How to Become a Speech Pathologist

Speech pathologists help people dealing with speech impediments and/or swallowing disorders. Here are the steps to become a speech pathologist.

portrait of Catherine Lafuente
by Catherine Lafuente

Published August 30, 2022

Edited by Kristina Beek
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How to Become a Speech Pathologist
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Speech-language pathologists work closely with people who have various speech impediments and swallowing disorders.

To become a speech pathologist, individuals must complete a bachelor's degree in a healthcare or related field, complete graduate school with a speech pathology degree, work post-grad clinical hours, and pass a licensing exam.

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What Is Speech Pathology?

Speech pathology is a field of expertise in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of various speech impediments, swallowing difficulties, and a broad range of physical and social communication barriers.

This field aims to help children and adults improve their overall ability to speak and communicate.

What Does a Speech Pathologist Do?

After getting a license, speech pathologists help individuals with language disorders improve their communication skills. They do this by using therapeutic techniques after assessing and diagnosing a patient in a school, medical facility, nursing home, or residential facility.

Speech pathologists may decide to specialize in certain areas such as audiology. Or, they may move into administrative positions that often pay more. Continuing education or additional graduate school can also impact career changes.

Speech Pathologist Responsibilities

  • Assess, diagnose, and develop treatment plans for individuals with communication barriers such as insensitivity to pitch, stammering, and more
  • Work with children and adults to improve verbal cadence, pronunciation, swallowing, and overall language fluency
  • Provide emotional support to patients and their families to help them cope with dementia, stroke, and other diagnoses that impact communication
  • Maintain detailed notes and prepare accurate billing statements
  • Work with other healthcare professionals to provide holistic treatment to patients

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What Are the Steps to Become a Speech Pathologist?

To become a speech pathologist, learners must graduate from accredited undergraduate and graduate programs. Most programs include a graduate-level internship or fellowship.

After graduation, qualified candidates obtain a license based on state requirements. Many professionals pursue the speech-language pathology certificate of clinical competence (CCC-SLP).

Step 1: Complete a Degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD)

Prospective students should look into an undergraduate degree in speech pathology or communication sciences and disorders (CSD). Students can also pursue a degree in a related field like linguistics, psychology, or English. A bachelor's in CSD is the most common path to a speech pathologist master's degree.

Undergraduate students need coursework in human anatomy, linguistics, research methods, neuroscience, physics and acoustics, math, and statistics.

Aspiring speech pathologists must also develop critical thinking, intercultural competence, communication, and problem-solving skills. Learners must master the scientific method and evidence-based decision-making to ascertain sources of speech-language problems and determine the proper treatment.

Students with a bachelor's who do not want to get a master's can pursue careers in healthcare, education, and public policy. Job candidates may be able to find employment as support personnel for audiologists or speech-language pathologists.

Bachelor's degree-holders can also pursue jobs as community health workers, hearing aid specialists, and audiology or communication disorder research assistants.

Step 2: Earn a Master's in Speech-Language Pathology

Speech-language pathologists typically need a master's degree to work in their field. Most master's programs take two years to complete.

Through coursework and practicum experience, graduate students typically learn about speech and language development, speech disorders unique to specific age groups, and swallowing physiology.

They also acquire skills in research methods and clinical service delivery. Prospective students might consider programs that provide study abroad opportunities and specialized clinical training.

Many speech pathologist programs offer concentrations in areas like autism spectrum disorders, aphasia, child language disorders, swallowing disorders, and fluency disorders.

To gain licensure in speech-language pathology, prospective students should make sure the program they enroll in holds the proper accreditation. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association offers accreditation through its Council on Academic Accreditation.

Step 3: Gain Experience in a Fellowship

Some master's programs offer fellowships or internships. These experiences can prove beneficial since the CCC-SLP requires a specific number of fellowship hours. Whereas internships usually apply to students currently taking courses, students who have already graduated typically take on fellowships.

Internships and fellowships help students gain practical experience in speech-language pathology under a certified speech-language pathologist's direct supervision.

During this time, students can apply their course knowledge to real-life situations and fine-tune their skills. Some programs that prepare students for clinical careers require clinical practicum hours.

