If your newborn baby is having trouble eating, your doctor might suggest you bring her to a speech therapist to work with her on swallowing. Or if your grandmother is having voice issues as a result of Parkinson’s Disease, she’ll probably be referred to a speech language practitioner for help to regain voice control. And if your boss mentions during your review that you need to start speaking with more self-assurance and authority in office meetings, then you might seek out speech therapy to overcome your presentation anxieties and develop a more professional intonation.
A speech language pathologist (SLP), informally known as a speech therapist, provides a wide range of services, mainly on an individual basis. SLPs can diagnose and treat issues ranging from swallowing to verbal communication or language construction and expression. Speech therapists work with small children and the elderly, and everyone in between. Licensed therapists may work in a large hospital, a small clinic, or with outpatient contracts. The career is constantly evolving, utilizing new technologies for improved outcomes. If this career and its many possibilities have you intrigued, read on to find out how you can enter the field.
Part I. Speech Language Pathologist / Speech Therapist
U.S. News & World Report ranks Speech Language Pathologist fourth on its list of best social services jobs. The speech therapist plays many helpful roles for his/her patients, in settings such as school, the office, or home. Read on to determine where you’d like to focus your attention during your career. And be sure to choose your electives and internship opportunities based on the areas you find most interesting.
An Overview of Speech Pathology
- Technical and Professional Skills: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), speech pathologists need these important attributes: compassion, critical thinking skills, attention to detail, acute listening and speaking skills, and patience. These skills enable SLPs to diagnose various conditions, alter treatment plans as necessary and provide support for emotionally demanding patients and their families during the speech therapy process.
- Early Intervention: Children acquire and develop key language and speech skills within the first three years of life. Attentive parents are constantly monitoring speech and language development milestones. Speech therapists (at this stage also known as feeding therapists) can be brought in as early as birth to aid a newborn baby with swallowing and sucking. Babies who drool excessively may need a therapist to work with him or her to increase mouth sensitivity or strengthen the tongue.
- Elementary and Secondary Schools: Nearly half of all speech language therapists work within a school system. This may mean your daily job is spread between multiple schools across a school district, or dedicated to a handful of students in a single classroom. School system jobs will vary depending on the district. Get details from a job description or hiring manager. Be ready for changes, as well; school districts are more likely to move you around as they (and their budgets) see fit.
- Health Care: 30% of speech therapists work for a hospital or doctor’s offices. Working in health care means you’ll be referred patients by doctors or called in to work on cases. You may also have your own patient load.
- Home Health Care Services: Only 3% of speech therapists work in home health care. Working in home health care means you may spend a good deal of time traveling to reach your patients. Depending on who you work for, you may have the ability to choose who you work for, and how often you work. Be prepared to work in solo situations, and to encounter the need to research and reach out to your fellow professionals to seek answers, practical approaches, and camaraderie. While home health care often refers to elderly care, these services can also assist children and adults.
- Private Practice: Private practice could get a little tricky if you aren’t prepared for the day-to-day tasks of running a business (including accounting and marketing). But as a self-employed individual, you control your hours, patient load, and areas of focus. While the task may be difficult, the reward could be much greater.
Salary and Career Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job growth for SLPs is expected to rise faster than average. As the baby boomer population reaches old age, speech pathologists will be consulted by a greater number of patients suffering from speech or language impairments due to brain injuries, strokes, hearing loss, or other medical conditions. In addition, tools and technology like voice synthesizers and iPad apps will aid SLPs in their day-to-day work.
Depending on the industry you work in, salaries in speech therapy vary greatly. The average speech therapist earns roughly $70,000 on an annual basis, more than the national average of all occupations. If you work in an elementary or secondary school, which has the largest number of SLTs in the industry, your salary will be a bit lower ($66,000 or so), but home health care services make nearly $90,000. If you plan to lead your industry in research and development of methods used in speech language therapy, expect your salary to be more than double the average.
