Speech Pathologists: Doctors of Communication
Daniel Webster once said, “If all my possessions were taken from me with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of communication, for by it I would soon regain all the rest.”
This quote exemplifies what I do for a living. I work as a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP)/Speech Therapist and help improve people’s ability to communicate, thus enhancing their overall quality of life. There are very few who really know what SLPs do, what their scope of practice is, who the candidates for speech therapy are and most importantly, how to go about becoming one. I hope this post answers many of those questions and, inspires those of you reading it to pursue Speech Language Pathology as a career choice. It is fulfilling, rewarding, satisfying, gratifying and given a choice, there is nothing else I would choose to do in this lifetime! Read on to find out why...
Speech Language Pathology 101: Introduction
A Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) is a healthcare professional who assesses, diagnoses, treats and helps prevent disorders of speech, language, cognition, voice, swallowing and fluency. The most common myth is that speech therapists only correct people's 'speech' i.e. help them produce sounds clearly or help improve stuttering. Yes, SLPs do play a role in that. But in addition to this, SLPs also play a major role in assessing and treating disorders of language in children and adults, cognitive-communication impairments following strokes and brain injuries and also swallowing disorders (dysphagia) in individuals across the lifespan. They work with patients with cancer, tumours, strokes, neurological impairments, developmental disorders and those who are dependent on tracheostomies & ventilators as well.
Speech Language Pathologists may work in a variety of settings such as schools, hospitals, private clinics, nursing homes, colleges and universities, early intervention centers, centers for persons with disabilities or research laboratories to name a few. They may specialize in specific disorders or choose to work with children or adults, but most SLPs end up working with a variety of disorders and individuals across the lifespan.
Choosing Speech Language Pathology
Having a very keen interest in biology and the innate desire to serve people, I decided to become a part of the healthcare field. I enrolled myself in the Science stream in Junior College, majored in Biology, and like most of my friends who had decided to take up M.B.B.S or B.D.S (to become doctors or dentists), I too started the gruelling two year process to study for the H.S.C Board examination and more importantly, the common entrance test (C.E.T) following that. The results of the C.E.T are what determine your eligibility and acceptance into most medical colleges across the different states in India.
Although I really wanted to be a part of the healthcare field, I did not feel passionate about pursuing a typical M.B.B.S degree and then further studying for a number of years to become a gynaecologist or paediatrician etc. I wanted to do something challenging, yet different. Something that would make me want to wake up everyday and feel like I am truly doing what I love.
I had always been fascinated with the power and potential of communication in our lives. I was also actively involved in the communications field since my schooling years. Could I do something that would combine my interest in the field of medicine and communication and still allow me to change people's lives? That question was answered in the second year of my junior college when I was fortunate to be exposed to the field of Speech Language Pathology (through a family member diagnosed with a brain disorder that left her unable to communicate) and instantly, my questions were answered. This is what I was meant to do!
I looked up Speech Language Pathology graduate courses in India. To my surprise, I found that the route to enter a Bachelor of Science program in SLP was the same as that for entering M.B.B.S, B.D.S or Physiotherapy... the common entrance test. In India, most undergraduate courses are a combined Bachelor of Science degree in Audiology and Speech Language Pathology (B.A.S.L.P), which is offered in a number of colleges that may be found online.
Bachelor of Science in Audiology and Speech Language Pathology
I was fortunate to get a respectable rank and secure admission at the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Handicapped (Bandra, Mumbai) for their Bachelor of Science program in Audiology and Speech Language Pathology. Typically, most graduate programs are a 4 year course comprising of three years of academic work and one year of clinical internship. The coursework includes subjects from medicine, psychology and unique courses tailored to the study of communication sciences and disorders. The best part about the graduate program is the simultaneous focus on theoretical knowledge and practical application. From the first year, students are expected to attend clinics and then start independently treating patients from the second year onwards. The final year involves clinical rotations at a number of different settings to further hone the therapeutic skills. Such a well-rounded program not only provided me a strong theoretical base, but equipped me with superior clinical skills as an SLP as well.
During the second year, I started getting fascinated with disorders of speech, swallowing and language in adults. I was intrigued by the mechanics of the brain, neurological processes and aspects of neuro-rehab and brain plasticity. I decided to focus my energy and interest in the medical aspects of the field and aimed to specialize as an SLP working with adults.
Master of Science in Speech Language Pathology
Most colleges in India offer a combined Master of Science degree in Audiology and Speech Language Pathology. If this is something that suits your needs, I would encourage you to go ahead and pursue it. That way, you have your options open once you graduate and can practice as either or both, an Audiologist and Speech Language Pathologist.
Although most programs have their strengths, I personally felt that the resources, level of research, evidence-based-practice and knowledge base in Speech Language Pathology was not as superior or current in India compared to the programs in the West. Especially since I wanted to specialize in Medical Speech Language Pathology, I decided to pursue my M.S in Speech Language Pathology in the United States.
If you plan on doing this, it is like getting admitted into any other Master’s program in the U.S. for an international student. It took me a year and a half of preparation. It involves giving your GRE, writing statements of purpose, getting letters of recommendation, searching for and shortlisting Universities to match your interests, financial and academic needs and then sending the individual application packets to each university (I applied to and was accepted into 8 schools) per their individual deadlines. Yes, it takes a tremendous amount of patience, diligence and hard work. But in the end, it is completely worth it!
The Master of Science program (whether in India or the U.S) is typically two years. So after 6 years, you are licensed to practice as a Speech Language Pathologist. In the U.S, besides a Master’s degree, you typically require 375 hours of supervised clinical experience, a passing grade on a national Praxis examination and at least nine months of postgraduate professional experience, also known as the Clinical Fellowship to be hired full-time. After 7 years of training and hard work, I finally got my M.S.,CCC-SLP degree last year. I currently work at a hospital in Dallas, Texas as a full-time SLP, working with adults with speech, language, cognitive and swallowing impairments.
To be an SLP or not to be
While 6 to 7 years of formal training will provide you with the technical skills you need to be a Speech Language Pathologist, there are certain personal skills and qualities you will need as well to succeed in this field. SLPs must be compassionate, patient and have good active listening skills. They must be able to think critically in order to evaluate their patients' progress and adjust their treatment plans when necessary. They must be detail-oriented as well. Scientific aptitude, emotional stability, tolerance, and persistence are necessary, as well as resourcefulness and imagination. Other essential traits include a commitment to work cooperatively with others and the ability to communicate effectively orally and in writing. Above everything, you should have a sincere and genuine interest in helping people.
Job Outlook : A Bright Future
This is an excellent time to enter the field of Speech Language Pathology. According to statistics, the employment of Speech Language Pathologists is expected to grow by 23 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations.
As the large baby-boom population grows older, there will be more instances of health conditions that cause speech and language impairments. These are expected to add to the number of speech language disorders in the population and require more SLPs to treat these patients. In addition, medical advances are improving the survival rate of premature infants and victims of trauma and strokes, many of whom need services from SLPs. For those who choose Speech Language Pathology as a career choice today, a bright future lies ahead.
The hours are good, the pay is excellent, and the opportunities are tremendous. The kind of variety and flexibility that comes along with this career can rarely be found with any other. It is a demanding yet deeply satisfying profession, with rich rewards in terms of helping people achieve normalcy and learn to communicate better. Living with the knowledge that your work dramatically improves the quality of life for many of your patients, is what makes the job so appealing.
I end with my favourite quote:
‘Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you do, you will always be successful.’