Learn what it takes to become a speech language pathologist and the career opportunities you can pursue in this rewarding profession.
Becoming a speech-language pathologist typically requires a master’s degree in speech-language pathology and a passing score on a licensure exam. Many states expect prospective speech-language pathologists to complete a Clinical Fellowship (CF) experience as a bridge from graduate student to professional. Most Professional Certificate programs and employers also require this type of experience.
As a speech-language pathologist, you’ll work with individuals who struggle with communication, speaking, listening, or hearing. You may also work with people who have swallowing disorders. A speech-language pathologist’s job is to both diagnose and treat. Your salary will vary by where you work, your location, years of experience, and any certifications you earn.
Speech-language pathology is the study of disorders in human communication, as well as all of the various ways that humans communicate. Researchers in the field aim to discover effective treatment methods for communication and oral motor disorders involving the mouth and throat. These disorders can affect a person's ability to pronounce words correctly, share ideas, follow generally accepted conversation rules, organize thoughts, and more. Some people are born with a speech-language disorder, while others may result from an external trigger like a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or autism spectrum disorder.
Speech-language pathologists diagnose, assess, develop and execute individualized treatment plans for people experiencing communication problems involving speech and language or swallowing disorders that affect the ability to eat and drink properly. These health care professionals work with individuals who suffer from language or speech problems and swallowing disorders. A speech-language pathologist may work with various age groups, from newborns to the elderly. They may also work with a wide range of speech, language, and swallowing/feeding disorders that may result from developmental delay, physical deformation, cognitive disorders, injury, illness, aging, or mental/emotional disorders.
A large part of what a speech-language pathologist does is identifying and diagnosing speech, language, and swallowing difficulties. A speech-language pathologist may use informal methods like observation, interviewing, or completion of analog tasks to identify speech and language disorders and problems. Sometimes they use formal tools and techniques that may involve standardized assessments, such as the Cognitive Linguistic Quick Test or the Monroe-Sherman test.
The speech pathologist will choose their method based on a person’s age, cultural background and values, and the severity of the concerns in question. Most speech-language pathologists begin with an initial assessment that involves a blend of testing and evaluation of voice quality and a physical examination of the mouth. Swallowing disorders may be caused by neurological disorders, stroke, and even dental problems. Speech-language pathologists can help identify and treat swallowing difficulties by physically examining the muscles used for swallowing. This examination usually involves the patient performing specific movements and swallowing substances to assess their swallowing ability.
After identifying the problem and offering a diagnosis, a speech-language pathologist puts together a treatment plan. But how does a speech-language pathologist know what will work for treating the condition and the individual? A speech-language pathologist works with people regularly, often working through difficult situations where a person may become frustrated. You must know your client and understand the best methods and approaches to help them.
Evidence-based practice (EBP) is the act of making informed and evidence-based decisions using your knowledge as a trained professional and best practices found in published studies and research. You also may consider individual observations you’ve conducted and the cultural values and the expectations of your client and their families or caregivers. When a speech-language pathologist develops a treatment plan, it’s best to use EBP to create a program that is mindful of the patient's needs and all of the options to help that patient reach their goal.
Speech disorders can be a frustrating experience. People who suffer from communication disorders may experience social anxiety, loneliness, problems at work, embarrassment, and even depression. This means that those with language and speech disorders may need additional support beyond a plan of treatment to deal with the frustration and setbacks they may experience.
Speech-language pathologists may act as counselors when working with patients who become overwhelmed, frustrated, sad, or angry. Their work can include helping patients with the thoughts, behaviors, and reactions related to the communication disorder. Some ways a speech-language pathologist can help individuals cope with speech disorders include:
Help your patient find a counselor or therapist with experience helping people with speech disorders.
Create a relaxed environment when working with the patient.
Inform the family and caregivers on helpful ways to communicate with your patient (i.e., don’t interrupt, reduce background noise, and ask them what would be helpful).
Use restating and reflection when a patient becomes frustrated. Repeat what they say back to them and try to clarify with the patient what they mean and how you can help.
Try to identify negative thoughts when working with your patient and tease those out to discuss the validity of those thoughts.
Refer your patient to peer groups or support groups in your area.
Teach self-advocacy skills so that your patient can better communicate what they need and feel more confident.
People who struggle with stuttering or similar problems have trouble speaking smoothly at a normal rate of speed, also known as fluency. Sometimes when a patient has suffered a stroke or has some other neurological condition, they may also have trouble with fluency. Speech-language pathologists may use techniques like breathing exercises, syllable stretching, and strategies like speaking in shorter sentences to help their patients speak confidently and avoid hesitations and filler words in conversation.
Speech-language pathologists must possess several critical skills, including active listening and compassion. These health care professionals work with many people from different backgrounds, ages, and with differing needs or disorders. Some essential speech-language pathologist qualifications include:
Verbal and written communication
You must have your master’s degree in speech pathology, and pass the Praxis exam, to become a speech-language pathologist. With your graduate degree, you can complete your clinical fellowship (CF) experience, obtain state licensure, and earn certifications.
Read more: How to Get a Master's Degree
Your first step to becoming a speech-language pathologist is to earn your bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) or a related field. Other common majors for speech-language pathologists include linguistics, social science, psychology, English, language development, and education.
If you have your degree in a field unrelated to speech pathology, you may need to take additional coursework for entry into a graduate program.
When choosing a graduate degree program, be sure you find a program that the Council of Academic Accreditation accredits in Audiology and Speech Pathology (CAA). ASHA provides a list of accredited schools if you need help.
As part of your master’s program, you can expect to learn evidence-based treatments and methodology for communication disorders and swallowing disorders, cognitive aspects of communication, speech sound production, and the ability to detect abnormal human development. You will also learn a lot about ethics and ASHA’s code of ethics.
