How to Become a Speech Pathologist
What if you love the idea of working as an educator, but are also interested in health care — and then again, counseling seems like it would be a really rewarding career too?
You might want to start considering how to become a speech pathologist as a way to bring together the best of all those worlds. A speech-language-pathologist is equal parts educator, counselor, and health care provider, serving patients ranging from infancy to old age and working in a variety of settings that include schools, clinics, and hospitals.
What Does a Speech-Language Pathologist Do?
You might remember a speech pathologist from your elementary school days either as someone who worked with you or with students you know. There may even have been a “speech therapist” right in your school. Many people think of a speech pathologist as someone who works with kids who aren’t growing out of childhood speech difficulties, but in fact, that role represents only a small fraction of the broad responsibilities and skills of a speech-language pathologist.
“I think the popular consensus is that we work with kids who can’t say their R’s, but the profession is really so much broader and open than that, and it’s not confined to a school setting,” says Brittany Hall M.S., CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist and the director of the TTUHSC Bachelor of Science in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, part of the School of Health Professions. “There are lots of different places where speech-language pathologists might work,” says Hall, “and they work with adults just as much as they work with children.”
It is this diversity of roles and patients served that makes speech and hearing science a particularly rewarding and varied health care profession. Hall says that once you complete the educational steps to becoming a qualified speech-language pathologist, it’s up to you where you want your focus to turn. “Speech-language pathologists are not specialists when they graduate. That specialty training comes after they’ve graduated, in their work settings,” says Hall. “One of the great things about TTUHSC’s speech-language pathology programs is that they expose students to all aspects of speech-language pathology. You work with all the disorders and all life stages before graduation.”
There are three main directions a speech-language pathologist can take in terms of workplace environments: educational settings, clinical settings, and private practice. The majority of speech-language pathologists work in education and health care, but there is substantial demand for private practice professionals in the field as well. “Many professionals who have worked in a health care setting for years will at some point decide they’d like to work in an educational setting. Or they decide they’d like to work somewhere with a different schedule,” says Hall. “They can change their work environment without needing to add any additional coursework.”
Building a Diverse Skill Set to Meet Diverse Patient Needs
While speech-language pathologists are certainly educators and counselors, speech-language pathology students must take medical coursework and develop comprehensive skills to treat a wide variety of disorders and patient needs.
“Primarily, speech-language pathologists work to prevent, assess, diagnose, and treat speech and language, social communication, cognitive communication, and swallowing disorders in people across the lifespan,” says Hall. The disorders that professionals in the speech and hearing sciences treat are widely varied and can be either developmental — discovered at birth or in early childhood — or the result of illness or injury, for instance, a stroke or traumatic brain injury. The types of disorders fall in general categories:
- Speech disorders can involve either problems producing sounds correctly or problems using the voice.
- Language disorders can involve either spoken or written communication and are characterized by difficulty understanding or expressing ideas through words. Many people are surprised to learn that literacy is a large component within the purview of a speech pathologist.
- Social communication disorders involve difficulty mastering the conventions of human conversations, including nonverbal aspects such as eye contact and body language. Autistic spectrum disorders are a well-known example of this, but social communication problems can also result from brain injury.
- Cognitive communication disorders are difficulties in communication caused by problems with memory, attention, and problem-solving and are often the result of dementia or stroke.
- Swallowing and other disorders associated with eating (referred to in the profession as feeding disorders) include a loss of ability to swallow properly as a result of stroke or injury. These disorders can cause choking or other dangers such as pneumonia which can result from the inhalation of food.
A speech-language pathologist also addresses problems such as food aversion, where a person, often a child, tolerates only certain foods, leading to poor nutrition. “That’s actually a big component of our field. We see those kids here who will eat only macaroni and cheese and if they have to eat anything else they may have a gag reflex,” relates Hall. “Speech-language pathologists have specific training in how to support people with food aversion disorder, and a lot of times we’ll partner with someone with training in nutrition.”
A speech-language pathologist doesn’t always work with disorders, however. They can also work with clients to enhance specific skills. People who rely on their voice for their livelihoods — singers, actors, public speakers — sometimes hire speech-language consultants to improve their vocal power delivery or to protect their voices from overuse-related damage. Corporations also hire consultants in the speech and hearing science professions to help their staff improve their business communication skills, or to help improve the pronunciation skills of employees who speak English as a foreign language.
A Speech Pathologist is Not an Audiologist — But They Share a Focus
Many people wonder if a speech-language pathologist is the same as an audiologist. The answer is, not quite, but the confusion is understandable.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), audiology and speech-language pathology are two professions within the larger field of communication sciences and disorders (CSD). The two professions have different educational requirements, and separate board certifications, but they are related. As Hall explains, “They both deal with people who have some sort of communication disorder. As a professional in either field, you have to thoroughly understand human communication processes and the diagnostic process.”
Audiologists and speech-language pathologists approach communication problems from different angles. As Sherry Sancibrian, BCS-CL, director of TTUHSC’s Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology, explains, “Speech-language pathologists work very closely with audiologists because so many people with hearing loss also have speech and language problems. An audiologist fits patients with hearing aids or works with them to improve listening skills, while the speech-language pathologist works on improving articulation, voice, and language. In our department, we offer both degrees and student clinicians from both professions work as a team to provide care.”
Human Communication: The Heart of the Profession
Speech-language pathologists specialize in human communication — and communication is an area they themselves need to excel in. Speech-language pathologists must have the skills to both teach and inspire trust. They need genuine empathy and a strong motivation to help people improve their lives. Because of its interprofessional nature — speech-language pathologists often treat patients in tandem with audiologists, nutritionists, physical therapists, and other health care professionals — speech pathology is a good field for people who have a collaborative nature. “You work with many health care professionals and that kind of team mindset appeals to many of the students in our program,” says Hall.
