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James Earl Jones, the voice actor best known for his roles as Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King, spent most of his childhood in silence because of a severe stutter. Jones learned to live with his stutter by writing and performing poetry and receiving help from his high school English teacher, which led him to become a Broadway and Hollywood icon. While some people with speech disorders learn to live with their conditions, others find help from speech therapists and pathologists to overcome speaking and occupational challenges brought on by mental and physical triggers.
Speech-language pathologists work with children and adults who may be unable to speak at all, speak with difficulty, or have difficulty or fluency problems, such as stuttering. Many SLPs find their day-to-day work challenging, yet rewarding. In fact, the U.S. News & World Report (2022) ranked speech-language pathology jobs #10 in its list of best jobs and #3 for best healthcare jobs.
Speech therapists and speech pathologists, also known as speech-language pathologists, or SLPs for short, are professionals who diagnose and treat patients with communication disorders. Various factors, such as stroke, head injury, or developmental delays can cause these disorders. In addition, speech therapists work with patients to improve their communication skills. This may involve working on articulation, fluency, or voice disorders.
By comparison, those specializing in speech pathology also work with patients with difficulty swallowing. They may help them to improve their ability to swallow by working on muscle strength and coordination. Sometimes, they may also recommend dietary changes supporting a patient’s treatment plan.
Speech therapists typically need a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. The majority of programs take two to three years to complete. In addition, all states require speech-language pathologists to be licensed. Most states require speech-language pathologists to pass the National Speech-Language Pathology Examination, which the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association administers. Some states also have additional requirements, such as completing a clinical fellowship or passing a state-specific exam.
This career guide highlights the daily responsibilities of speech-language pathologists (SLPs), typical work environments, career outlook and salary prospects, and a step-by-step guide detailing how long it takes to pursue this career.
Speech-Language Pathologists: Daily Responsibilities
A speech therapist or speech pathologist helps people who have difficulty speaking, swallowing, or breathing. They work with patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly. For the nearly 18 million American adults and children with a speech disorder, speech therapists and pathologists provide life-changing therapy to help people communicate, survive, and thrive.
In general, speech-language pathologists work with the following types of patients:
- Adults and children with speech and language challenges, including related cognitive or social communication disorders
- Adults and children coping with swallowing disorders brought on by physical conditions such as a stroke, or speech impediments triggered by anxiety and other causes
- Families of individuals receiving treatment from an SLP
On a daily basis, speech-language pathologists complete administrative tasks, such as keeping accurate patient records and documenting billing information. In addition, SLPs record their evaluations, make diagnoses, keep track of patient progress, and make changes to treatment plans.
Work Environments for Speech-Language Pathologists
The work environments for SLPs are as varied as the patients they treat. In 2022, the BLS showed that 158,100 speech-language pathologists were employed in 2020, and the most common work environment was educational services, followed by occupational clinics. Here are the largest employers of SLP employers:
- Educational services: 38 percent
- Offices of physical, occupational, speech therapists, and audiologists: 22 percent
- Hospitals: 14 percent
- Self-employed: 6 percent
- Nursing and residential care facilities: 4 percent
Career Outlook for Speech-Language Pathologists
The demand for speech therapists is expected to grow in the coming years. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) projects that the employment of speech-language pathologists will grow 21 percent nationally from 2021 to 2031, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.
This growth is due in part to the aging population. As people live longer, they are more likely to experience conditions that can cause communication disorders. In addition, the demand for speech therapy services is also expected to grow as health insurance companies increasingly cover the cost of these services. As a result, the BLS estimates that these demands will create 34,000 new positions in the coming decade.
Speech-Language Pathologist Salaries
The average annual salary for speech-language pathologists was $85,820, according to the BLS (May 2021).
