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Transform lives with a career in speech-language pathology
Communication is key in just about all facets of life. When someone’s ability to communicate is compromised, speech-language pathologists can intervene and help. This rewarding career helps people overcome a variety of communication-related disorders, and is expected to grow substantially in the next few years: 21.3% through 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Careers in speech-language pathology also tend to rank highly in job satisfaction surveys. In PayScale’s list of the most meaningful jobs, for example, speech-language pathologists rank number 14 among 454 total jobs. Becoming a speech-language is no simple feat, however—you’ll need a master’s degree on top of a solid baccalaureate education to enter this profession.
An SLP answers: What is a speech pathologist?
“Speech-language pathology is an education and healthcare profession that treats individuals across the lifespan addressing cognitive, communication, and swallowing deficits or disorders,” said Jeannette Reiff, associate director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). “We also support individuals seeking elective services such as gender-affirming voice services, business communication, accent or dialect modification and more.”
Speech-language pathology is not only about, well, speech and language. The field of speech-language pathology encompasses the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of a diverse array of speech, language, communication, and swallowing disorders.
When someone has one or multiple of these conditions, speech-language pathology can help manage and/or correct the problem. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) describes five types of disorders that speech-language pathologists can help with:
What does a speech-language pathologist do?
Speech-language pathologists—also called speech therapists—evaluate, diagnose and treat a variety of communication and swallowing disorders. They can work with patients one-on-one or in groups to help them manage or overcome their conditions in a variety of settings, including schools, healthcare facilities, nursing or long-term care facilities and much more.
“We’re working with infants all the way through the end stages of life and everything in between,” Reiff said. “Individuals that get into the field can specialize and work with just the babies, or work with adolescents, or specialize in adults or specialize in the geriatric population. It kind of depends on where you decide you might want to work because I can say that you would find speech-language pathologists working in private practices, physicians’ offices, hospitals, schools, colleges, universities, or in families’ homes if you’re an early interventionist. Depending on your practice domain, that might also dictate the realm of ages that you might be treating.”
No matter where they work or who they work with, most speech-language pathologists can expect to perform the following job duties:
Speech-language pathologists may work with speech-language pathology assistants or aides (SLPAs). States define assistants and aides differently. They are support personnel that have their own scope of practice.
What is a speech-language pathology session like?
“Speech and language therapy sessions are going to look different depending on the client’s needs and aspects such as the age of the client and therapy goals,” Reiff said. “Generally speaking, following an assessment the speech-language pathologist is going to write goals. That’s going to include long-term outcomes and short-term goals, and then they’ll plan therapy and each therapy session is going to be individualized.”
Reiff said that because each session is so tailor-made to the individual, there’s a lot of room for creativity in the profession.
“Planning becomes a creative process, really ensuring that whatever activities are planned have the intent of achieving the best possible outcomes for our clients,” Reiff said. “We hold paramount the unique set of personal and cultural circumstances, values, priorities, and expectations that are identified by our clients or caregivers. We might have two clients who look the same on paper who come to us with the same, let’s say, speech-sound disorder—and they’re both eight years old, but have two very different cultural backgrounds. Our therapy sessions are going to look very different.”
Steps to become a speech-language pathologist
Earn a bachelor’s degree.
Speech-language pathologists need at least a master’s degree, which means you’ll need a bachelor’s degree first. Majoring in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) is a great option, but not the only degree that could prepare you for a graduate program in speech-language pathology. A health science or related degree can also be beneficial to any prospective speech-language pathologist.
Earn a graduate degree in speech-language pathology.
After completing your baccalaureate education, you’re probably ready to get a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. Be sure to check the prerequisites of your program to determine if there are any other classes you still need to take.
A master’s degree program typically takes two to three years to complete, and a doctoral degree (if you choose to pursue one) could take four or more additional years. Any graduate-level programs should be accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA).
Many graduate programs also have you complete a clinical internship or other hands-on experience with a speech-language professional as part of the graduation requirements.
Complete a clinical fellowship.
All states require speech-language pathologists to complete a certain number of supervised clinical hours in order to qualify for licensure. Although the number of hours can vary, many states model their requirements to match the requirements for the Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP) from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
In these cases, you would need to be overseen by an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist and complete at least 1,260 hours in a clinical fellowship over 36 weeks.
Pass the Praxis exam.
Some states require speech-language pathologists to pass the Praxis examination in speech-language pathology in order to qualify for a license. The exam is also required if you intend to earn the CCC-SLP certification from ASHA.
ASHA recommends that people take the Praxis exam no earlier than the completion of their graduate coursework and graduate clinical practicum or during their first year of clinical practice following graduation.
Apply for licensure.
