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How to Become a Speech-Language Pathologist

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 7/11/2022

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are authorities in assessing and treating speech, hearing, and swallowing disorders. A speech pathology career can be a rewarding way to make your living, but the road to becoming an SLP is long and challenging. Thankfully, speech-language pathology is a specialized field with a well-defined series of steps you need to take to enter. Read on to discover these steps, along with some areas of differentiation and testimonies from working SLPs.

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What Do Speech-Language Pathologists Do?

SLPs help people who have difficulty with speech, language, voice, and swallowing. They assess patients based on referrals by physicians or education professionals, then treat any problems they find. Treatment can take many forms, because SLPs work with people of all ages who present with a variety of communication disorders.

About half of SLPs work in education, with most of them seeing patients at the early childhood or K-12 levels.

About half of SLPs work in education, with most of them seeing patients at the early childhood or K-12 levels. Many of these children and adolescents need help with congenital speech and language disorders, but others have experienced traumatic life events that affect their communication. SLPs who work in healthcare tend to evaluate and treat more adults recovering from illness or injury than any other type of patient.

Steps to Becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist

Over the last century, speech-language pathology has evolved based on rules that its largest professional organization developed. Today, the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) is involved in every step along the path to becoming an SLP, which is why nearly all SLPs join the association.

Below, we discuss the education, supervised training, and licensure you need to practice in this field. Because of ASHA's influence, these criteria hold true in each U.S. state or territory, with only minor differences in licensing requirements.

Step 1: Obtain a Master's Degree

To be an SLP, you need a master's degree in speech-language pathology. Make sure any degree programs you're considering hold accreditation from ASHA's Council on Academic Accreditation (CAA). This is an important sign of quality, and you'll need to graduate from a CAA-approved program if you want ASHA certification later — see the Licensure and Certification section for details. 

Accredited master's programs usually take three years to complete, including several clinical rotations that usually last up to two academic years. Faculty often require rotations at several different types of locations to give you a diverse set of experiences.

You can also study speech-language pathology at other degree levels, but it's important to understand a few things about these programs. First, you can't become an SLP with only a speech pathology bachelor's degree under your belt; you must have a master's to earn your license in all states. Instead, bachelor's graduates can become speech-language pathology assistants who help licensed SLPs with some aspects of patient care and administration. 

Second, nearly all doctoral programs require candidates to have several years of professional experience as an SLP already, so it's typically not possible to apply for a doctoral degree without first earning a master's.

Online Master's in Speech Pathology Programs

You can enroll in an online master's degree in speech-language pathology at several colleges. Most of these programs feature asynchronous courses with no live class meetings. Instead, students do all coursework remotely through a learning management system, where they can find lecture recordings, discussion forums, readings, and an assignment dropbox.

However, even online speech-language pathology programs have clinical experience requirements. You'll still do clinical practice hours in person at sites that your program administrators assign.

Step 2: Complete a Clinical Fellowship

After graduating, you need to work under a licensed SLP for 9-12 months. This period is called a clinical fellowship. Your mentor will assess you for professional competency in important areas of speech-language pathology practice, including patient care and administrative tasks such as taking case notes.

Step 3: Obtain a License and Consider Certification

Once your fellowship ends, it's time to apply for state licensure and think about certification. Only licensure is legally required to work as an SLP, but most practitioners also pursue professional certification. So what's the difference, and why do they matter?

Licensure means approval from a state to practice speech-language pathology within its borders. This is valid for a specified term and subject to renewal.

In speech-language pathology, certification most commonly refers to ASHA's Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP). This credential isn't required to work as an SLP, but most SLPs end up pursuing it and some employers insist on it for their employees. 

To earn a license, you need to meet your state's requirements. These are broadly similar across states but may differ in some particulars. In general, you need to prove that you earned a master's diploma, satisfactorily completed your clinical fellowship, and passed the state's comprehensive exam. Several states feature the additional requirement to hold a teaching license if you want to work as an SLP in a school setting.

In general, you need to prove that you earned a master's diploma, satisfactorily completed your clinical fellowship, and passed the state's comprehensive exam [to earn a license].

To earn your CCC-SLP, you must pass the Praxis Examination in Speech-Language Pathology with a minimum score of 162 out of 200. Some states also use the Praxis exam to test for licensure, but several of these set their passing scores below 162 — that is, you may have to score higher to earn certification than you do for licensure.

Step 4: Keep Your License and Certification Up to Date

Most states require you to renew your license every two years. The licensing board typically asks to see proof of 16-24 hours of continuing education per year to ensure that you stay current with advances in speech-language pathology. Continuing education can include academic courses, conference seminars, or self-paced online modules relevant to the discipline.

The CCC-SLP lasts for three years before you need to renew it. For renewal, ASHA requires either 30 hours of continuing education or three continuing education units (CEUs), which are proprietary courses that the association runs.

Required Skills

To succeed as an SLP, it's important to learn esoteric knowledge that includes cognition and language development in patients with autism, basic audiology, fluency disorders such as stuttering, and swallowing disorders. But you also need to develop practical skills in order to put that knowledge into action. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites analytical, communication, and critical-thinking skills as key to the job. These skills can help you determine the root cause of a patient's symptoms, decide on an appropriate treatment plan, and educate them about their challenges and how they can start to improve. The BLS also emphasizes compassion, which can help you put nervous or frustrated clients at ease. 

