Humans use their mouths and throats constantly, often unconsciously, to perform basic tasks like swallowing food or speaking aloud, so problems within this section of the body need to be addressed immediately and thoroughly.
Speech-language pathologists assist in these situations, and demand for their services is growing rapidly. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment within this profession will grow 25% through 2029, partly as a result of the aging American population and health ailments that are common among seniors that hinder talking and eating, such as strokes and Alzheimer’s.
The median annual wage among U.S. speech-language pathologists in May 2020 was $80,480, according to the BLS, which notes that the usual entry-level academic credential within this field is a master’s degree. Licensing requirements for this profession depend upon the state where a person practices, and many jobs within this field require national certification.
What Is Speech Pathology and What Does a Speech Pathologist Do?
The field of speech-language pathology encompasses much more than just communication disorders. The area of study also includes lessons about accent reduction and how to encourage children who are extremely picky eaters to consume food so that they are well-nourished, for example.
Speech-language pathologists specialize in treating various speech impediments and addressing language comprehension difficulties. They teach social skills to people with developmental disabilities, provide guidance to individuals with cognitive disorders and intervene when a person struggles to swallow food or beverages.
These clinicians routinely advise people who cannot hear well on how to understand others and express themselves, and they also show people who cannot speak how to communicate using picture boards and technological devices.
“Speech therapists help toddlers say ‘mama’ for the first time, assist teenagers who have a fluency disorder (stutter), and help adults who have suffered strokes be able to eat on their own again,” Kassie Hanson, a Nebraska-based certified pediatric speech-language pathologist, wrote in an email.
Hanson recalls the beginning of her career and how working with a 2-year-old girl who was unable to talk solidified her career path. “After many sessions with the little girl, she said some of her very first words,” Hanson says. “Just months later, she was talking in short phrases and sentences. Getting to help a little girl say her first words was life-changing and confirmed for me that I was in the right career!”
Steps to Become a Speech-Language Pathologist
Speech-language pathologists recommend that people who want to join their field complete all of the following tasks:
— Pursue a bachelor’s degree and take college courses that relate to speech-language pathology.
— Search for accredited speech-language pathology master’s programs using the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s EdFind Tool.
— Gain relevant work experience and prepare a strong graduate school application with solid grades, essays and recommendation letters.
— Excel on the GRE General Test if the targeted graduate school considers GRE scores.
— Get into a master’s program, ideally with a generous scholarship to reduce the cost.
— Obtain a master’s degree in speech-language pathology.
— Complete a clinical fellowship in speech-language pathology.
— Take and pass the Praxis Examination in Speech-Language Pathology, a national test that assesses understanding of key content and current practices within the field.
— Secure a state license to practice independently if it is offered or required by your state.
— Get certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, or ASHA.
An undergraduate education in a related subject, such as communication sciences and disorders, may be mandatory for admission into a master’s program in speech-language pathology, though academic prerequisites depend upon the graduate school, and some programs have a more flexible policy on college majors.
Speech-language pathology master’s students learn about the many health conditions that can interfere with a person’s ability to swallow, communicate or eat, including ailments that primarily affect children and diseases that are common among seniors.
Jolene Hyppa-Martin, an associate professor and a speech-language pathologist with the University of Minnesota–Duluth‘s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, notes that master’s programs in speech-language pathology generally include lessons about how people who are unable to talk can express themselves via various alternative and augmentative communication devices.
Hyppa-Martin, who has a Ph.D. in speech, language and hearing sciences, adds that speech pathology students often have coursework where they learn how to counsel patients.
Standards set by ASHA’s Council on Academic Accreditation mandate that all entry-level speech-language pathology programs allow students to accumulate at least 400 hours of supervised clinical practice experience. These rules also require faculty at such programs to focus on teaching certain core values like accountability, concern for patients, cultural competence and professional duty.
Hawaii board-certified speech-language pathologist Julia Kuhn explains that speech-language pathologists are expected to do a clinical fellowship — which is usually a paid, entry-level job immediately after graduation — so they can supplement their broad academic training with hands-on experience in a particular focus area, such as swallowing disorders or pediatric language issues, before they practice independently within that specialty.
Isa Marrs, a board-certified speech-language pathologist in New York, says that licensure helps to ensure that speech-language pathologists are trained thoroughly enough to care for vulnerable people. “There are so many important things that you are doing in somebody’s life that having the proper training is crucial,” she says.
What It Is Like to Work as a Speech-Language Pathologist
Although other health care providers such as physicians and nurse practitioners tend to earn higher wages than speech-language pathologists, there are many perks to this profession, including a solid work-life balance and a strong sense of purpose, according to experts.
But Kuhn warns that there are some hassles that come with the territory of speech-language pathology, such as a reliance on government payouts from social welfare programs like Medicare, which occasionally reduce compensation rates substantially.
Another downside to the field is the heavy caseloads that many speech-language pathologists carry, Kuhn says. Pathologists may feel frustrated by a limited amount of upward mobility since they rarely ascend to management positions, and their pay rates don’t necessarily increase steadily over the course of their career, she notes.
An interest in social interaction is necessary to enjoy a career in this field, Kuhn says, as is genuine enjoyment of therapy sessions, which encompass the majority of a pathologist’s workday.
Most speech-language pathologists emphasize the meaningful nature of their work. Marrs notes that there is a particular satisfaction that comes from teaching a person with a lisp to speak in a way that makes the individual feel proud rather than self-conscious.
She recalls teaching a child with autism how to chew so he could eat food that wasn’t pureed. “When we accomplished that, it opened up so much for this child, as far as learning how to eat things other than baby food,” Marrs says.
Hyppa-Martin says she uses voice banking tools to record those who will lose their voices due to degenerative health conditions. The software programs produce simulations of patients’ voices and can be used to converse with others. Hyppa-Martin notes that one of her former clients who had a terminal illness was able to use voice bank technology to deliver a speech at his oldest daughter’s wedding before his death.
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