Today’s guest post “How To Become a Speech Pathologist” is written by Candace Hayden, M.A., CCC-SLP, who experienced going back to school at 30+ years old with a family. She is currently a school SLP working with elementary-aged students. Thanks for joining us, Candace!
Well, there is a short version and a long version to my story. Let’s start with the quick-and-easy summary. If you are wondering how to become a speech pathologist, you will need to:
It looks easy in bullet-points, doesn’t it? As you can imagine, everyone’s path to becoming an SLP has its ups and downs, the days when everything is worth it and the days you want to quit.
I didn’t always know I wanted to be an SLP. Right out of high school I went to college, got my Bachelors and somehow fell into a job as a Recreation Assistant at a nursing home. I had so much fun at that job and loved getting to know the residents at the nursing home, especially the residents in the Alzheimer’s unit.
After a few years, I quit to stay at home with my firstborn. I wanted to put my energy and focus into raising my two children. But, when kindergarten was looming for my second child and I knew I would have lots of empty hours on my hands during the school day, I decided I wanted to go back to work.
I didn’t necessarily want to go back to being a Recreation Assistant, but I did really enjoy working with people and making a difference. I spent a lot of time soul searching and taking personality/career tests to find that one career perfect for me.
The funny thing is, somewhere in this 5 year quest to find myself, I saw a truck commercial that (hilarious, but true) changed my life. In the commercial, a new neighbor moves in. He meets the old neighbor who asks the newcomer, “So, what do you do?” Obviously, the old neighbor was asking what the new neighbor did for work. But, the new neighbor has a thought-montage of all the fun things he does with his truck. Now, I’m not into trucks or anything, but that commercial made me realize that I can be more than my career. I don’t need to wait until I find the one perfect career path. I gave myself permission to settle on a career that seemed good enough, without having to wait for perfection.
At that point, I discovered speech-language pathology. Funny enough, giving myself permission to settle on something “good enough” led me to something that I am passionate about. Is it my one true calling? Who knows? But being an SLP is incredibly fulfilling, challenging, and interesting to me. I found a career that allows me to have work-life balance, which is super important to me and my family. I can provide a service to the world and my work is meaningful, which makes it worth it when I have to take time away from my family. It satisfies my thirst for knowledge, so I never feel like I’m just working for a paycheck. These are the things that are important to me.
The very first thing I did was to find some volunteer opportunities. I reached out to local clinics, hospitals, and organizations that provided speech therapy to see if they allowed community volunteers. I spent a lot of time sanitizing toys, but I also got to see some therapy in action. Everything still looked good to me, so I decided to take the plunge.
Well, speech-language pathology was the track for me. There was just one little hitch. I had to go back to college. I had to get a Masters degree.
Getting a Masters degree felt really intimidating, especially after being out of school for a decade. Graduate programs for speech therapy were notoriously competitive at the time (I’m not sure of the current status!). There is a big need for SLPs, but there is also a need for SLP faculty to grow college programs.
Although I would also have to take undergrad level prerequisites to apply for a graduate program, I decided to start my journey by taking the GRE. The GRE is a requirement for most Masters programs. I had been out of school for so long, I wasn’t sure how I would do on a test of basic college-level skills.
Not only was I going back to school after a long break, I was going back to school as a stay-at-home-mom. My youngest was still at home full time. So, on Saturday mornings, I would go to the library and sit in a quiet room for 3-4 hours to study for the GRE. I took practice tests and made flashcards to review every night when the kids were in bed.
Finally, I took the GRE and got… a reasonable score! I felt a little more confident and made the next step.
As a mom, flexibility is critical for me. I found out about online programs that cover your prerequisites for graduate school. This was before COVID, so there weren’t as many programs and not as many people had tried them out. I ended up taking my classes at Utah State University’s online program.
Knowing that graduate programs were competitive, I did everything I could to maintain the highest GPA. Although I had many responsibilities that a younger student might not have, I found that my years of adulting helped me prioritize my time better than I was younger. I had a goal in mind and worked towards it.
Online school was a great option because it was very flexible and gave me the information I needed. I worked hard, but good grades were attainable. Time management is one of my strengths and knowing that I was paying for those classes out of my pocket was motivation to work hard and keep up.
I would say the one disadvantage of online school is that it was difficult to make a personal connection with the professors. They had chat forums and were accessible, but it was a challenge nonetheless. I was concerned with how this might play out with my needed letters of recommendation for graduate school.
I was finishing up my prerequisites (which actually led to a second Bachelors degree) and decided it was time to apply for graduate school. I just applied to one school, my top choice, thinking that it might be nice to have the year off if I didn’t make it.
After collecteing my letters of recommendation, I wrote my personal statement, sent the transcripts, and then….waited.
Seriously, the longest wait of my life might have been waiting for a response to my grad school application. I made it worse by obsessing over it. In fact, if you’ve stumbled onto this blog post because you are trying to kill time while waiting for a grad school response, I’m sorry. Here’s a hug. Someday this will all be a distant memory!
