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Speech Pathology Career Guide

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 7/6/2022

Each year, many children, adolescents, and adults experience problems with speech, language, voice, or swallowing. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) estimates that 5-10% of Americans may have some type of communication disorder. Thankfully, there is a trained cadre of speech-language pathologists (SLPs), also known as speech pathologists or speech therapists, able to treat them.

The SLP profession has come far from its 20th-century origins as a discipline for teachers of actors and debaters. Today, it takes many years of education and training to become an SLP who's qualified to help people understand and mitigate disorders related to speech and language. Read on if you're curious about an SLP career.

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What Is a Speech-Language Pathologist?

SLPs assess and treat disorders relating to speech, voice, language, and swallowing. Some of the most common issues include stuttering — which is difficulty speaking smoothly — and articulation problems such as lisping. SLPs use assessment and treatment methods based on up-to-date research, a process that's technically called speech-language pathology but is sometimes called speech therapy.


Most SLPs join ASHA, the largest association that represents their profession. This organization disseminates the latest research through journals, conferences, and online training, and it advocates for SLPs in legislatures around the country.

Speech Pathologist Roles and Responsibilities

Over the last 100 years, ASHA has defined and refined the scope of SLP practice. The association produces policy documents outlining the roles and responsibilities of SLPs that vary by practice setting and client population. In general, SLPs use ethical, proven methods to assess and treat communication disorders. They advocate for their patients' care and work with other professionals — such as teachers, physical therapists, and occupational therapists — to provide treatment that's integrated with other disciplines.



SLPs use ethical, proven methods to assess and treat communication disorders.

Where Do Speech Pathologists Work?

SLPs can work in a range of settings, including schools, hospitals, skilled nursing centers, private practices, and government agencies providing home health services. Some companies even hire corporate-practice SLPs to help employees with communication issues. But schools and school districts are much more common places of employment — more than half of SLPs work in education, mostly at the pre-K to high school levels.

Who Do Speech Pathologists Work With?

People of all ages and backgrounds may experience communication difficulties, so SLPs work with a diverse population. Depending on the severity of a disorder, an SLP may spend one session evaluating a patient or repeated appointments over a period of years.

In terms of professional colleagues, SLPs often work closely with occupational therapists, physical therapists, audiologists, and special education teachers. See Jobs Related to Speech-Language Pathology for descriptions of these roles.

Requirements to Become a Speech-Language Pathologist

Speech-language pathology is an organized career with an influential professional group. Therefore, there's a well-defined pathway for becoming an SLP:

2

Spend about nine months working under supervision as a postgraduate clinical fellow.

3

Pass a licensure exam in your state or territory and collect your license.

4

Depending on your state, you may need a teacher's license to work in schools. Kassie Hanson, an early-intervention SLP, says, "it's very important to know what licenses and certifications you need to maintain in your state."

You can earn a bachelor's degree in speech-language pathology, but you can only become a speech-language pathology assistant (SPLA) with an undergraduate education, not an SLP.

Please visit OnlineU's comprehensive accreditation hub for information about the importance of attending accredited schools.

Speech Pathologist Salary and Job Outlook

Even if you're passionate about helping people communicate, you'll want to know whether you can make a living as an SLP before you spend years trying to become one. Read on for data about wages and the job market for SLP work in the U.S.

How Much Do Speech Pathologists Make?

SLPs earn median annual salaries of $79,060. This is $33,300 above the yearly median pay across all occupations. However, these wages are a bit lower than the median salary for U.S. employees with master's degrees, which is $81,848.

What Is the Job Outlook for Speech Pathologists?

The news is very promising: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the field to expand quickly, with new jobs increasing by 29% in the 2020-2030 period. This is a projected increase of 45,400 positions. California, Texas, and New York, three of the most populous states, have the most total SLPs, although three states that don't crack the top 10 by population have high per-capita concentrations of SLPs: Colorado, New Jersey, and Vermont.



The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the field to expand quickly, with new jobs increasing by 29% in the 2020-2030 period.

Speech-Language Pathology Jobs

Within the broad speech-language pathology field, you can take a number of divergent paths that influence your career.

Career Path Considerations

Many factors can change the course of your SLP career, including circumstances relating to your life outside of work, such as family and health. Below, we've listed some of the most important career considerations relating specifically to SLP work.

