Speech-language pathologists (sometimes called SLPs or speech therapists) work with patients of all ages who have speech, communication or swallowing disorders. SLPs have close, hands-on relationships with their patients and are trained to assess, diagnose, treat and prevent complications from a speech or swallowing abnormality. SLPs may care for patients after a stroke or brain injury or treat patients with cerebral palsy, developmental delays or emotional problems and treats everyone from small toddlers to very elderly patients. SLPs may specialize in a particular age group, such as pediatrics, if they choose.
The SLP’s first duty is to communicate with the patient, family or healthcare team to determine the type or extent of the communication problem. The pathologist may have the patient complete standardized reading or vocalization tests, examine the structures of the mouth and evaluate how muscles of the face, tongue, and lips move before developing a treatment plan. He or she may demonstrate ways to make sounds properly and counsel and support patients and families during treatment.
SLPs who treat patients after a stroke or brain injury may assess the patient’s ability to swallow and check for signs of aspiration—or the movement of food into the airway instead of the stomach—which could cause pneumonia. Speech-language pathologists can then suggest meal plans including thickness of liquids to prevent aspiration, or work with the patient’s healthcare team to decide if the patient may need an alternative feeding method.
Because SLPs work so closely with patients and their families, good interpersonal communication skills are key. They need to be good listeners, patient, and have good problem solving skills. Every patient’s needs are different and there may be times that the speech-language pathologist may need to develop creative training techniques. This is especially true when working with children or confused adults.
Every career has benefits and drawbacks. Here are a few facts about speech-language pathology you may want to consider before making it your career choice.
Speech-language pathologists are required to have a master’s degree from an accredited program in order to see patients. There is no specific undergraduate major for SLPs, but prerequisite classes are determined by the school you attend. Professional organizations like the American Speech-Language Association recommend a liberal arts undergraduate path because of the varied classes and exposure to different topics. Among the recommended (but not always required) classes are anatomy, physiology, linguistics, behavioral science, general science and math courses.
Start to finish, your SLP degree can take between 6 and 8 years to complete. Many students enter an accredited master’s speech language program without an undergraduate degree in the field. If your background is in something different, you can expect to spend about three years in a full time master’s program—longer if you attend part time. If you already have an undergraduate degree in the field, your master’s will take about two years. Topics covered will include anatomy and physiology of voice-related structures, communication disorders, diagnostic approaches, swallowing disorders and age-specific conditions because SLP’s treat all ages—from the very young to the very old. During the final semester of the graduate program, students will start a clinical practicum and must complete between 300 and 375 hours working with patients before they can graduate.
Upon graduation, there are a variety of tests and a few more hurdles to jump beginning with the Praxis examination administered by Educational Testing Services. Once this test has been passed, students apply for state licensure. Requirements will vary by state and students are responsible for checking with their state’s governing organization to ensure they have met all requirements.
Have you made it this far? If so, there are a few more steps to go. Once a student is licensed for practice in their state, it’s time to complete 9 months of training in what is known as the Clinical Fellowship Year (CFY) with a qualified and practicing SLP before working independently. The last step SLPs face is certification by taking an additional examination called the Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP). This exam is offered by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) and shows the pathologist’s commitment to quality and advanced training. While certification may not be mandatory for all employers, its requirement is increasing and it could give you a potential employment advantage over the competition.
The average salary for an SLP is about $66,000 per year, or $32 an hour. SLPs on the lower end of the pay scale made less than $42,000 per year and the upper end of the pay scale was over $100,000 per year. Salary range can be influenced by practice setting, years of experience and where in the U.S. you live. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for SLPs will surge—adding up to 26,000 new jobs by 2022 to accommodate the United States’ aging population. SLPs who are certified in their field may make slightly more than those who are not and the highest paying jobs are among healthcare-related employers like hospitals or nursing homes. Pay is lower for SLPs who choose to work in schools, private clinics, or health departments. According to U.S. News, SLPs make the most money in cities like New Bedford, Massachusetts, Bowling Green, Kentucky and Sherman, Texas. Annual salaries for SLP’s continues to rise steadily—from $66,000 in 2010 to $69,000 in 2011, and 2012 reports indicated a median salary of $72,000.
Data provided to the American Speech Language Hearing Association from a 2013 survey of SLPs provides current facts and statistics on employment and varied work environments. Keep in mind that this information is based on the responses of just a few thousand SLPs and may not reflect the profession as a whole.
Of the 67% who were working full time, most worked in skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes) followed by pediatric hospitals, rehab facilities, clinics, and general medical settings. Home health held the smallest number of full-time SLPs. Here’s a breakdown of what you may expect when working in some of these environments:
The job outlook for SLPs is expected to grow over the next several years as the country prepares to care for its aging population. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be more than 26,000 new job openings for speech language pathologists by 2022. In addition, medical advances are improving the survival rates for premature infants, stroke and trauma victims—all of whom could need assessment and treatment. Greater awareness about the need for early identification and treatment of childhood speech, swallowing, and hearing disorders opens opportunities within the country’s educational system to care for children earlier. Finally, more medical facilities, clinics, nursing homes and hospitals are using contract employers to provide speech-language services—opening the door for private practice opportunities.
Some men and women who consider becoming an SLP may also think about other therapy fields such as occupational or physical therapy. It is very important for candidates to consider exactly how they want to work with patients and what skills they want to teach. Occupational therapists train patients on activities of daily living such as dressing themselves or brushing their teeth. Physical therapists offer exercise and physical fitness tools to build muscular strength and stability. Practitioners from all of these areas may work together to treat patients and SLPs should be prepared to work with healthcare professionals from many different disciplines when needed.
Traveling is a great way for speech-language pathologists to see new places and work with new patients. While travel work is not for everyone, it offers SLPs the chance to work in some of the best medical and healthcare facilities in the country—a chance he or she may not have otherwise, and meet new people along the way. Travel contracts can run just a few weeks to several months and usually include paid travel and housing expenses so you can see the sights, work, and have fun at the same time. Traveling also offers a higher hourly or salary pay rate because of the unpredictability of the job. Traveling is best for SLPs who work well independently, have a few years of experience and can be flexible in changing work settings.
By Rachel Ballard RNC, BSN
Rachel Ballard is a certified registered nurse and owner of the medical writing company iHealth Communications. iHealth teams with healthcare leaders to create written content that boosts revenue and builds relationships. Learn more about Rachel on Google+
Salary sources: *Bureau of Labor Statistics ** CNN Money