Finally, I got my response…and I was waitlisted (more waiting!). In the end, I didn’t make it in. I was crushed. Years and years of preparation led to this moment. I had done everything I possibly could! And yet, it wasn’t enough. It didn’t help that my local university, really the only one I could attend without uprooting my entire family, was one of the top 10 competitive schools for SLP. But that’s what I had to work with.
Well, when I was done with my pity party, I made some plans. I wanted to do anything I could to strengthen my application. My grades were set in stone (which, not to scare anyone, but were a 4.0 for my second Bachelors, but lower from the grades that carried over from my first Bachelors). My GRE was above average. So really, I needed to work on my letters of recommendation. I was determined to become a speech pathologist!
I read about the research being conducted by Communication Sciences and Disorders faculty at universities in my area to see if they could use any community volunteers. Most had their hands full with students at their own colleges, but one professor gave me a chance to do some really interesting research assistant volunteer work. We met in person and she gave me some wonderful tips on my letter of intent.
I also took a trip up to Utah State and actually met some of my online professors.
I don’t know how much any of these things helped, but I did what I could. Did the university I apply to have their doubts about me as a person going back to school at 30+ years? Did they worry about my ability to keep up while managing a family? Are there additional hurdles to going back to college at a later age that effect acceptance rates? I’ll never know.
After a year of grasping at graduate school application straws, I sent in my application again. I also applied to a university that would be a 90 minute commute. It would be truly difficult for my family, but was just what I had to work with.
So I sent in those applications and WAITED……………..
And…I got into that farther school first. Well, it was nice to know that I could get in somewhere, but absolutely not ideal.
And then I heard back from my top choice…. waitlisted again! So much waiting!
This time, my number was a little higher on the list and I MADE IT IN!! (You already knew the ending of this story because when Shannon introduced me, you saw M.A., CCC-SLP at the end of my name, but it was still a monumental feat for me!)
So I got into grad school! Time to become a speech pathologist!
I was used to staying at home with my kids all day. So going back to a full day of structure, taking away time from my family, was really hard. On that first full day of orientation, I came home and started cooking dinner right away. My husband came home with the kids from after-school care and I just burst into tears. I was so overwhelmed and wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing for my family.
In one of my classes, I failed my first major assignment. Enter lots of feelings of “I don’t belong here,” and “what am I doing here?” I wasn’t sleeping or eating well because I was so stressed out.
But, you keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Going back to school at 30 or 40 might sound intimidating. Most of my cohort was a decade younger than me and none of them were even married. So we were at very different stages of life. I felt like I became friends with all of them at the time, but we had different mind sets.
Even though I wasn’t in class or clinic for a full 8-hour work day, I treated grad school like a full time job. I stayed on campus for at least that full work day every day (and longer when I had evening classes). When I was on campus, my job was to work on grad school. I worked on the next assignment due, then started on the next one after that. Soon, I was ahead in all my assignments. I found that I would have completed an assignment well before my other cohort members even started it. Being younger and living closer to campus led them to have more of a social life and relax a little. But I didn’t want to waste a minute, because that would be a minute I would be taking away from my family.
I need to take a pause here and say that going back to college would never have happened without the loving support of my husband and two children. They sacrificed so I could go back to school. Being a mom, I felt lots of mom guilt over leaving them so much, being too busy, feeling exhausted and burnt out. I felt bad when I wasn’t there to make dinner or tuck my kids in at night. I tried really hard to minimize the disruptions in their lives, but they were there.
On the other hand, I will say that I think my kids are more responsible and independent thanks to the experience of going through graduate school. I also learned to prioritize my time – I didn’t feely guilty when I had to say no to being a classroom volunteer at their school or doing some extra parent project. In a way, it was a relief to not have so much busy-ness cluttering our lives because we only had time for the biggest, most important things.
Going back to college is a challenge, but there were some perks of being a student again! You can get student discounts with a lot of companies when you use your school email address. I got student passes to local theatre productions for heavily discounted tickets musicals, musicians, and comedians when they came touring through town. The city bus and metro were free for students, which saved money on gas. I studied during my commute, which was a better use of my time.
Well, the fall turned into spring, which turned into summer, and then another year and I graduated!
It felt very long when I was there, and it was a year or two before I could actually comprehend that I was done with graduate school, but now it feels like a distant memory.
And that’s the long version of how to become a speech pathologist!
When you are applying to grad school, or even just thinking about going back to school, the actual school part feels like the major obstacle. Maybe you feel like this is your calling and the only thing you’ve ever truly wanted is to be an SLP.
But, when you start working your very long career, there will be hard days when you don’t remember why you got into it in the first place. There will be tasks you don’t like to do. There will be people who are hard to work with. This is true no matter what career path you choose.
For me, the good days outnumber the bad. And most of the bad days are actually just challenging days, which remind me that I’m intelligent and can overcome obstacles that come my way.
Good luck to you on your journey, whatever part you may be on!