Speech pathologists, also called speech-language pathologists and speech therapists, are healthcare professionals who work with patients to address communication and swallowing disorders. They work with patients whose conditions can stem from a variety of causes, from developmental delays to brain injuries and strokes. Speech pathologists interact directly with patients to assess their speech proficiency. Like other healthcare professionals, speech pathologists use tests to gauge the severity of problems and to diagnose conditions. These tests can include reading and vocalizing assignments as well as standardized examinations.
Once a speech pathologist has diagnosed the speech problem and determine the extent of the problem, he or she can develop and execute a treatment plan that could include helping patients practice sounds and overcome stuttering and other rhythm and fluency problems. When patients have voice or pitch problems, speech pathologists work with them to correct the sound of their voice. Speech pathologists may also teach patients with severe speech problems sign language or other forms of alternative communication. They also work with helping patients develop the muscles necessary for swallowing and learn to read and write, though these activities might not seem at first glance to be related to speech.
Speech pathologists work in a variety of environments, from elementary and secondary schools to nursing homes and from audiologists’ and physical therapists’ offices to hospitals. Where a speech pathologist works often will impact what patients they work with and what disorders they treat. For example, speech pathologists who work in schools will work with children and often see speech problems caused by developmental delays, while speech therapists in hospitals and nursing homes are more likely to work with older patients and treat problems caused by strokes.
To develop the skills and acquire to knowledge to evaluate, diagnose and treat communication disorders, speech pathologists need an advanced education. They must earn a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from one of the 253 graduate degree programs accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation, which is part of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Most colleges and universities don’t offer an undergraduate degree in speech-language pathology, though some do. Consequentially, aspiring speech pathologists often begin their academic career by studying a related subject, such as communication sciences, linguistics, speech and hearing sciences, or communication disorders, in order to develop a thorough background and satisfy prerequisites for graduate school.
Nearly every state in the U.S. requires speech pathologists to hold a license. While requirements to attain and maintain a license vary by state, most states require a minimum amount of supervised clinical experience in addition to a master’s degree from an accredited program. Candidates may also have to pass an examination before getting their licenses. Some employers also require that candidates earn the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology.
Speech-language pathologists earn a median salary of $69,870 per year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Aspiring speech pathologists can look forward to a positive job outlook. The BLS anticipates job opportunities in this field to increase by 19 percent over a decade, compared to just 11 percent job growth expected across all occupations. In recent years, publications such as CNN Money and Forbes have ranked speech-language pathologist highly on lists of the best jobs.
With the help of skills and knowledge learned through a master’s degree program in speech-language pathology, speech pathologists evaluate, diagnose and treat communication and swallowing disorders as an important part of the healthcare field.