Practice Setting SLPs can work in a variety of environments. An employee who assesses trauma patients' speech at a hospital will have different experiences from someone who treats children in a school office a few days a week over several months.
As your career progresses, you may choose to apply to jobs in different settings — you're never locked in to one type of SLP role. You might also establish a career as a traveling SLP taking short assignments in different states as long as you hold licenses there. Julia Kuhn, a traveling medical SLP, cites the flexibility of this lifestyle as her favorite thing about her career.
Patient Population This factor is often but not always linked to the practice setting. For example, if you work in an elementary school, you're only going to work with children in a certain age range. However, working in a brain trauma rehabilitation center lets you specialize in treating people with specific injuries or disabilities but a range of ages and backgrounds.
Specialty Certifications If you spend the time and effort to earn one of ASHA's specialist certifications, it's likely because you want to focus your career on this area. Securing a credential in fluency, swallowing, or child language disorders may help you market yourself for open positions requiring that expertise.
Part-Time or Full-Time Some employers hire for part-time positions, or you might set up a private practice that allows you more control over your hours.
Kassie Hanson says, "There is a lot of flexibility in how much you want to work. You can easily work full-time, part-time, or even just a few clients per week if you have your license. It's been nice to have that flexibility as my family grows."
Further Education Relatively few SLPs pursue doctoral degrees, but most of those who do end up in academia. After working for a few years, you might also decide that you want to educate the next generation of SLPs.
Management Opportunities SLPs promoted to leadership roles tend to scale back their caseloads, sometimes entirely, in favor of management tasks. This certainly changes the course and complexion of their careers, because they tend to earn higher salaries but do less of the work that got them into the field in the first place.

Opportunities for Advancement

The first step toward advancement is often ASHA's Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP), which many employers require of job candidates at the intermediate level, and sometimes even the entry level. To earn this credential, you must pay ASHA's membership fee and pass a comprehensive exam.

Beyond the CCC-SLP, advancing in speech-language pathology is similar to advancing in most other fields. The more experience you gain, the more pay and responsibility you tend to accrue. Once you've earned your supervisors' trust, they might let you handle more complex patient cases or supervise SLPAs or graduate students on clinical placements. If you hold a specialty certificate, your supervisor could make you the go-to employee for handling cases of that type, giving you the chance to achieve results that you can trumpet in future interviews.

You might also apply for open management positions after a few years. Managing people takes a different skill set from managing a caseload, so you can potentially improve your chances by taking leadership or management courses or even earning a certificate or degree in these subjects.

Specializations

You may be able to specialize in assessing and treating certain disorders or groups of disorders, depending on where you work. We've detailed some of these specializations below.

If you're interested in specializing, you may be able to start in graduate school. Most master's programs feature a packed curriculum with room for only two or three electives, but you can put these toward courses in your preferred subject. You can also petition to serve your clinical rotation at certain locations if your school lets you rank preferences.

Speech disorders involve trouble with producing certain sounds. This group includes relatively common issues with fluency and articulation, such as stuttering and various kinds of lisping. You may be able to further specialize in child speech disorders if you work in early childhood or K-12 education, or in adult speech disorders if you work in healthcare, postsecondary education, or corporate speech-language pathology.

Language disorders denote broad issues with either comprehending or producing written or spoken language. These include cognitive-communication disorders that result from brain injury or stroke and indicate a change in cognition. Language disorders include aphasia — which can impede both language expression and understanding — and word-finding difficulties related to memory loss. As with speech disorders, you can potentially specialize in certain age populations depending on where you work.

Social communication disorder is a diagnosis for people who tend to use language differently from established norms. They may have trouble understanding or reproducing verbal or nonverbal cues, context, nonliteral constructions such as puns, and storytelling conventions.

Swallowing disorder, or dysphagia, affects patients' ability to safely eat and drink. Because swallowing involves most of the same muscular structures as speech, SLPs have gained authority in treating these issues in recent decades. Even nonspecialists may want to stay up to date on dysphagia — Julia Kuhn says, "As a medical SLP, dysphagia is the main subject that I wish I learned more about" in graduate school, because she frequently sees patients with this condition.

Deafness and hearing loss affect speech and language, which are usually taught on the assumption that the speaker can hear their speech. In some cases, the SLP may refer a patient to an audiologist, who is a hearing specialist with different education and training.

Bilingual speech-language pathology refers to services given in a language other than English. Only 8.2% of SLP professionals represented by ASHA in 2021 were able to work in a second language, so these providers tend to have plenty of work. Among multilingual professionals, two-thirds work in Spanish, the most in-demand language. Through ASHA, SLPs can identify as bilingual to pursue potential career benefits in this increasingly multilingual country.

Speech-Language Pathologist Job Satisfaction

According to ASHA's most recent comprehensive numbers, an overwhelming number of SLPs are satisfied with their positions and careers.

More recent workforce surveys can help tease out some specific points. ASHA regularly surveys two broad categories of SLPs: those who work in schools and those in healthcare settings such as hospitals or long-term care facilities. These surveys don't feature direct questions about job contentment, but reveal other points that affect satisfaction. For example:

20% of healthcare SLPs feel that other professionals and administrators don't value their work

70% of school SLPs enjoy working with children and families, but 82% are frustrated by the amount of paperwork they need to do

Speech-language pathology is a unique career: No other professionals can claim to do exactly what SLPs do. However, they tend to share some personal qualities with people in other helping professions, especially those that deal with similar patient populations. These qualities include compassion, clear communication, and engaged listening.

