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How to Become a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP) 

What is a speech & language pathologist?

A speech language pathologist is a trained professional who works to prevent, assess, and treat speech, language, hearing, feeding, and swallowing disorders in children and adults. They will perform screenings and other routine tests to find any potential problems regarding speech or language. Once a speech language pathologist assesses and diagnoses a patient, they will come up with a specialized treatment plan that will suit the needs of their client. 

Many patients have a difficult time with their speech or language disorder since it prevents them from communicating clearly, so it is important for speech language pathologists to be compassionate. Making an effort to try to understand what their patients are going through will help speech language pathologists better connect with their patients and have more success while treating them.

Qualifications and eligibility

Each state has different licensing requirements to practice as a speech language pathologist, however, there will be common elements across all states. These core qualifications include:

  • You must earn your bachelor’s degree in communication sciences or communication disorders
  • You must earn your master’s degree in speech-language pathology 
  • You must complete 400 hours of supervised clinical work
  • You must pass the Praxis Examination in Speech-language Pathology
  • You must complete a 9 month clinical fellowship
  • You must become a certified speech language pathologist through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

A speech language pathologist must also have a knack for scientific processes. Understanding biological and social sciences along with anatomy will help speech language pathologists best know how to treat their patients. Treatment can look different for everyone, so it is important for speech language pathologists to be adaptable when creating and adjusting plans for various situations and disorders. 

Work environment

Speech language pathologists can work in a variety of locations and settings, but you’ll typically find them working with little kids or older adults with speech, language, or swallowing problems. Examples include: 

  • Elementary, middle, and high schools all need speech language pathologists to help students with speech and communication difficulties. 
  • Hospitals hire speech language pathologists to help patients with speech, language, cognitive, and swallowing disorders. They typically work with people who experienced recent strokes, seizures, or brain damage. 
  • You’ll also find speech language pathologists in rehab and nursing facilities. 

Some speech language pathologists decide to open their own private practice helping children or adults with any speech, language, or communication problems they may have. They may run their business online where they can walk patients through different exercises or open a private client to assess and diagnose different disorders.

Typical work hours

As you may have guessed by now, the typical hours for a speech language pathologist can vary based on the type of work they do. Most full-time speech language pathologists will work forty hours a week during traditional business hours. Those who work in schools will work during the school hours, which can be as early as 7:00 am to as late as 3:00 pm.

If you decide to open your own private practice, you have the ability to set your own hours. This means you have the flexibility to create a schedule that will best fit your lifestyle. And if you plan on working weekends or holidays, you can charge more for services outside of regular business hours.  

Types of speech language pathologists

Speech language pathology services fall into 9 different categories. Although speech language pathologists have experience with all 9, they may only provide services for one or two of them. 

  • Articulation – This area focuses on the pronunciation of speech. Speech language pathologists will teach people how to move their tongue, lips, teeth, and jaw to properly produce speech sounds. 
  • Fluency – Fluency refers to the smoothness and effort that goes into speech production. Speech language pathologists will focus on treating disfluencies such as repetitions, prolognations, and blocks.
  • Voice & Resonance – These types of disorders focus on the sound vibrations in the pharynx (throat), oral cavity (mouth), and nasal cavity (nose). 
  • Language – These types of speech language pathologists will help individuals that have a difficult time with comprehension or the use of language.
  • Cognition – This area focuses on attention, concentration, orientation, and word retrieval. 
  • Hearing – Speech language pathologists work with audiologists to help patients with hearing impairments improve their communication. 
  • Swallowing – Speech language pathologists help diagnose and treat swallowing disorders by observing the patient eating and drinking and providing them with different exercises to strengthen swallowing muscles. 
  • Social Communication – This involves pragmatics, social interaction, social understanding, and language processing. Speech language pathologists offer techniques and strategies to strengthen social skills and language competence.

Income potential

A speech language pathologist salary can fluctuate based on the state you work in, your education, your certifications, and the number of years of experience: 

  • The average annual income for a speech language pathologist is $87,578 and the range is $73,744 to $101,952. 
  • A speech language pathologist’s salary varies depending on the state you live in, so it is important to check your state’s data. For example, Massachusetts, Nevada, Alaska, and Washington offer the highest national average between $103,000 – $110,000. Meanwhile, Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida have the lowest average salaries at $69,000 – $75,000. 