Education Qualifications, Certificates, and Licensing
Before applying for a master’s program, undergraduate work can be completed in a related field such as communication or speech pathology. Qualified candidates should take courses to prepare for grad school. Each graduate program has an official list of prerequisites.
A speech language therapist must earn at least a master’s degree in the field of speech language pathology, which introduces practical methods and theories and demonstrates how to apply these in a variety of scenarios. You’ll complete advanced course work in language development, psychology, and acoustics, and your graduate program will include supervised clinical hours or a practicum as a requirement of graduation. The Council on Academic Accreditation (CAA), part of the American Speech-Language- Hearing Association (ASHA), is the accrediting body for all education programs in speech therapy. As of 2010, there were 253 accredited master’s programs in speech language therapy.
Before you begin to practice, you’ll want to apply for and receive a Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP) offered by ASHA. This certification satisfies some or all of the requirements for getting your license (and some employers may require it). Certification goes beyond what the states require, meaning you’ll have national recognition for the extra step. A speech therapist must have at least a state license to provide services.
Part II. Top U.S. Programs for Speech Therapy
University of Iowa
U of I consistently ranks high among SLP grad schools. Their Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders offers several higher education degree programs. The school also boasts the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic, where grad students can practice clinical services for hands-on experience before graduation.
- Course Requirements: U of I assumes applicants have a background in the field before beginning the graduate core curriculum. Prerequisite courses can be taken at another university or can be taken during graduate studies (which will make the program longer).
- Specialized Degrees: The professional (terminal) M.A. is for those seeking clinical certification or to work within schools. The general program is for those pursuing a doctorate.
- Cost: A full-time resident student should expect to pay $5,580 per year. For a full-time nonresident, the total cost comes to $13,680.
- Financial Aid: In addition to standard state and federal financial aid programs, financial appointments are available to full time grad students with preference given to doctoral candidates.
- Tips for the Financially Savvy: Become a resident of Iowa legally and see those costs fall.
- Who Should Enroll? Students who are ready for the full time commitment of a master’s degree or doctorate should apply. The M.A. program is limited to about 25 enrollees, so be sure you application is high caliber.
- Online offerings: Iowa offers one prerequisite for the M.A. online. Speech Production: Anatomy and Physiology is a 4-credit online class offered in the fall, spring and summer that emulates the in-person class using online lectures, videos, and demonstrations.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
This school’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders often ranks among the top five SLP grad schools. In addition to the UW Speech and Hearing Clinic, a team of outstanding faculty hone their skills through outreach services and cutting-edge research to provide students with a well-rounded educational experience.
- Course Requirements: A minimum of 42 credits are required for an M.S. in Communication Sciences and Disorders with an emphasis in SLP (non-thesis or thesis). Courses can be completed in two years. Before enrolling in the program, you must fulfill UW’s prerequisites. If you have a degree but like to take part in a program at UW, you can enroll as a University Special Student.
- Specialized Degrees: The M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology is a clinical degree that meets the requirements for ASHA’s CCC, Wisconsin’s state SLP licensure, as well as the state’s teacher certification. The M.S. in Normal Aspects of Speech, Language and Hearing is a non-clinical degree. Most students complete this M.S. as a first step toward a Ph.D.
- Cost: For a full-time resident enrolled in a graduate program, the cost is $5,920 per year. Full-time non-residents will pay $12,583. Minnesotans pay slightly more than Wisconsin residents, but less than residents of other states. Proving one’s residency will help with costs.
- Financial Aid: In addition to standard state and federal financial aid programs, assistantships and fellowships are sometimes available for full-time master’s candidates and/or doctoral students. Fellowships are also available. Check out the financial information offered by the university.
- For the Financially Savvy: Non-resident grad students who hold an appointment as a teaching, research, or project assistant may receive resident rates. Also, let your advisor know you’re available as a reader or grader of undergrad work. Second year master’s students or doctoral students can compete for additional funding.
