If you’ve heard of the field of Speech-Language Pathology, odds are, you’re already interested in and actively pursuing it (as in, getting an undergrad degree in something like Language & Hearing Sciences or Communicative Disorders). Or possibly you’re studying something related, like Linguistics, and you’re curious about what to do next, education- or career-wise.
So let’s break it down.
A Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP, may also be called a speech therapist or speech and language therapist) is someone with a ton of training in conditions and disorders relating to speech, language, and communication.
SLPs work with a huge range of populations (ranging from babies to the elderly). It’s a highly specialized field that’s simultaneously incredibly broad because it covers everything from neurological to physical impairments, many of which involve ridiculously complex systems (i.e., the perception, understanding, and production of language, which is just, like, whoa). Patients may have physical issues, like a swallowing disorder, or neurological or cognitive impairment.
Literally anyone. Here’s a basic overview of the types of conditions SLPs treat:
So as an SLP, you might help someone overcome a stutter or lisp. You could work with an ESL patient on accent-training so he can be understood at work better. You might train a customer-service team to better help customers who are hard of hearing. You can work with someone on the autism spectrum. You can help a stroke victim regain the ability to communicate.
And that’s if you stick to the clinical route. Opportunities are also abundant in the research and teaching fields.
And if you’re bilingual? Huge bonus. There’s a growing need for SLPs who can work with immigrant and refugee populations, which is what Chanel Konja, who recently graduated from San Diego State with a Bachelor’s in Language & Hearing Sciences and plans to start their Speech-Language Pathology program in the fall, wants to do: “I speak Aramaic, and there’s a huge Aramaic-speaking population in San Diego, specifically El Cajon, and there isn’t a single SLP who speaks Aramaic,” she said. “I hope to serve underrepresented populations and refugees.”
As an SLP, you’ll often be part of a multi-disciplinary team that may include other doctors and specialists, teachers, cognitive therapists or physical therapists. You’ll also provide support and education to family members of the patient.
SLPs work in a variety of settings. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the field’s national governing body, just over half of licensed SLPs work in education settings (K-12 schools and universities).
Fiona Cheng, who just graduated from San Diego State with her M.A. in Speech-Language Pathology, said she first learned about the field from an SLP who worked at her high school: “[She] invited some of the officers in the [Best Buddies chapter at my school] to help in her class. I asked her, hey, what’s your job? And she told me about it and I just fell in love with the field,” she said. “I remember going to the children’s hospital in LA and observing what they do there and seeing the medical side of it and it was amazing—the field, what you can do, how to can help people overcome communication barriers.”
The next largest group works in health care, which includes hospitals, outpatient clinics, doctor’s offices, skilled nursing facilities, and assisted living facilities.
Other employment opportunities for SLPs include private practice, government agencies, or corporations. Large companies might hire an SLP as a consultant to provide training in various aspects of communication. “If it’s something you’re interested in, I’d recommend shadowing a speech-language pathologist,” Chanel said. “It’s a great way to network and really get to talk about the profession and what it is.”
Good news: the field is growing! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities are expected to increase by 21% from 2014 to 2024. The Bureau also says that the median pay in 2016 was $74,680/year. An 2015 AHSA survey showed annual salaries for SLPs in health care settings ranging from $70,000 to $90,000.
Speech-language pathology requires a Master’s Degree to get licensed and entry-level positions. SLPs are required to obtain and maintain licensure with their state. Programs at the top schools are competitive, receiving hundreds of applications each year for typically 20-40 spots.
There’s no specific undergraduate degree requirement, but if you don’t have one in something like Speech & Hearing Sciences or Communications Sciences, you will need to do some extra work to complete the prerequisites and complete clinic observation requirements. Some schools just say, essentially, “find a post-bac program and apply when you’ve completed the prereqs.” Some might offer programs to help you fill in the gaps—San Diego State offers courses through its College of Extended Studies, Vanderbilt lets students takes a sixth semester to catch up, University of Wisconsin (Madison) has a Capstone Program where students can complete the prereqs at UW-Madison before applying to the graduate program.
