Speech Pathology Careers
Speech and language are two parts of the fundamental human activity known as communication. At the core of speech is the ability to properly construct words and use them to express feeling, convey meaning, and to be persuasive. Language refers to the ability to receive and understand others or the ability to share ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Speech pathologists work to assess, prevent, and treat speech, language, and communication disorders when a person is unable to produce or process speech sounds fluently or correctly.
If improving the lives of people who suffer from speech and language disorders is something that appeals to you, then you’ll be pleased to hear that an entire field is devoted to the practice. Speech pathology, as it is known, is the best role for anyone who wants to help others improve their communication skills and live an easier, more meaningful, life.
What Is a Speech Pathologist?
Speech pathologists are often referred to by several similar titles, the most common of which are speech-language pathologist, speech therapist, or language specialist. No matter the small differences in job title, the role of a speech pathologist is to assess, diagnose and treat speech and language disorders. In some cases, with careful attention to detail and the right interventions, they may even be able to prevent them from developing.
While the title might lead you to believe that speech pathologists deal only with speech, they also help patients who are suffering from other disorders as well, such as cognitive impairment, auditory processing disorders, swallowing disorders and motor issues of the mouth and tongue. These conditions can be caused by any number of factors, such as autism, a cleft palate, developmental delay, deafness or brain injury.
Whatever the cause, there are two broad areas of focus where speech pathologists provide treatment and assistance: speech and language. The former involves correctly producing the sounds needed for speech, which can be obstructed by motor issues, swallowing disorders, or voice and resonance problems. Language disorders, on the other hand, lie at a less physical level. In this case, people either have trouble comprehending language (spoken or written) or expressing themselves through its use.
Depending on the individual patient and any possible specialization, you may perform a wide variety of duties as a speech pathologist.
What Does a Speech Pathologist Do?
Speech pathologists work with people across a wide spectrum of age ranges, from very young children to the old and infirm. The basic qualifying condition for a patient or student to receive help from a speech pathologist is that they are having trouble forming words or expressing ideas, often with underlying cognitive and social issues. These issues may manifest in a wide variety of ways, including:
- Speaking imprecisely or in ways that are hard to understand
- Not speaking at all
- Seeming unable to express ideas, and getting frustrated
- Exhibiting problems with rhythm and fluency, or speaking in halting manner
- Trouble modulating voice, pitch or resonance
- Speaking too harshly
- Not understanding language or ideas
- Trouble swallowing
To help their patients, speech pathologists spend time assessing their issues, diagnosing the problem, and developing treatment plans. Over time, they utilize different therapies with patients and students to help improve – and in many cases, eliminate – the problem.
The job of a speech pathologist involves significant paperwork and administrative duties, because they must keep excellent records of treatment plans and therapies for all of their patients. In addition to initial evaluations and diagnoses, speech pathologists must make detailed progress notes at every meeting and as they adjust therapeutic methods, and are frequently tasked with advising other specialists as they work together on joint-therapy plans.
A speech pathologist’s duties may include some or all of the following:
- Evaluate patients’ and students’ speech and language, as well as motor issues such as swallowing or moving the mouth and lips
- Identify treatment options
- Customize and carrying out individualized treatment plans
- Teach patients new modes of speech and language to improve their ability to communicate
- Work with the deaf and hard-of-hearing to improve their ability to make sense of their surroundings and communicate
- Provide and teach alternative methods of communication when necessary
- Combat the degradation of speech and language from progressive and neurological disorders through providing new methods of communication
- Teach students and patients to strengthen swallowing muscles
- Help families, caregivers and educators support the development of speech and language
- Teach patients to make sounds and improve their voices/tones
- Working collaboratively with professionals in the medical or educational facility in which they work
- Provide counseling and consultation
- Train others to provide needed services in the speech and language areas
Speech pathologists may even work with people who have no diagnosed speech or language issue, but need to learn to use language better. A common example is ELL (English Language Learners) students in an elementary classroom, who are attempting to improve their expressive language abilities.
