6 Careers in Rehabilitation That Can Change Lives

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Rehab isn’t just for celebs battling addictions and disorders, and it doesn’t always look like the Beverly Hills resort-style programs they tend to favor. There’s a huge range of careers in the rehabilitation field, from stroke to speech, and it’s a great option for people who might be interested in medicine – just not so much that they want to go through endless years of med school.

The education you should pursue is similar for each type of rehab therapist. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field, such as anatomy, chemistry, psychology or physics. After that, you’ll be required to complete a master’s degree and pass your state’s licensing test. A residency or further certification in a specialized field is optional.

Here are six careers in rehabilitation therapy that you might want to consider.

1. Stroke/Neurology Rehab

What they do: Rehabilitation for stroke falls under the umbrellas of both neurological and physical rehab. It’s designed to give patients more independence after they’ve had a stroke, but can also be effective for patients dealing with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and traumatic brain injuries. The treatment can include physical, occupational and speech therapies, depending on what the patient needs.

Skills: You’ll be working with a large team of physicians, neuropsychologists and other therapists, so teamwork and cooperation are key. You’ll also need to know a great deal about how the brain works and interacts with the body.

Pros and cons: There are plenty of research opportunities, the chance to develop a variety of skills and interdisciplinary collaboration. On the downside, it’s a busy and emotionally draining job that can be made even more frustrating by a lack of cutting-edge equipment.

Salary: The median salary for neurological therapists is around $49,000.

2. Cardiopulmonary Rehab

What they do: Cardiopulmonary therapists help people with conditions like asthma, emphysema, angina, coronary artery disease, and heart attacks, among others. Their job is to make sure the patient understands his or her condition, treatment and risk factors. They also recommend interventions, such as medical attention or lifestyle changes, and design an exercise program to help the patient regain his or her normal strength.

Skills: Aside from essential knowledge of the lungs and heart, you’ll also need to understand how to communicate clearly and empathize with people. A cardio therapist often meets with patients immediately after a diagnosis or health crisis, so it’s important to handle stress well and be able to calm people.

Pros and cons: As a cardiopulmonary specialist, you’re likely to work normal business hours and have the option of working in a hospital, outpatient clinic, rehab center or office of some sort. The stress of having to talk to patients right after they’ve received potentially shocking news, though, may not be for everyone.

Salary: Your salary could be up to $30,000 per year.

3. Alcohol and Drug Rehab

What they do: An alcohol and drug counselor helps people overcome their addictions by assessing their mental health, identifying triggers and coming up with a plan to help them detox. Trying to get clean at home can be dangerous, so a counselor’s role is to guide the patient through the physical and emotional craziness that is detoxing.

Skills: This type of counseling requires a doctorate degree, so prepare yourself for extra schooling. Good communication and an ability to listen well are important, too. Other important skills include dealing with crises, compassion, stress management and maintaining confidentiality.

Pros and cons: While it can be very satisfying to help people lead normal lives again and do outreach to the community, being a substance abuse counselor can be a high-stress job that requires extra years of education.

Salary: The median salary for a certified alcohol and drug counselor is $36,071.

4. Speech Rehabilitation

What they do: You know that kid in elementary school who couldn’t pronounce the letter S in elementary school? She may have gone to a speech therapist to fix that. A speech therapist or pathologist helps patients with all manner of issues, from difficulties with pronunciation to problems with swallowing or with processing language after an illness such as a stroke.

Skills: A speech pathologist needs to know his or her way around words and how they’re formed. Patience is also key – you’re going to be repeating yourself a lot, and teaching language to someone can be a slow process.

Pros and cons: Most states require you to be credentialed, meaning you’ll have to compete 400 hours of clinical experience in order to practice. Knowing a second language can also be helpful, so consider pursuing a foreign language if you don’t already know one. On the plus side, speech pathologists can work anywhere from schools, labs, private homes or on a contract basis, which allows you to travel from one facility to the next.

Salary: The median salary is $74,234, making speech pathology one of the most lucrative options on this list.

5. Vocational Rehabilitation

What they do: Vocational counselors help people with disabilities develop the skills they need to secure a job. This can be training for a specific job, or strategies to independence in general. They also help military veterans transition to civilian life and get a job outside of the service.

Skills: Good listening and communication skills are important, as well as empathy and patience. It would also be helpful to understand different peoples’ skillsets in order to better match them up with a fulfilling career.

Pros and cons: Vocational counseling allows you to work with a wide range of people and in settings from hospitals to private practices or community health centers. On the downside, you’ll need to do 600 hours of clinical training on top of your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology or counseling.

Salary: The median salary is $32,350 but could be more if you choose to work with a state government program.

6. Occupational Rehabilitation

What they do: Occupational therapy means helping patients regain normal skills after a surgery, injury or illness. Think climbing stairs, buttoning buttons or learning to write again. It’s also an umbrella for more specialized therapies, such as vision or balance.

Skills: A bit of creativity will be helpful in developing individual treatment plans for patients, and so will physical stamina and an ability to understand different peoples’ lifestyles and needs. It’s also important to be able to motivate frustrated or disappointed patients.

Pros and cons: You can do everything from help children with disabilities participate in school situations to assist the elderly in living a more active lifestyle, so there’s really something for everyone here. Because many therapists work at agencies, though, you might be required to shuffle around from place to place every day.

Salary: The median salary for occupational therapists is $80,267.


Rehab careers can be rewarding, fulfilling options for people who have a genuine desire to help others and are interested in medicine.

About the Author

Sarah Landrum

Sarah Landrum is a freelance writer, blogger, and aspiring world traveler. Sarah is also the founder of Punched Clocks, a site on which she shares advice for young professionals on navigating the work world, and finding happiness and success at work. For more on all things career follow her @SarahLandrum

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One response to “6 Careers in Rehabilitation That Can Change Lives”

  1. Deborah Ullery says:

    I am specialized in behavioral modification, symptom management with severe and persistent mentally ill. I have also had ASAAM classes for substance abuse.