational therapy from Brenau University Women’s College. My research experience during the final year of OT school  spurred my interest in pursuing a research career as a practitioner. Initially, I thought I might pursue being a research coordinator at a university medical center, but mentors encouraged me to go the traditional route as an academic researcher. I was advised to apply to UNC Chapel Hill. Thankfully it worked out, because UNC was the only doctoral program I applied to. 

Shannen: Why do you like this setting? How does this work make you feel?


Recognizing blinding gaps in practice, teasing apart the theoretical nuances, developing questions, and crafting innovative ways to investigate clinical and non-clinical phenomena…it’s like winning the lottery!

I think those outside of academia often perceive professors as out-of-touch with practice, but I contend that we learn from and contribute to practice in conventional and unconventional ways. In other words, we lean into what is happening in practice in order to build our programs of research, and that innovation can take different forms. Regardless of the types of products of scholarship, our work is informed by what is happening on the ground.

Shannen: I love your enthusiasm 🙂 ! I am a glass half full type of person, but I also want to invite you to share some of the things that you perhaps wish you could change or some of the specific barriers…?

Dr. Johnson: Being a professor is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle, which means it is quite difficult to be “off.”

Additionally, the ivory tower has many challenges as it pertains to labor expected of faculty and staff, competitive compensation, expectations to secure extramural funding, competing teaching and research demands, etc. To avoid falling into these traps, there has to be cultural shift in academia. One that doesn’t corporatize learning so that we aren’t judged by our productivity or by the size of our programs.

Shannen: I appreciate hearing those insights and I know others will, too. So, how did you ‘get your foot in the door’…moreorless…how did you get your ‘start’ to work in this setting?

Dr. Johnson: It is expected that once you earn a PhD you will transition to a university position or research position in industry (which is becoming more popular). PhD students are often recruited to join academic departments in their final year of school or final year of their postdoctoral fellowship (a 2+ year research traineeship after the completion of a PhD).

Shannen: Got it, thank you. Dr. Johnson if someone was to ask where do you envision yourself in 5 – 10 years how you answer that?

Dr. Johnson: Still in academia LOL….hopefully tenured and promoted to associate professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

Shannen: Your students are undeniably fortunate to have you! As we wrap this up can you share about ‘special skills’ (like things you aren’t prepared from entry level OTA/OT skills) do you need to be successful in your setting?

Dr. Johnson: Advanced educational and research training (PhD or equivalent + postdoctoral fellowship) is required for most tenure-track positions in research intensive universities, and those qualifications are becoming increasingly preferred by occupational therapy programs. 

Shannen: And last of all can you share some advice for someone thinking about pursuing advanced educational training in order to move their career trajectory toward academia? What do you wish you knew about this setting x years ago (before you started)?

Dr. Johnson: PhD training is not like any other educational experience. It is an intellectual bootcamp! Doctoral programs prepare you for a career as a researcher and educator, not a career as a clinician. It is grueling as much as it is rewarding, so establishing support/community early on is critical. Be open to all experiences. My 4.5 years at UNC challenged everything I thought was true and just about people and how we relate to each other. If given the opportunity, I would do it all over again!

Want to connect with Khalilah?

IG: @theacademicdiva

Website: https://www.khalilahjohnsonphd.com

Questions? Comments? Feedback!! Please consider posting below!! Follow the hashtag #OTSettingsSeries on Instagram to never miss a post:)!!

Finally, a tremendous thank you to Dr. Johnson for sharing insights into her journey and academia life through her unique perspective.

With kindness,


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