- Who Should Enroll? If you’re ready for a full-time, clinical-heavy program that provides hands-on curricula from day one, University of Wisconsin is for you.
University of Washington
The Seattle-based school’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences educates its students in evidence based approaches through the UW Speech and Hearing Clinic. UW consistently ranks among the nation’s top SLP grad programs.
- Course Requirements: Graduates receive 115 credits (73 didactic and 42 clinical) during two full years of study. The curriculum provides for thesis course work if desired, as well as independent study. Entrance requirements include certain prerequisites.
- Specialized Degrees: Washington offers two M.S. programs, a Core SLP and Medical SLP. The Core SLP prepares students for early childhood programs, schools, outpatient clinics, private practices and hospitals. The Medical SLP prepares students for hospital and rehab careers.
- Cost: Program and department fees will run about $30,000 per year (for both residents and non-residents). Be prepared to send a $500 deposit immediately upon acceptance.
- Financial Aid: This program is not funded by the state of Washington, so aid provided through the state is not applicable (such as GO-M.A.P or Husky Promise Program). Federal and state grants, scholarships, loans, and work study are available. Other financial aid scholarships include recruitment and student assistantships.
- For the Financially Savvy: Check out the special scholarship funds available to students, and be sure to explore the list of outside sources for private scholarships.
- Who Should Enroll? Full-time students generally fare best in this top-tier program. Have a stellar application and be ready to enter the industry at the top of your game.
This Tennessee school offers an M.S. in SLP through the School of Medicine focusing on academic and clinical education. Vanderbilt’s Clinical Education Placements is quite impressive.
- Course Requirements: The program takes 20-24 months to complete. Without a background in communication sciences and disorders, the 51-59 credit hours will require at least an additional semester. The sample core curriculum gives examples for those with or without the appropriate background.
- Specialized Degrees: Specialty tracks and elective courses are available to students who are interested in pursuing careers focused on specialized populations.
- Cost: One full year costs $32,850.
- Financial Aid: Up to 70% of grad students receive some kind of financial assistance through remitted tuition or competitive awards.
- Tips for the Financially Savvy: Noting the 100% passing Praxis results and 100% job placement, this program helps pay for itself. In addition, students have an entire class devoted to exploring professional opportunities.
- Who Should Enroll? If you want to go to school full-time and your background isn’t in communication disorders, this program is for you.
University of Northern Colorado
This web-based institution offers a fully accredited, three-year online program for a master’s in speech language pathology through the College of Natural and Health Sciences.
- Course Requirements: 32 credit hours are required to complete the M.A. in Speech Language Pathology. Course requirements can be completed in three years. UNC provides a sample curriculum. Before enrolling in the master’s program, you must fulfill UNC’s prerequisites, some of which may be offered online.
- Specialized Degrees: UNC offers just one SLP master’s degree from their online learning platform.
- Cost: UNC’s flat rate this year is $530 per hour. For the entire program consisting of 32 credit hours, expect to pay $16,960. Costs may increase per credit hour annually. There are no student fees for this program, but you’ll need to cover travel and housing costs for clinical hours and the initial lab sessions.
- Financial Aid: Standard state and federal financial aid programs are available to those who carry at least 5 semester hours. Nine hours is considered full-time.
- For the Financially Savvy: While this program can be completed in three years, carrying at least 5 hours will enable you to apply for financial aid. But remember that distance learning allows you the flexibility to maintain your other commitments, including earning income to provide for your family.
- Who Should Enroll? This program is built for non-traditional students with family or employment commitments. All learning is done online, with the exception of lab sessions that take place on the Greeley campus during your first summer and last two to three weeks.
James Madison University
This Virginia establishment offers a part-time, online master’s program called DLVE-SLP. This program features faculty from JMU as well as Hampton University, Longwood University, and the University of Virginia. JMU’s Speech-Language-Hearing Applied Laboratory is part of the university’s teaching, research and community outreach programs.