Keep in mind that speech language pathologists specialize in different areas of speech and language, which can affect their salary. Medical speech language pathologists mainly work with patients with feeding, swallowing, or cognitive disorders and typically make around $87,000 per year. Meanwhile, speech language pathologists that work with children in schools make an average of $70,000 a year. Speech language pathologists typically make less in education compared to other specialities since they get summers off. 

Since speech language pathologists have the option of opening up a private practice, the estimated annual earnings are fluid and left to the pathologist to decide how they’d like to run their business.

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the job market to grow by 29% for speech language pathologists from 2020 to 2030. As the large baby-boom population gets older, there will be an increased need for speech language pathologists to treat speech, language, or cognitive disorders that result from brain damage, stroke, or dementia cases. 

Career path

As a certified speech language pathologist, you can pursue a career in education, health care, or private practice. Many will have different opportunities for teaching, research, and clinical supervisory positions at schools, universities, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers. 

Below is a list of positions that are alternative career paths for speech language pathologists:

  • Audiologist
  • Special Education Teacher
  • Hearing Aid Dispenser
  • Voice Coach
  • Respiratory Therapist
  • Recreation Therapist
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Physical Therapist
  • Interpreter
  • Hospice Nurse
  • Respite Worker
  • Linguist
  • Medical Transcriptionist 
  • Lab Assistant 
  • Behavior Technician
  • Music Teacher

Steps to become a speech language pathologist

The career path steps to becoming a speech language pathologist include:

1. Earn your bachelor’s degree in a relevant field

The first step to becoming a speech language pathologist is earning a bachelor’s degree in a subject that will help prepare you for graduate school. Some popular undergraduate majors for aspiring speech language pathologists include communication sciences and disorders, language development, education, linguistics, psychology, and English. The communication sciences and disorders major is typically the best major to choose from since its requirements typically include all the prerequisites needed for graduate school. 

Here are common prerequisite courses needed for the speech-language pathology master’s degree:

  • Anatomy & Physiology of the Speech Mechanism – This class focuses on the structures and functions of the systems and processes involved in speech production. This usually covers the phonatory, articulatory, resonatory, and nervous systems and how it relates to sound waves. 
  • Phonetics – Phonetics is the science of speech sounds with an emphasis on how they are produced, perceived, and classified.
  • Language Development – This course discusses different developmental periods where children understand language and communicate with speech. 
  • Communication Disorders – This is an introductory course into the different types of communication disorders. This involves an overview of speech, language, cognitive, swallowing, and feeding disorders that speech language pathologists help diagnose and treat. 

2. Obtain your master’s degree in speech-language pathology

Once you earn your bachelor’s degree, it is time to start looking at different universities to attend for your master’s degree in speech-language pathology. Before you’re admitted into graduate school, you must complete ASHA requirements for undergraduate work. This involves:  

  • Taking one or more course in the following areas:
    • Statistics
    • Physical Sciences
    • Behavioral/Social Sciences
    • Biological Sciences
  • Completing 25 clinical observation hours
  • Considering taking the following recommended courses
    • Neuroscience/Neuroanatomy
    • Auditory Rehabilitation
    • Speech Sound Disorders

Here is a list of the top graduate schools for speech language pathology: 

3. Complete the required number of supervised clinical hours

During your graduate program, you will have the opportunity to complete 400 hours of supervised clinical experience as a “practicing” speech language pathologist. Twenty five of those hours must be spent in guided clinical observation, while the other 375 hours must be spent in direct client contact. Guided observation will include activities such as viewing educational videos, discussing therapy and evaluation procedures that have been observed, and documentation practices. Direct client contact hours will be spent with patients dealing with certain speech and language disorders.  