Because a speech-language pathologist is something of an educator-counselor-clinician hybrid, a firm foundation in all of those areas is needed. “You need the medical background,” says Sancibrian. “The psychology background is helpful because we do a lot of counseling with patients and their families about coping with their disorder. And doing therapy is a lot like teaching. You teach people strategies to help them live a better life with the abilities they have.”
How to Become a Speech Pathologist
Working professionally as a speech-language pathologist typically means completing a master’s program in speech and hearing science, working for a year in a clinical fellowship, passing a nationally-administered test, obtaining a state-issued license, and usually also obtaining a Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-language Pathology (CCC-SLP), which is issued by ASHA.
While the CCC is not required in all situations, Sancibrian doesn’t recommend leaving it out of your career plan. “You can choose to work with just your state license if, for some reason, you don’t want to get the national, but it’s really hard to bill insurance. The CCC is your basic certificate. You should have both that and the state license, and luckily the standards are really similar.”
TTUHSC’s Path to Speech-Language Pathology
Admission into most master’s speech-language pathology programs requires a bachelor’s degree, but program requirements can vary when it comes to the focus of a student’s degree.
TTUSHC’s master’s program in speech-language pathology may accept applicants with unrelated bachelor’s degrees as long as they complete prerequisites, but the optimal course is to complete a bachelor’s in speech, language, and hearing science, and the TTUSHC School of Health Professions offers two ways to do that.
- The two-year option. “Our two-year undergraduate program is what is commonly referred to as a two-plus-two program,” explains Hall. “You complete two years of basic college coursework at another university or college and then you apply to the Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences undergraduate program. In that program, you will get specialized education in human communication processes and disordered communication.” Hall further explains that the TTUHSC bachelor’s program is structured to build skills in a specific sequence over the duration of the program. “We are a lock-step program, meaning we have a set schedule and we provide the framework for what courses a student will take each semester.”
- The one-year second degree. Students who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field but decide to adjust their career trajectory toward the health professions can apply to TTUHSC’s second degree program. This option meets the prerequisites for the master’s application and also enables students to apply for scholarships and financial aid. “I think many universities offer the coursework,” says Hall, “but we’re unique in that we structure it as a bachelor’s degree. Students are eligible for more financial support when they declare that they’re pursuing a degree.”
Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree
Even with financial support, higher education is expensive. In Hall’s observation, this is leading to fewer students choosing to pursue education beyond a bachelor’s degree — or to postponing their choice. “Most of our students are still probably thinking about pursuing graduate education. However, as the cost of higher education increases, lots of our students are beginning to immediately pursue careers with their bachelor’s degree.”
So what are their options? One of the most common career choices for candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree is working as a speech-language pathologist assistant. Though the position may be partly administrative, assistants also help implement treatment plans under the direction of the speech-language pathologist, as well as track patient progress and collect data. Across the U.S., state requirements for speech-language pathology assistants vary. Texas requires certification for assistants.
Some graduates of speech, language and hearing science programs work in sales, especially in companies targeted toward health care professions. In this role, they can use their superior communication skills, especially in jobs selling or promoting equipment used by speech-language pathologists. Jobs can also be found in publishing and communications, especially where the subject matter involves speech and hearing science.
Corporate managers, human resources professionals, administrators and other business leaders with expertise in speech and hearing science are well equipped to design workplace cultures that foster productive communication and environments. With increasing rates of diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, hiring managers are also increasingly recognizing the benefits of hiring employees with autism, but employers need to be able to accommodate their unique communication needs. Not all companies hire speech-language consultants, so having speech-language expertise on your resume could provide a competitive edge for many business leadership roles.
More Than Classroom Instruction
For speech, language, and hearing students who do choose to go on to the master’s program at TTUHSC, the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at the School of Health Professions gives them a unique and invaluable opportunity to gain experience providing care, under staff supervision, directly to the local community. The clinic benefits students and patients alike. “We provide cutting edge, advanced, evidence-based services for the public,” says Hall. She adds that the clinic also gives students a big-picture understanding of clinical practice by learning to collaborate with clinicians across the range of health care professions.
“In health care today, there’s a need for professionals to really understand and work together to most effectively treat patients. The School of Health Professions has opportunities for students to work together within the program and with students pursuing an education in other health care fields. They work with students in the occupational therapy setting, in the physical therapy setting, and with students pursuing degrees within the School of Medicine.”
The Expanding Career Landscape
Whether an education in speech and hearing science leads to a career in a clinic, a school, or somewhere else, speech-language pathology is a rapidly growing field. In part, this is because of the large baby-boom generation who is not only aging but remaining active and expected to live longer than previous generations. Another factor spurring growth in the profession is more frequent and earlier diagnoses of developmental problems, such as autism, and more research into how to treat them.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts that speech-language pathology jobs will increase 18% over a ten-year period, and the current national median pay is $77,510. The BLS also reports that Texas is the number one employer of speech-language pathologists, with a mean annual wage of $75,800.
The outlook for speech-language pathology assistants is also robust. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), job growth for speech-language-pathology assistants is projected to increase 10%-14% through 2026 nationally, faster than average for all occupations.
In Texas, the potential demand may even be even higher with projected job growth of 21% for health care support workers in general.
The in-demand field of speech-language pathology can offer a lifelong career of helping people in deeply meaningful ways, and it provides versatility, variety, and opportunities for continuous learning and professional development. To learn more about how to become a speech-language pathologist and get started on your professional journey, visit our Bachelor of Science in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences program page. You can also email us at email@example.com or call us at 806-743-3220.
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