- Course Requirements: In addition to completing two to three classes of the total course work (either in real-time via Illuminate or via Blackboard), graduates must complete 400 clinical hours. The initial practicum must be completed on campus or at a JMU supported site, including a two-day face-to-face orientation. Prerequisites are required for entrance to the program.
- Specialized Degrees: The DLVE-SLP is equivalent to that of the traditional master’s degree program at JMU (ranked #35 in 2012), but more flexible, and mostly online. The program accepts students every two years.
- Cost: Tuition rates posted for 2012-2013 are $391 per credit hour for Virginia residents, and $1054 for non-residents. Don’t forget to figure in costs for travel and housing for orientation and the initial on-site clinical hours, as well as travel costs for the 400 clinical hours necessary to complete the program.
- Financial Aid: Standard state and federal financial aid programs are available. The Financial Aid Department at JMU may have other options for qualified candidates.
- For the Financially Savvy: While Virginia residents are given first priority, tuition assistance is available in exchange for a student’s commitment to work in Virginia public schools after graduation.
- Who Should Enroll? This program caters to career changers or working professionals. It’s perfect for a teacher who wants to increase visibility in leadership opportunities.
Part III. Breaking Into the Field
You’ve studied speech language therapy for year, earning an advanced degree. You’ve completed your required clinical hours. Now it’s time to begin applying for your first job.
Where to Start
- Résumés: Your resume should include your job experiences related to speech therapy first. Include any internship or practicum experience. Cite specific parts of previous jobs that apply to SLP. If you are seeking an elementary school SLP position, include your past work experiences as a substitute teacher, paraprofessional, or summer camp guidance counselor. If you are seeking a job working with people who are recovering from a stroke, cite your relevant nursing home experience, or volunteer hours at the local hospital. Have a tailored resume for each job opening you pursue.
- Cover Letters: Make a great impression with your cover letter. Be concise, and cite specific duties or tasks you’ve completed that are related to speech language therapy (such as teaching young children about phonics). Highlight experiences that relate specifically to the job you are seeking. Thoroughly research the company for which you’d like to work, and during the interview be sure to mention your experiences within internships or practicums completed within your master’s program.
- Online Platforms: Take advantage of all the resources ASHA offers, from social networking to professional practice issues.
5 Insights from Professional Speech Pathologists
- If someone knows they want to be in a healthcare setting, I would advise that they look for a degree program that has healthcare placements readily available. Ask in advance when looking for your master’s program about their available placements. – Janet Brown, Director of Health Care Services in SLP at ASHA, told USNWR
- Be sure to observe a speech pathologist in action. Look at the variety of settings speech pathologists work in..pediatric clinics, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, early intervention. This will help you to determine if speech therapy is the profession for you. – SLP Laurie tells Marie Connolly, creator of ‘My Child’s Path‘ blog
- [Use a] few common and readily available board games, which can be used to improve various language abilities: including vocabulary knowledge, problem solving, questioning, storytelling as well as other language related skills. – writes Tatayana Elleseff, creator of SmartSpeechTherapy.com, a Top Speech Pathology blog
- The Speech Dudes showcase an edgier side of SLP. Of particular interest is a sharply written blog post about scarves that outlines why we replace “f” with “v” when making words such as scarf plural. These dudes make SLP education entertaining and informative.
- ASHA produces several publications full of resources for prospective speech therapy professionals. The American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology contains clinically-oriented topics that are applicable to clinical practice. The Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research publishes peer-reviewed, empirical research as well as theoretical approaches important in the field. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools primarily focuses on children and adolescents but addresses the needs of researchers, clinicians and students in school, offering new ideas and open discussions.
It’s Time to Get Started
Speech therapy is a dynamic, quickly growing medical field that requires professionals who are not only technically skilled, but also patient, thoughtful, and diplomatic. However, the rewards of this profession are considerable; SLPs spend their entire career teaching children and adults how to express themselves clearly and articulately, and this sense of empowerment far outweighs the day-to-day difficulties.