How to Get Started as a Speech Pathologist

Some speech-language pathologists specialize in helping young children communicate at school.

Some speech-language pathologists specialize in helping young children communicate at school.

If you've ever read Helen Keller's autobiography, or seen the movie "The Miracle Worker" that was based on her story, you probably remember young Helen's sheer joy at being able to communicate despite being deaf and blind. Helping people communicate is exactly what speech-language pathologists do. Your patients might be young children like Helen, elderly people recovering from strokes, or even adults attempting to conquer a stammer. Whatever your motivations or preferred clientele, getting started in speech-language pathology requires specific training.

Get a Bachelor's Degree

Getting into speech-language pathology starts with your undergraduate degree. It has to meet the prerequisites for admission into a graduate SLP program, which include language development, cognitive psychology, linguistics and anatomy. Some schools have majors in communication sciences and disorders, or CSD, which would be a no-brainer option if it's offered. Feel free to choose any other major, related or not, as long as your course work covers all the prerequisites. If you already have a bachelor's degree in another field before you get interested in speech-language pathology, you can take the prerequisite course work separately. Some schools will even let you make up the prerequisite courses during your SLP program.

Getting Accepted

It's important to remember that just meeting the prerequisites doesn't mean you'll necessarily get into your chosen program. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a search tool on its website for accredited programs, and you can judge which ones are most competitive by comparing their applications against the number of places for students. The more competitive the program, the higher your GPA will need to be. It helps if you can point to some personal experience in the field, through volunteer work, internships or even family members who are deaf or communication-impaired. References and a really good admissions essay are helpful, too.

Graduate Degree

Earning a graduate degree in speech-language pathology is your next step. At the very least you need a master's degree to be licensed as a pathologist, and a lot of SLPs earn a doctorate. It usually takes two years for a master's degree, and three for a doctoral degree. Whichever degree you opt for, you'll study a wide range of subjects covering the physical, neurological, social and psychological bases of communication. In doctoral programs you'll usually spend part of your time conducting research, as well. Some form of clinical practice is usually included in the program, and counts toward your clinical experience requirement.

Licensing

To be licensed by your state, you need to complete and document the equivalent of 36 weeks' full-time clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed speech-language pathologist. Your mentor has to provide periodic assessments of your progress, and you're responsible for documenting your clinical experience when you apply for a license or for professional certification. Some states might have additional requirements, so contact your own state's board of health for details.

Certification

You can also choose to become certified in speech-language pathology by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. ASHA's Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology, or CCC-SLP, is purely optional but meets the requirements for licensing in most states. Individual employers might also give preference to certified pathologists, or insist on certification as a prerequisite for certain jobs. To become certified you must graduate from an accredited SLP degree program, fulfill the 36-week clinical experience requirement, and pass a certification exam. Once you're certified, it takes 30 hours of professional development every three years to maintain your CCC credentials.

 

About the Author

Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

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