The careers listed here involve helping people to overcome challenges and improve their lives. If you're interested in this goal but unsure about speech-language pathology, one of these occupations may appeal to you more.

Audiologist

Annual Median Salary: $78,950
Job Outlook: 16% growth through 2030

Audiologists are experts on hearing problems, as well as balance concerns related to inner-ear physiology. They evaluate and treat patients with these issues, often in collaboration with SLPs; in fact, ASHA represents both professions. To become an audiologist, you need to earn a Doctor of Audiology degree and pass a licensure test in your state. It's not uncommon for SLPs to get one of these degrees and become dual-licensed practitioners.

Occupational Therapist

Annual Median Salary: $85,570
Job Outlook: 17% growth through 2030

Occupational therapists (OTs) help people relearn how to perform daily activities after major life events such as illness or injury. As with speech-language pathology, this work takes compassion and patience to do well. Many people need a gentle hand in the aftermath of transformative trauma, and they may get frustrated if they can't do simple tasks as easily as before.

The data analytics company Emsi Burning Glass notes that occupational therapy job descriptions call for many of the same aptitudes and skills as speech-language work: treatment planning, patient care, teamwork, and patient education and instruction. OTs need a master's or doctoral degree in the subject to gain a license, and it's helpful to have a science or clinical patient care background for admission to these competitive graduate programs.

Physical Therapist

Annual Median Salary: $95,620
Job Outlook: 21% growth through 2030

Physical therapists (PTs) help people improve their physical function through targeted, repeated exercises. As with speech and occupational therapy, doctors often give patients PT referrals after injuries or serious illnesses. For this reason, Emsi Burning Glass finds that most PT job posts ask for similar skills to those in SLP and OT ads: patient evaluation, treatment planning, and communication skills.

As with audiology, physical therapy requires a professional doctorate to practice. Of all the occupations discussed here, this is the fastest growing: the BLS expects the field to grow at nearly three times the average rate for U.S. jobs in the 2020-2030 period.

FAQs About Speech-Language Pathology Careers

What Is a Typical Work Day Like for a Speech Pathologist?


There is no typical day for an SLP, because their experiences vary widely by factors such as work setting, population, and seniority. Here are two divergent fictional examples of what an SLPs day may entail:

  • A school SLP spends an hour in the morning evaluating a child whose parents and teachers are concerned about her articulation, then writes a detailed assessment for the school's records. She treats two students one on one in the late morning and afternoon and contacts their parents or guardians to update them on progress, then engages in role-playing conversations with a small group of students to help them practice social context in speech.
  • An SLP in an outpatient rehabilitation center organizes his case notes in the morning before passing them on to the facility's insurance billers. In the afternoon, he holds several therapy sessions for patients affected by stroke-induced facial paralysis.

What Is the Highest Salary of a Speech Pathologist?


According to the BLS, 10% of SLPs earn more than $125,560 yearly. SLPs at the upper end of the pay range probably have many years of experience and may be in supervisory roles with a good deal of responsibility.

Where Do Speech Pathologists Make the Most Money?


The highest paying jobs tend to be at residential care facilities such as nursing homes. In terms of geography, the areas that pay the greatest wages tend to also be expensive places to live: Hawaii, California, New York, and Washington, D.C. Among the top five highest paying areas, New Jersey is the most affordable, according to nationwide cost-of-living data from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. This suggests that SLPs here can make their pay stretch further.

Is Speech Pathology a Good Career?


Only you can ultimately answer this question, because your interests and priorities are different from everyone else's. Based on the numbers, speech-language pathology typically provides a good living, paying median wages significantly higher than the median rate for all jobs combined. In addition, it's a very fast-growing field. But there are downsides: Workforce surveys reveal frustrations with inadequate staffing and heavy caseloads, and Julia Kuhn cites her colleagues' feelings of being "overworked, undervalued, and not respected for our professional decisions in a system that places profit over patient care."

Should You Pursue a Career as a Speech-Language Pathologist?

Speech-language pathology might be a satisfying career if you're passionate about helping people communicate better. SLPs are in demand and make generally high wages, although their pay is lower than the median rate for people with master's degrees.

It's worthwhile to spend time reading ASHA surveys of different SLP job types so you can learn what they find rewarding and frustrating about their work and workplaces. If you haven't yet earned your bachelor's degree, you could also consider a major in speech-language pathology and seek employment opportunities as an SLPA after college. This would immerse you in the field and help you determine whether you want to continue down the SLP career path.

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