Job market data from the analytics company Emsi Burning Glass corroborates the importance of analytical, communication, and critical-thinking skills, along with a few others. In the 2021-2022 period, the most common soft skills that employers requested of SLP candidates included communication, teamwork, organization, and treatment planning abilities.

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Speech Pathologist?

There's no definitive answer to this question, because expenses differ wildly between schools. But we can use data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to give a few very rough estimates.

According to the NCES's most recent numbers, the average yearly cost of attendance for a bachelor's degree was $25,700 for public colleges, $54,500 for private nonprofit colleges, and $33,500 for private for-profit colleges. These amounts include campus housing — living at home or attending online saves on these costs. Assuming you finish in four years, that adds up to $102,800, $218,000, or $134,000 for your undergraduate degree, respectively.

The NCES calculates the average cost of a graduate degree as $12,410 for public schools, $28,430 for private nonprofit, and $14,289 for for-profit. For a three-year program, this gives respective totals of $37,230, $85,290, and $42,867.

The costs of a license and ASHA membership are relatively small compared to education costs — typically less than $1,000 for both.

There are many variables involved in these rough calculations. For example, you might take longer than four years to complete your bachelor's, as most students do. Or you may start your degree at a nonprofit private college but transfer to a public university after two years. Finally, financial aid can make a huge difference in how much you need to pay and the amount of debt you accrue during your education — it's a good policy to apply for as much aid as you can before resorting to loans.

Although many students work full-time while going to school, it might not be possible while doing clinical rotations during the last two years of your graduate program. Keep this in mind when considering your financial situation.

Check out our Guide to Financial Aid for Online Students to learn more about reducing the cost of college with financial aid.

Careers for Speech Pathologists

It's safe to assume that if you undergo eight years of education and training in speech-language pathology, you want to be an SLP. But you can still have a very different career experience from other graduates based on where you work and what population you serve. 

The biggest category of SLPs works in schools, often in close collaboration with administrators and mainstream or special education teachers. Other SLPs work in hospitals, providing initial assessments to doctor-referred patients in the aftermath of injury or illness. Still others see patients at long-term care facilities, skilled nursing homes, or rehabilitation clinics. A few SLPs even consult with private businesses to help their employees with speech and language concerns.

Speech-Language Pathologists Share Their Experiences

We spoke to licensed SLPs across focus areas who gave honest assessments of their roles. See what they had to say about working as an SLP.


  • "For speech-language pathologists who want more control to best manage their time and the freedom to offer the highest quality patient care, I highly recommend they consider working in the private practice sector with young and school-age children. Not only is it a rewarding experience, but there's also minimal to no red tape, which will allow you the freedom to shine as a clinician." - Craig Selinger
  • "There are a lot of opportunities to work [as needed] (a few hours or days a week, weekends, etc.) and part-time. As an SLP, you are in control of how little or much you want to work during the week." However, Julia Kuhn also pointed to the emotional toll a speech-language pathology career can take. "There is also a lot of burnout among SLPs, especially on the medical side."
  • "I am an early intervention (EI) speech-language pathologist and I thoroughly enjoy the work I get to do. I work with children from birth to five years old … I get to go into homes and act as a coach to families that have children who qualify for services. It's incredibly rewarding to be able to help parents help their children. I love it because you can see so much growth in children, and you get to connect with parents in a meaningful way. It's also fun because you work closely with other early interventionists like occupation therapists, physical therapists, and early childhood special education teachers." - Kassie Hanson

FAQs About Becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist

Is Becoming a Speech Pathologist Hard?

It certainly involves a lot of time, effort, and money. Even if you have an affinity for the scientific and medical knowledge underpinning the profession, you still need to learn ethical, proven practices for evaluating and treating patients. And because the career path is so strictly defined, you'll need to dedicate at least eight years of your life to earn the right to call yourself an SLP.

What Is the Best Major for Speech Pathology?

For your master's degree program, you need to study speech-language pathology. As an undergraduate, you may want to major in communication sciences and disorders (or some variation on that name). ASHA's helpful guide to planning your education can direct you to accredited programs at any degree level.

How Many Years Does It Take To Become a Speech Pathologist?

It typically takes eight years before you can get your SLP license: four year for a bachelor's degree, three years for a master's, and most of a year for a clinical fellowship.

Do SLPs Make More than Nurses?

It depends on the kind of nurse. Nurses tend to earn less than SLPs at lower levels of education, such as licensed practical nurses with certificates or even registered nurses with bachelor's degrees. However, advanced practice registered nurses make high wages, with nurse anesthetists earning median pay of $195,610 per year.

The Bottom Line

To work as an SLP, you need to get a master's degree in speech-language pathology, complete a 9-12-month clinical fellowship, and pass a state licensing exam. Most SLPs also earn ASHA's CCC-SLP credential, which testifies to their clinical abilities and may improve their marketability when applying to jobs.

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