Communication is key to our existence as human beings. So whom do we turn to when our body or mind throws up roadblocks to successful communication? Speech-language pathologists are trained to address and improve communication techniques for patients of all ages. With their assistance and guidance, a patient’s quality of life can drastically improve through better social interaction, educational growth, and career opportunities.
What Is a Speech-Language Pathologist?
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) diagnose and treat patients who struggle with communication issues related to speech and language, whether on the physical or cognitive level. They also address problems related to swallowing and hearing. Also commonly referred to as “speech therapists,” these healthcare professionals work with patients across every stage of their lives, from early childhood through older adulthood.
Communication and swallowing disorders are associated with medical conditions such as developmental differences, cleft palate, autism, stroke, brain injury, hearing loss, Parkinson’s disease, and more. These disorders manifest as language delays, voice issues, articulation disorders, fluency challenges, social communication difficulties, and issues with reading and writing.1
This can be very rewarding work. While reflecting on her experiences with stroke survivors, Dr. Meghan Savage, CCC-SLP, PhD, noted, “This population is so motivated, and I’m drawn to that. They look at you like you’re the only person who’s really trying to communicate with them.”
Whom Do Speech-Language Pathologists Help?
According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “at least 1 in 6 Americans has or will experience a sensory or communication disorder in his or her lifetime.”2 These disorders can be present from birth, develop over time, or be brought on by sudden physiological changes. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports that more than 7% of Americans ages 3 and over have experienced some form of communication disorder in the past 12 months.3
With such a wide spectrum of potential patients, SLPs often work directly with both children and adults, with 38% working in schools, 23% working in specialist offices (e.g., with occupational therapists, physical therapists, audiologists, and other speech therapists), 14% in hospitals, 5% in skilled nursing facilities, and 4% in a self-employment capacity (e.g., as a consultant or practice owner).4
What Do Speech-Language Pathologists Do?
Speech-language pathologists learn strategies for working with patients whose communication abilities may vary dramatically. Patients may not be able to speak at all; they may speak with difficulty (such as stuttering); they may have comprehension challenges; or they could have voice issues (such as inappropriate pitch).
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies some of the typical daily duties of speech-language pathologists5 as:
- Evaluating and diagnosing levels of speech, language, and swallowing difficulties
- Developing treatment plans to manage patient needs
- Teaching patients how to improve their voice quality and create challenging sounds
- Helping patients develop and strengthen the muscles needed for swallowing
- Counseling patients and their families on ways to cope emotionally with their disorders
SLPs use a variety of specialized tools and techniques to help their patients recover or repair their communication capabilities.
How to Become a Speech-Language Pathologist
Step 1: Undergraduate Degree
Obtaining your bachelor’s degree is a critical first step to becoming a speech-language pathologist. If possible, choose a major that relates to your career goals, such as communication sciences and disorders (CSD), psychology, education, linguistics, English, or language development.
Step 2: SLP Master’s Degree
Next, you need to earn a Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (MS-SLP) from a program that’s accredited or in accreditation candidacy status by the Council on Academic Accreditation (CAA) – depending on state requirements. The benefit of such a program is that it usually blends an academic course load with practical clinical exposure. MS-SLP programs incorporate 400 hours of clinical experience through clinical practica, so that graduating students meet the national certification requirements mandated by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Per ASHA guidelines, of the 400 clinical hours required, 25 of those hours must be in the form of guided clinical observation, often best achieved in the classroom setting. The remaining 375 hours must involve direct client/patient contact.
Prerequisites for acceptance into an MS-SLP program typically include:
- Minimum GPA of 3.0
- Letters of recommendation
- A statement of purpose or essay
- GRE test results with an analytical writing score of 3.0 or above
- Completion of these basic core classes:
- Chemistry or physics
- Behavioral or social science
Related undergraduate majors, such as CSD, generally incorporate the required core classes needed to advance to graduate school. However, if you don’t have the prerequisites, you will need to take SLP leveling courses before beginning your master’s degree.