Double-check to make sure you have fulfilled your state’s licensing requirements for speech-language pathologists (especially so for those who want to work in schools, which may require obtaining a teaching certificate as well). Once you have, you can apply for a license.
Start helping people.
With your license in hand, you’re ready to start treating people. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 40% of speech-language pathologists worked in educational services in 2021. Speech-language pathologists can also find work in offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists, as well as hospitals and nursing facilities.
Consider getting certified, if necessary.
ASHA offers a voluntary credential called the Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP). Because many states model their licensing requirements after the CCC-SLP, you may already be eligible for certification after getting your license. Having this certification demonstrates a level of prestige and excellence in the field which could lead to more job prospects and perhaps a higher salary.
Education needed to be a speech-language pathologist
Speech-language pathologists must be licensed in every U.S. state to practice. Although licensing requirements vary between states, they are quite similar in most places. You can research your state’s licensing requirements using ASHA’s state-by-state guide and/or by contacting your local regulatory body for speech-language pathologists.
“The entry-level degree to practice as a speech-language pathologist is a master’s degree,” Reiff said. Graduate programs in speech pathology should be accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA).
Before you can get a graduate degree, however, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. According to ASHA, an undergraduate degree in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) is the most common pathway for speech-language pathologists, but this is not necessarily required for admission to graduate programs.
Furthermore, not every school offers this kind of major. Most graduate programs require that you complete certain relevant coursework rather than a specific degree. This coursework typically involves a combination of biological, physical and social sciences, as well as math. Graduate programs may also want you to have already taken introductory courses in audiology, language development, phonetics and more.
Choosing the right speech-language pathology program
After getting a bachelor’s degree, you’re ready to start searching for a graduate program.
Enrolling in graduate school is a big decision, so you want to make sure you consider some essential components when selecting which program(s) you want to apply to, such as:
Graduate programs must be accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA). The CAA establishes accreditation standards for both academic coursework and clinical practicum experiences.
Curriculum and clinical experiences
Each accredited program meets the CAA’s academic standards differently. You want to make sure that the program(s) you apply for satisfy your individual career goals. For example, some programs may offer a clinical internship or interdisciplinary collaboration. Find out what different programs offer to determine what kind of curriculum is most appealing to you.
There are speech-language pathology programs all around the country. Whether you want to find one that’s close by or you are willing to move elsewhere, you want to find a program in a location that suits your needs.
Grad school is a big investment. Consider your financial bandwidth to determine which programs you can afford. ASHA has several financial aid resources to help make your education more affordable.
Speech-language pathologist certifications
The CCC-SLP certification from ASHA is the most ubiquitous certification for speech-language pathologists, given that many states model their licensing requirements after it. It is a clear mark of excellence in the field, and some employers may require you to have this certification as a qualification for employment.
To apply for this certification, you must submit the following to ASHA:
“ASHA-certified speech-language pathologists complete a supervised post-graduate professional experience—that’s the clinical fellowship—and that typically lasts about nine months of working full-time, and then you have to pass the national examination [Praxis exam],” Reiff said. “Then of course each state requires that a speech-language pathologist be licensed, which typically holds the same rigorous requirement and can be achieved at the same time as the ASHA Certificate of Clinical Competence.”
You must complete 30 professional development hours every three years to maintain your ASHA certification. Individual states may have additional requirements to maintain your license to practice.
ASHA recognizes several independent specialty certification boards for audiologists and speech-language pathologists:
- American Board of Child Language and Language Disorders
- American Board of Fluency and Fluency Disorders
- American Board of Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders
Each board has their own requirements for certification, but they generally consist of being a CCC-SLP, working as a speech-language pathologist for several years, and demonstrating proof of working a certain number of hours in the specialty area.
Speech-language pathologist salary
According to the BLS, speech-language pathologists have a median annual wage of $84,140. Salaries for speech-language pathologists in general can be fairly competitive compared to other occupations, considering that even the 25th percentile of annual wages $66,700 is higher than the national average across all occupations ($58,260).
Although elementary and secondary schools account for the most employment of speech-language pathologists, they don’t tend to pay the most. Speech-language pathologists in home health care services, nursing care facilities and other similar industries have six-figure annual mean wages, despite only accounting for a small portion of jobs.
Not surprisingly, locations with a relatively high cost of living such as California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have the highest annual mean wages for speech-language pathologists. Furthermore, eight of the top ten paying metropolitan areas in the country are located in California—the other two are New York City and Honolulu.
Employment of speech-language pathologists is expected to grow significantly through 2031, much faster than the average growth across all occupations. That makes this occupation ripe with opportunity to fill the estimated 14,000 new job openings every year.
The BLS accounts for this rapid job growth for two main reasons. First, as the baby boomer population ages, there will be more instances of strokes, dementia and other brain conditions that can cause speech and language disorders, thus increasing the need for speech-language pathologists. Second, we will probably need more speech-language pathologists as we continue to become more aware of speech and language disorders in young children.