Step 4: Prepare for Certification

The CCC-SLP demonstrates the knowledge and skills required for speech-language pathologist positions. The credential satisfies some state licensure standards, and some employers also require it.

To earn the CCC-SLP, candidates must earn a graduate degree from an accredited institution and pass an exam. They must also complete a supervised fellowship under a certified speech-language pathologist, which typically lasts about 36 weeks. Professionals must take 30 hours of continuing education every three years to keep their CCC-SLP.

Professionals can get their specialty certifications from the American Board of Child Language and Language Disorders, American Board of Fluency and Fluency Disorders, and the American Board of Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders.

Step 5: Become Licensed to Practice

To get a speech-language pathology license, candidates have to obtain their bachelor's and master's degrees, complete a fellowship, pass the CCC-SLP exam, and submit appropriate documentation. Many states also require additional work experience. This process generally takes 6-7 years total.

Fees and requirements for a speech-language pathology license vary by state. Once licensed, speech pathologists can become practicing professionals in their state.

Step 6: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

After passing the CCC-SLP exam, speech pathologists have to complete 30 hours of continuing education every three years in order to remain in good standing. Speech therapists who work in schools may also need a teaching credential.

Speech pathologists can also become board-certified specialists by passing additional exams. Specialties include treating swallowing difficulties, fluency, and working with children. Developing an area of expertise can boost a speech pathologist's earning potential, as can getting a doctorate.

What to Know Before Becoming a Speech Pathologist

Most states require that you complete an accredited school and/or program for licensure or registration. Ensure your speech-language pathology degree program is accredited by a legitimate agency.

Cost

The average college cost of a bachelor's degree varies widely, and the true program cost of a master's degree does as well. The CCC-SLP exam and licensing generally cost several hundred dollars.

Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the median annual salary for speech-language pathologists, as of May 2021, is $79,060. California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia are the top-paying locations for these professionals. Management, home healthcare, and skilled nursing facilities are the top-paying industries.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Speech Pathologist

What qualifications do you need to become a speech pathologist? true

Speech pathologists must have a bachelor's degree in a healthcare field and a master's degree in speech pathology from an accredited college or university. They also must complete supervised clinical hours, pass the CCC-SLP exam, and be licensed to practice in their state.

To get licensed, candidates have to submit the appropriate documentation to their state and, in some cases, have additional work experience.

Thirty hours of continuing education are also required every three years. Finally, speech pathologists can become board-certified in different specialties.

What is the fastest way to become a speech pathologist? true

In general, it takes 6-7 years to become a speech pathologist since adequate schooling on both the undergraduate and graduate level are required to become a professional in this field.

Candidates then must complete a 36-week fellowship supervised by a speech pathology professional, as well as pass the CCC-SLP exam. The exam may also demand additional hours of studying.

Once these parts of the process are completed, candidates may have to finish a certain amount of on-the-ground work experience. Then you must factor in the time spent getting a license. It is not a fast process.

How do I become a speech pathologist without a degree? true

There is no way someone can become a practicing speech pathologist without a speech pathology master's degree. This field requires a body of specialized knowledge in order to adequately help clients in need.

People who obtain a bachelor's degree (in a related field) and not a master's degree, however, can pursue speech pathology-adjacent occupations in the education, public policy, or health sectors.

Options include becoming an assistant to speech pathology professionals, helping audiologists in their practices, or becoming health workers in other related fields.

Can I become a speech pathologist with an online degree? true

Yes, you can become a speech pathologist with an online degree, and there are many programs that offer this option in the United States. However, while the bulk of your time in online degree programs is spent in remote learning, some in-person activities are required.

For example, some programs require that you attend special clinics or learning activities on campus. Additionally, many candidates need to complete their clinical supervision with clients who live in residential facilities or homes, or who are in schools.

How much of the program is online versus in person depends on the school and specific requirements.

How much money can I make as a speech pathologist? true

The median salary for a speech pathologist is $79,060, as of May 2021, according to the BLS. As you gain more work experience, your salary will likely increase.

California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia offer top average speech pathology salaries — around $100,000 annually — though cost of living is a factor in these areas.

Working in management, home healthcare, and skilled nursing facilities are the top-paying industries for speech pathologists, offering average salaries of $100,000-$113,000 annually, according to the BLS.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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