4. Find your specialty

There are many different environments a speech language pathologist can work in. They can work in schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, or residential health care facilities. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association also recognizes different areas of specialization for speech language pathologists. These include: 

  • Motor Speech Disorders
  • Fluency Disorders
  • Language Disorders
  • Feeding & Swallowing Disorders
  • Cognition-Communication Disorders
  • Resonance Disorders

Speech language pathologists will have experience dealing with all these disorders during their supervised clinical hours in graduate school. It is important to learn more about these disorders, so you find the area you’d like to specialize in. 

5. Pass the Praxis examination in Speech-Language Pathology

Everyone interested in speech language pathology must pass the Praxis examination to become licensed to work in their state as a practicing speech language pathologist. 

The Praxis test helps aspiring speech language pathologists demonstrate their competence, knowledge, and instructional skills for various situations. You have 150 minutes to answer 132 questions on the exam. The current passing score for ASHA certification is 162, based on a 100-200 scale. Some states may require lower or higher scores to become licensed. 

The Praxis examinations covers the following topics:

  • Foundations and Professional Practice
  • Screening, Assessment, Evaluation, and Diagnosis
  • Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation of Treatment 

These topics will focus on the Big 9 areas: 

  • Speech sound production
  • Fluency
  • Voice, resonance, motor speech
  • Receptive and expressive language
  • Social aspects of communication, including pragmatics
  • Communication impairments related to cognition
  • Treatment involving augmentative and alternative communication
  • Hearing and aural rehabilitation
  • Swallowing and feeding

6. Complete a clinical fellowship

Once you pass the Praxis examination and become licensed to work in your state, you will need to complete a 9 month clinical fellowship. Each applicant will need to earn a minimum of 1,260 hours or clinical experience. At least 80% of those hours must be dedicated to direct clinical contact related to the disorders you have been trained to diagnose and treat. Examples of direct clinical contact include: 

  • Screening, response to intervention, or observations of patient
  • Assessment and diagnostic evaluations
  • Treatment
  • Writing reports or notes
  • Client consultation or counseling
  • Individualized Education Program meetings

The other 20% of hours can be met through other activities such as attending trainings or giving presentations.

7. Get certified through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Most states require you to become certified through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) to become licensed. Here are ASHA’s standards for becoming a nationally certified speech language pathologist (CCC-SLP):  

  • Earn your graduate degree from an accredited program
  • Clock in 1,600+ hours of supervised clinical experience during your schooling and clinical fellowship
  • Pass the Praxis examination 
  • Take 30 hours of continuing education credits every three years for renewal

8. Stay up-to-date with certification and licensing requirements

Continuing education requirements may vary from state to state, however, most speech language pathologists have to attend additional trainings or take courses to keep their license active. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association requires speech language pathologists to take 30 hours of continuing education credits every three years.  

Tips for becoming a speech language pathologist

If you are interested in becoming a speech language pathologist, there are a few things you can do to become successful. Here are some tips for becoming a speech language pathologist:

  • Research what the speech language pathology requirements are in your state. You can typically find this information on ASHA’s website. 
  • Take advantage of supervised clinical experience. This is where you will apply what you know to patient care. 
  • Join associations so you have access to resources and advocates ready to help you:
  • Discover what you like to do. Speech language pathologists work with patients with different communication disorders in various settings. Find what you’re passionate about when you learn more about each area. 
  • Develop skills that make a good speech language pathologist: empathy, compassion, patience, listening skills, and critical thinking skills. 
  • Get to know your patients. It will be easier to diagnose and treat patients once they know they can trust you. 
  • If you plan on opening your own private practice, create a business plan that will best fulfill you and your client’s needs.

Speech language pathologist interview questions to expect

  1. Imagine your first patient is a first grader. How will you motivate this child to continue practicing their speech exercises?
  2. What should the tongue look like for a child trying to pronounce the “th” sound?
  3. Your patient is an elderly patient who has recently had a stroke. Which practices would you employ to ensure they feel respected and heard?
  4. How would you describe auditory bombardment in your own words?
  5. What’s a unique way you have your patients practice safe swallowing?
  6. Do you believe that playing games can be included in speech practice? If so, which games have you played?
  7. Working with kids and patients who have lost the ability to talk from an accident or health incident are very different. What are some ways you treat these two types of patients differently?

Speech language pathologist FAQs