Is speech-language pathology right for me?
“Being a speech-language pathologist is an appealing career option for those who want to improve the lives of others,” Reiff said.
There are many reasons why pursuing speech-language pathology could cultivate the career of your dreams. And like any career, speech-language pathology has its drawbacks, too. It’s in anybody’s best interest to weigh these factors to find out if this is the right career path for you.
Why you should become a speech-language pathologist
You get to help people and improve their quality of life. “It provides an opportunity to make a positive impact on a person’s life, that’s number one,” Reiff said.
There are many different settings you can work in. “Speech-language pathologists can join many work environment options—schools, healthcare settings, universities, private practices—and many speech-language pathologists choose to make career changes based on their desire to work in different settings and this can be a fulfilling and exciting opportunity at any point in somebody’s career,” Reiff said. “It can offer the flexibility to balance life and work because of those opportunities.”
There is a lot of opportunity to specialize. “So many people choose to specialize in one area because it is so broad and vast, and you learn what you have an affinity for and where your passions lie,” Reiff said.
Important things to be aware of
You have to complete a lot of schooling, but job prospects are bright. “You do have to dedicate yourself to the rigorous education requirements to become a speech-language pathologist and sustain that dedication as a lifelong learner,” Reiff said. “You can get through the rigors of getting that undergraduate degree and doing a grad program knowing that ‘I’m going to have a job’ because the outlook is so positive. That turns that challenge into a positive.”
Burnout is possible but can be avoided. “As with any career, speech-language pathologists can experience a sense of burnout. It’s super important to be mindful of our own personal care needs, but that’s with any career choice,” Reiff said.
Traits for success
If you do want to take the leap into the vast field of speech-language pathology, Reiff said there are several essential traits that she thinks someone should possess if they want to be successful:
Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
How can I make more money as a speech-language pathologist?
Higher education coupled with the experience you earn over time could lead to more advanced positions that come with higher salaries. In addition, getting certified either as an CCC-SLP or in a specialty area can boost your credibility, which in turn could lead to more prestigious, higher-paying jobs.
Certain industries tend to have very different wages, too. For example, speech-language pathologists working in schools have an annual mean wage of $75,650, whereas speech-language pathologists in home health care and nursing care facilities have an annual mean wage of $110,850 and $101,210 respectively. Working within a particular industry could lead to significant differences in your earning potential.
Can you be a speech pathologist if you have a lisp?
There are no rules saying that you cannot be a speech-language pathologist if you have a lisp. In fact, having a lisp could make you a better speech-language pathologist because you can relate to people who have abnormal speech and communication.
What all—if anything—can speech-language pathologists diagnose?
Speech-language pathologists can diagnose a multitude of speech, language, social communication, cognitive-communication, and swallowing disorders in children and adults.
Can speech-language pathologists have their own practice?
Yes, many speech-language pathologists have their own private and/or group practice.
Is becoming a speech pathologist hard?
Become a speech-language pathologist requires years of schooling and a clinical fellowship in most cases. These steps are essential to learn how to do the job and are often rigorous academic experiences which can be challenging for some.
In addition, working with patients who have difficulty communicating can at times be challenging and emotionally taxing. It’s important to understand what’s in store before deciding to pursue this profession.
Are speech-language pathologists doctors?
Speech-language pathologists are not medical doctors or physicians. They may be referred to as a doctor if they have a doctoral degree, but that does not mean they are medical doctors.
What’s the difference between a speech-language pathologist and an audiologist?
Both speech-language pathologists and audiologists help people with communication barriers, but their treatment areas differ. Audiologists work with the ears and auditory canals to treat issues with hearing and balance such as tinnitus, vertigo and more.
Speech-language pathologists, on the other hand, focus on the throat and mouth. In addition, audiologists need a doctoral degree to practice, whereas speech-language pathologists need a master’s degree or higher.
Can I become a speech-language pathologist with an online degree?
There are many online speech-language pathology master’s programs. Any graduate program, online or otherwise, should be accredited by the CAA. Bear in mind, however, that even online programs may require you to complete some type of in-person clinical internship and/or practicum as part of your graduation requirements.
If you love the idea of working with people across the lifespan to help improve their quality of life with communication, you may be ready to embark on the educational journey necessary to become a speech-language pathologist.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you may need to take a few more classes to satisfy the prerequisites for a graduate program, especially if your degree was not in a health science or related field. Otherwise, a bachelor’s degree is your first step before grad school. Start researching programs today to kickstart your CSD career.
With professional insight from:
Jeannette W. Reiff, M.S., CCC-SLP
Associate Director, Clinical Issues in Speech-Language Pathology with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)