Step 3: Clinical Fellowship
After finishing your master’s degree program, you must complete 1,260 hours of clinical experience and a minimum of 36 weeks of full-time experience (or its part-time equivalent) working under the guidance of a Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP) certified mentor within a span of two years.6 This transitional work experience helps candidates progress from supervised to independent practice.
In order to gain this valuable clinical experience, you may be required to obtain a temporary license (also referred to as a “limited license” or “intern license”) from the board of speech-language pathology and audiology in your state. Requirements to qualify include a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited CAA program and a mentor-approved plan for the completion of your clinical fellowship.
Step 4: The Praxis Exam
During your clinical fellowship, you should register to take the Praxis exam in Speech-Language Pathology, administered by the Education Testing Service (ETS). Students must score at least 1627 points out of 200 to pass the exam and move forward toward certification as an SLP. Achieving this goal is a requirement to be eligible for the final steps.
Step 5: National ASHA Certification & State Licensing
Perhaps the most important step in this journey is securing your official credentials as a speech-language pathologist. ASHA, which oversees the certification process, lists four requirements that you must meet to obtain your Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP):
- An official transcript from your graduate school verifying your graduation date and degree
- Your official Praxis score (sent directly from ETS)
- A Speech-Language Pathology Clinical Fellowship (SLPCF) report documenting your completion of 1,260 hours of mentored clinical experience and 36 weeks of full-time experience (or equivalent)
- Documentation of your 400 hours of supervised clinical experience, composed of 375 hours of direct patient/client contact and 25 hours of clinical observation
Each state has its own guidelines for licensure. Certain states require fewer hours of clinical experience than others. Some state-specific requirements may depend on the setting you plan to work in, such as education, telemedicine, or early intervention. Check the ASHA State-by-State resource page for more information.
Step 6: Continuing Education Courses
Like all healthcare professionals, speech therapists continue to learn and grow professionally throughout their career. Some states may require SLPs to both refresh and grow their skills by taking a minimum number of continuing education units (CEUs). Check the state licensing information for clarification.
FAQs About Becoming a Speech Pathologist
There is a lot to consider before dedicating years of study and preparation to a career in speech-language pathology. Here are some of the most common questions that arise for aspiring students.
What Is a Typical Salary for a Speech Therapist?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for speech therapists is $80,480 annually, or $38.69 per hour, as of May 2020.8 At that time, the top 10% took home more than $122,000 per year. Potential income for an SLP is often dependent on geographic location, experience, and whether they are working in a specialty field.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Speech-Language Pathologist?
With the amount of schooling and clinical hours of experience that are required to attain SLP certification, the effort to get there can take some time. Let’s break it down (all times are approximate):
- 4 years = Undergraduate degree
- 2 years = Graduate degree (including 400 hours of supervised clinical experience)
- 2 years = Clinical fellowship (1,260 hours of mentored clinical experience)
- 8 years = TOTAL TIME TO SLP CERTIFICATION
Do You Need a Degree to Become a Speech-Language Pathology Assistant?
If diving into an 8-year commitment toward a career in speech-language pathology is intimidating, you can test the waters as a speech-language pathology assistant. As the title implies, SLP assistants provide clerical and some basic clinical help to SLPs. Their tasks may include maintaining medical records, preparing diagnostic equipment, and implementing therapeutic programs as prescribed by the speech therapist. Assistants make a significantly lower salary than certified SLPs, earning an annual average of $38,460 as of 2019.9 Completion of at least a 2-year degree or program with relevant coursework from a community college or technical training program and 100 hours of clinical care experience are required to get you started on your path.10 It’s important to note that state regulations may vary and not all states allow for speech-language pathology support staff.11
Speech-language pathology has been rated as a healthcare career with good job security and growth potential.12 Several factors have created a demand for more SLPs, plus the wide variety of career opportunities.