One of the most common misconceptions about speech and language pathology is that it only involves the correction of pronunciation, such as when children express “r” as “w.” But this is not the case. Speech pathologists may help with reading, the pragmatics of social communication (as in nonverbal cues), grammar and syntax, writing, voice difficulties, attention and memory, and more.
Their patients are often young students, especially in elementary and middle school classrooms. However, speech pathologists frequently work with teenagers and adults to help them recover from injuries, deal with impairments or learn to speak language more fluently. Additionally, they often work with seniors to ameliorate the effects of stroke, hearing loss or dementia.
Typical Work Environment & Occupational Challenges
For the most part, speech pathologists can be found in either educational or medical settings. They often work with physicians and surgeons to help patients recuperate from surgeries in the throat or mouth region. They may also work with other specialists, such as ENT (ear-nose-throat) doctors.
In schools, they frequently work in tandem with general classroom teachers to devise better plans to help students. They also work with other school specialists, parents and counselors to devise IEPs (individual education plans) targeted toward helping students make the most progress in the least amount of time.
Often speech pathologists will also work with social workers or government bodies, such as the Department of Human Services, to help underserved, neglected or abused children get the support they need both at school and at home.
Speech pathologists often work full time at a single location, but you may also work part time, or travel from location to location. You can also work on an “on-call” basis in some situations. Some speech pathologists are in private practice, but this is relatively uncommon.
The main challenges of the job stem from seeing others struggle. It can be difficult or even heartbreaking to watch a patient fail to recover from a stroke, or a child prove unable to move past an issue they are having difficulty with. Experiencing failure can weigh heavy on you, and eventually become burdensome, depressing, or draining for some people, so it’s important you actively seek professional support when faced with challenging circumstances, and take plenty of time off to recharge.
Speech Pathologist Salary & Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of speech-language pathologists is growing at a much faster rate than the average profession. The current rate of growth has risen to 21%, which means that a student graduating with a degree and certification in speech pathology is likely to find employment.
It’s also reasonable to expect that you will be paid well when you find a job. Speech pathologists make an average of $89,460 per year, which translates to about $43 per hour. Keep in mind that this figure represents an average for all people employed in the field, and there are multiple factors that influence your earning power, such as where you work, and your experience working in the field. The more experience you earn, the greater the likelihood is that your salary will improve.
Speech Pathology Jobs & Job Description
Speech pathologists are responsible for a wide variety of tasks and duties throughout the day, most of which involve engaging with patients to assess and treat their speech or language conditions. Specific tasks and job roles may vary depending on the setting that you work in. Schools, government institutions, hospitals, and clinics, for example, may have different job requirements depending on the age, severity and causes of a patient’s disorder. In each situation, however, it’s fair to expect certain common job duties such as: completing administrative tasks, documenting progress and methods of treatment, and reporting any significant findings to the academic and research community.
Speech pathologists need an array of skills and knowledge types in order to succeed. These include:
- A working knowledge of speech, language and swallowing disorders
- Understanding of the components of speech, including phonation, resonance, intonation, pitch, fluency and voice
- Understanding of the components of language, including pragmatics, semantics, syntax, morphology and phonology
- Analytical and diagnostic skills to help you select appropriate treatments
- Communication skills, both to convey these skills to patients and communicate with other members of the support team
- An ability to form relationships with the chosen population (children, seniors, etc.)
- Good bedside manner
- Organization and detail orientation, to deal with the significant paperwork involved in the job
- Listening skills, which for obvious reasons are critical to working as a speech pathologist
Speech Pathology Degrees & Education
To practice as a speech pathologist, you are required to hold a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation (CAA), which is part of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Accreditation varies by state, but major colleges and universities, as well as a variety of online programs, usually qualify. While you don’t need an undergraduate specialization to apply to the master’s program, you may need to complete prerequisites before being accepted.
Programs typically involve courses such as:
- Speech and language development
- Alternative communication methods
- Age-specific disorders
- Swallowing disorders
In most states, you need to pass a licensing exam to work as a speech pathologist. It is recommended that you check with your state’s individual medical or health licensing board to find out more about the necessary qualifications and certifications before you consider entering the field. This will help you better prepare for the requirements that are demanded of you.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for speech-language pathologists are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed July 2023.