Aside from your coursework, you’ll also be expected to complete at least 400 hours of a clinical practicum and supervised clinical experience in the field. Most programs take about two years to complete in full.
You’ll need to pass the Praxis exam in speech-language pathology to gain state licensure and earn any certifications post-graduate school. This exam is crucial as it allows you to demonstrate proficiency in critical technical skills needed to be an effective speech pathologist.
To be eligible to take the exam, you must have graduated from a master’s program in speech pathology. The Praxis is scored by ASHA’s Council for Clinical Certification in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CFCC), and passing scores are determined by state licensing boards and ASHA. Note that score requirements may vary by state and differ from ASHA’s requirements for earning CCC-SLP certification.
When you’ve satisfied all educational requirements to become a speech-language pathologist, you’ll likely be looking for a mentor to complete your Clinical Fellowship (CF). In some states, a mentor is required to get licensed as a speech-language pathologist; it’s also a requirement if you’re applying for ASHA’s Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP) certification. Many board-certified specialty certifications will also require the completion of a CF.
A CF is a 36-week mentored internship experience that allows new graduates to gain professional experience before starting on their own as speech-language pathologists. You’ll likely spend around 80 percent of your time in direct clinical contact working with clients and the remainder in continuing education opportunities like training, conferences, or other related experiences.
If you want to specialize in a particular area or work with a specific demographic, consider earning a board-certified specialty (BCS) certification approved by ASHA. Specialty certifications are available through the following specialty certification boards:
American Board of Fluency and Fluency Disorders
American Audiology Board of Intraoperative Monitoring
American Board of Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders
American Board of Child Language and Language Disorders
You can also find specialty certifications through other organizations that advocate for specific disorders.
When you’re ready to start your career as a speech-language pathologist, find a CF mentor in a work environment where you see yourself working for years to come. If you need help deciding where you’d like to work as a speech-language pathologist, who you’d like to work with, or what disorders you want to focus on, consider networking with people in the field and researching your options. Building relationships early in your career has many benefits.
Your clinical experience as a clinical fellow can be an invaluable tool for helping you aim the trajectory of your career as a speech-language pathologist. This experience acts as a bridge from student to professional. Take full advantage of this experience. Try to choose a mentor working in a similar area to you that which you want as a speech pathologist. If you plan to work with children, look for school clinical experiences. If you're going to work with neurological disorders or people recovering from a stroke, look for opportunities in hospitals or nursing homes.
Networking with people in speech pathology can be an effective way to find employment or just to learn more about the field and create relationships with like-minded professionals who may help you get your career started. You can network through social media or LinkedIn, attend networking events and conferences, or reach out via email or other means of communication. Professional speech-language pathology groups also offer meet-ups either online or in person.
A speech-language pathologist working in the US earns an average of $79,060 a year, or about $38.01 an hour. As of 2020, this average is reflective of all of the 158,100 jobs available . Factors like certifications, location, work schedule, and the employer will affect a speech-language pathologist’s salary.
Speech-language pathologists may work in medical facilities like hospitals, private physician offices, nursing homes, schools, or as self-employed freelancers.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are among the highest paying employers of speech-language pathologists, earning an average of $99,340 Educational facilities like schools are among the lower-paying employers offering an average annual salary of about $75,270 a year .
There is not as much data on the annual salary for self-employed speech-language pathologists. Since these individuals make their own schedules, the earning potential is up to them. However, if you want to work as a freelance speech-language pathologist, consider that a number of factors will impact your earning. A large, loyal client base and offering in-home care, online sessions, or other more convenient ways to receive therapy can affect how much you can earn.
Speech-language pathologists can enjoy an optimistic job outlook for at least the next ten years. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects average job growth of 29 percent from 2020 to 2030 for the profession . This growth rate is above average. A few reasons for this exceptional growth include an aging population, increased awareness of communication and neurologic disorders in childhood, and medical advances in cognitive disorders resulting from illness or injury.
Take the next steps to become a speech-language pathologist by researching the profession and finding out what you’d like to do within the field. Do you want to work with children? Senior citizens? Stroke survivors? As you earn your formal education as a prospective speech pathologist, consider enrolling in courses that may help you learn more about the field and your options. On Coursera, you’ll find courses specifically designed for future and current professionals in language and audiology, like Voice Disorders:What Patients and Professionals Need to Know or Introduction to Hearing Loss. Be proactive and learn as much as you can, whether in the middle of your journey to becoming a speech-language pathologist or just getting started.
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A master’s program in speech-language pathology typically takes about two years to complete or about 48 academic credit hours. This includes at least 350 to 400 hours of supervised clinical experience. Certain factors like academic credit requirements and program structure may affect this timeline.
The Praxis exam in speech-language pathology tests your subject matter on various topics within speech-language and audiology. You can take practice tests and obtain free test prep materials from the ETS website, which administers the test. Take advantage of these resources to prepare for the difficulty of the Praxis.
Yes. If you know you want to become a speech-language pathologist, you should earn a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences disorders (CSD). Many graduate programs require this major, and you may have to take additional coursework if your degree is in an unrelated field. Choosing the appropriate bachelor’s degree program can also be beneficial when you start looking to earn a master’s degree in this field.
1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbooks Speech-Language Pathologists Summary, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/speech-language-pathologists.htm#tab-1.” Accessed April 16, 2022.
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbooks Speech-Language Pathologists Work Environment, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/speech-language-pathologists.htm#tab-5.” Accessed April 16, 2022.
3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbooks Speech-Language Pathologists Job Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/speech-language-pathologists.htm#tab-6.” Accessed April 16, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.