The National Shortage of Speech Pathologists
Increasing awareness of communication disorders, such as stuttering and autism, continue to raise the demand for SLPs who focus on young patients. Some states are projecting shortages of school-based speech-language pathologists for the 2021–2022 school year, particularly Idaho, Nebraska, and Washington.13 To take advantage of such shortages, consider being open to relocating for a great job opportunity.
The Demand for Speech Therapists
With aging baby boomers living longer than previous generations, the number of seniors with sensory and communication disorders is also on the rise. In order to meet the demand this creates, there is a need for greater numbers of speech-language pathologists in practice.
The projected growth rate of job openings for SLPs between 2019 and 2029 is a staggering 25%. That’s more than six times the rate projected for all occupations as a whole (4%) in that same time period.14
As the U.S. population simultaneously ages and becomes more educated about the impact of communication disorders, the need for speech therapists will continue to increase. The job security this provides, as well as the impressive average salary and tremendous resources available, make a career in speech-language pathology a rewarding path to consider. Plus, you’ll empower others to communicate better, increase their self-confidence, and gain more agency in the world.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (MS-SLP). Designed for working students, the MS-SLP is an online program with four required on-campus residencies on either the USAHS Austin or Dallas campus. The program offers two intakes per year, in January and September. Prepare to make a difference in the lives of clients across the lifespan with a meaningful career in speech therapy!
The Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology education program at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences is a Candidate for Accreditation by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA) of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2200 Research Boulevard, #310, Rockville, MD 20850, 800-498-2071 or 301-296-5700. Candidacy is a “preaccreditation” status with the CAA, awarded to developing or emerging programs for a maximum period of 5 years.
*The candidacy status includes the MS-SLP program offered at Austin, TX and Dallas, TX locations.
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “Speech, Language, and Swallowing”: https://www.asha.org/public/speech/
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Hearing and Other Sensory or Communication Disorders Overview”: https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/hearing-and-other-sensory-or-communication-disorders
- National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, “Quick Statistics About Voice, Speech, Language,” May 19, 2016:
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Speech-Language Pathologists: Work Environment,” April 9, 2021: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/speech-language-pathologists.htm#tab-3
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Speech-Language Pathologists: What Speech-Language Pathologists Do,” April 9, 2021: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/speech-language-pathologists.htm#tab-2
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “A Guide to the ASHA Clinical Fellowship Experience”: https://www.asha.org/certification/clinical-fellowship/
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “Praxis Scores and Score Reports”: https://www.asha.org/certification/praxis/praxis_scores/
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Speech-Language Pathologists: Summary,” April 9, 2021: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/speech-language-pathologists.htm
- Career OneStop, “Occupation Profile: Speech-Language Pathology Assistants”: https://www.careeronestop.org/Toolkit/Careers/Occupations/occupation-profile.aspx?keyword=Speech-Language%20Pathology%20Assistants&onetcode=31909901&location=UNITED%20STATES
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Assistants Program, “Become a Certified Speech-Language Pathology Assistant (SLPA)”: https://www.ashaassistants.org/pathways-speech-language-pathology-assistant/
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “Frequently Asked Questions: Speech-Language Pathology Assistants (SLPA)”: https://www.asha.org/assistants-certification-program/slpa-faqs/#how-states-credential
- Alicia Ghannad, “9 Top Allied Health Careers,” MAS Medical Staffing, Jan. 22, 2021: https://www.masmedicalstaffing.com/2021/01/22/9-top-allied-health-careers/
- U.S. Department of Education, Teacher Shortage Areas. Year: 2021–2022. State: All. Subject Matter: Support Staff. Discipline: Speech-language pathologist/Audiologist: https://tsa.ed.gov/#/reports
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Speech-Language Pathologists: Job Outlook,” April 9, 2021: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/speech-language-pathologists.htm#tab-6