Work hard, study hard, and cultivate strong relationships. In such a competitive field, obviously it’s not enough to just complete the course requirements. You need a strong GPA and high test scores, but you also need to really prove your passion and dedication with a killer letter of intent/personal statement and excellent letters of recommendations from your professors.
“I don’t have a competitive GPA—it’s a good GPA, but you need, like, a 3.9 to be amazing,” said Chanel. “But I took the GRE, and I wrote a badass letter of intent. … I was determined, I was diligent, and what I didn’t know I made sure I figured out.”
If your school has research labs on campus, look into working or volunteering at one for more experience. “In undergrad there was a lot of volunteering, a lot of observations. I was involved with some research [and focused on] getting a lot of good grades. Pretty much anything and everything I could do, I was trying to do,” Fiona said.
“[While completing my undergrad] I jumped into a lab. I thought I could use some extra work and some exposure, and I just happened to stumble upon a lab that I love and I’ve been there two and a half years now,” Chanel said. “My mentor, who was the lab director, is the reason why I’ve gotten this far. It’s really important to get to know your professors on a personal level. Go to office hours—they really need to see that you’re committed. Build that relationship and build that rapport.”
(The good news, according to Fiona: “In undergrad, it’s really cutthroat. There’s a lot of competition. … In grad school, it’s more we’re all in this together. We’ve all made it and we look out for each other, so I think there’s more camaraderie.”)
Typically, an SLP master’s program lasts two full academic years plus the summer in between. So if you start in Fall 2017, you’re going non-stop until Spring 2019.
Expect to get thrown into it immediately. San Diego State starts students right off with work in its Speech-Language Clinic, within the SDSU School of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences. “They throw you in there. You may have two clients starting off, you may have kids, you may have adults, it depends,” Fiona said. You’ll have a supervisor, but you’ll get right into evaluating, diagnosing, and treating patients.
It’s rigorous and intense. Programs typically require a full-time commitment. “You’re committing your full day. There isn’t much time for a part-time job because we do clinic starting your first semester,” said Fiona. “You have on-campus clinic your first year, and as well as your classes, so you might be on campus from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., depending on when you have clients.”
Each program differs slightly, but many offer options to complete a thesis or research project, focus on a specialty, or complete clinical internships or externships at various facilities. “[At San Diego State,] if you’re in a research lab, you can do it for 3 or 6 units,” Fiona said. “I was part of one focused on preschoolers in underprivileged areas. There are other research labs, say on phonology, bilingualism, aphasia.”
Fiona also talked about the intensity of San Diego State’s program: “You just have this sense of loss of control throughout the whole program, but they’re telling us that this is normal, you guys are learning a lot. A lot of us just felt like we weren’t learning enough, at least not like we wanted to—at least speaking for myself—and I think that struggle of accepting it’s gonna be a long journey, we’re gonna be learning on the job and from people who know a lot more than us [was tough].”
Don’t get too scared; she also said that by graduation, she felt well-prepared to find resources and ready to go out in the field.
(and San Diego State because that’s where our interview sources went/are going, and it’s also a highly-regarded program)
If you think Speech-Language Pathology is for you, consider this:
You have to really, really like working with people. Besides your patients, most of the time you’ll also be part of one of those multi-disciplinary teams, and you’ll be working with your patients’ families as well. If you’re in an education setting, you’ll be coordinating with teachers and administrators.
You need to have and demonstrate exceptional communication skills yourself—to understand patients’ complaints and help them understand their diagnosis and treatment plans. Plus, depending on the patient and setting, you may be, say, submitting progress reports to parents or answering questions from teachers.
Also, you know how it’s really frustrating when you’re not able to communicate well with someone? Your patients are experiencing this, in some fashion, every single day. So they’re going to be frustrated. They may resist treatment. They may get upset when they don’t see rapid progress. You need to show a lot of compassion and patience.
It takes a lot of analytical and critical-thinking skills. “Each client—each disorder—is very unique and their therapy’s gonna look different,” Fiona said. “Some of us just want someone to tell us the answer, but there isn’t [a textbook]. … Use the resources you have, but it’ll look very different from one client to the next.”
Sound like you? Then go for it. As an SLP, you’ll have a challenging but rewarding career with a ton of opportunities to help people and make a difference.