Of course, salaries vary depending on experience, education, and location of employment, and the BLS shows the following annual salary percentiles:
- 10th percentile: $51,310 per year
- 25th percentile: $61,970
- 50th percentile (median): $79,060
- 75th percentile: $100,200
- 90th percentile: $125,560
Interestingly, the highest-paying industries also employ the smallest number of SLPs. Here are the annual salaries for the top-employing industries for speech-language pathologists (BLS May 2021):
- Management of companies and enterprises: $113,190 per year
- Home healthcare services: $110,850
- Individual and family services: $102,610
- Nursing care facilities: $101,210
- Retirement and assisted living communities: $100,120
Location is a major factor that influences salary, given the wide gaps in the cost of living in a particular area. In general, coastal cities and metropolitan areas pay higher salaries due to the substantially higher cost of living than other areas. Here are the top-paying states for SLPs:
- California: $102,650 per year
- Hawaii: $100,120
- New York: $98,850
- New Jersey: $98,270
- District of Columbia: $98,240
Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist
How long does it take to become a speech-language pathologist? Read on for a step-by-step guide on educational and professional requirements to become an SLP.
Step One: Get a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
A master’s degree is a minimum requirement to become an SLP, so earning a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders or a related field is the first step. Related degree disciplines include sciences, healthcare, and language.
However, most SLP master’s programs do not require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in a specific field to be eligible for admission. Some master’s programs allow students to transfer observation and clinical hours earned in undergraduate programs to their master’s programs. Applicants with undergraduate certificates in communication sciences and disorders are also eligible to apply to SLP programs.
Step Two: Enroll in an ASHA-Accredited Master’s Degree Program (Two Years)
Speech-language pathology master’s degree programs offer students a comprehensive overview of the field, from the basics of communication disorders to more specialized topics like fluency and voice disorders. Students also learn how to assess and treat speech and language disorders and work with clients and their families. Additionally, master’s degree programs in speech-language pathology typically include clinical experience, allowing students to practice their skills. To be eligible for professional and state-level certification, students must earn a master’s degree accredited by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
For example, the online speech-language pathology master’s degree at Maryville University is designed to prepare students for a successful career in the field. This ASHA-accredited program comprises 57 credits across 19 courses and allows students to evaluate, treat, and prevent speech and language disorders. This program will allow students to improve their clinical assessment and intervention skills through coursework, real-world experiences, and simulated exercises.
- Location: St. Louis, MO
- Duration: Two years
- Accreditation: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
- Tuition: $1,200 per semester
Step Three: Earn a CCC-SLP Credential: (Three Months)
The speech-language pathology profession is highly-regulated by rigorous ethical standards. Many employers and most states require SLPs to hold a Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP).
To earn a CCC-SLP credential, one must complete an accredited master’s program in speech-language pathology, pass a national exam, and complete a three-month fellowship. ASHA guidelines require a minimum of 1,260 hours and a minimum of 36 weeks spent gaining clinical experience in a fellowship. Applicants have four years to complete these requirements and earn CCC-SLP certification. Certification fees are due annually and cost $199.
Step Four: Maintain CCC-SLP Credential (Every Three Years)
CCC-SLP credential holders must recertify every three years by earning 30 professional development hours. These hours must be specific requirements in cultural competency, cultural humility, culturally responsive practice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Renewal fees range from $64-$225, depending on membership status.
Step Five: Consider Specialty Certification (Optional; Timeline Varies)
As an SLP gains more experience, they may want to earn optional certification in a specialty area. Here are three SLP organizations that offer specialized certifications:
- American Board of Child Language and Language Disorders: BCS-CL
- American Board of Fluency and Fluency Disorders: BCS-F credential
- American Board of Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders: BCS-S credential
Bottom Line: How Long Does It Take to Become a Speech-Language Pathologist?
In short, it takes approximately 2.5 years to become a speech-language pathologist for those who hold bachelor’s degrees, pursue a master’s degree full-time, pass the certification exam, and immediately enter a fellowship after graduation. This timeline may extend for those who are still completing bachelor’s degrees or pursuing part-time graduate-level studies.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).